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Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) Bombycillidae

Missoula, MT
April 18, 2017
Robert Niese

In early April, waxwings were migrating through town in the thousands. They paused in freshly blooming trees to gorge on buds and, in this case, last year’s fruits before continuing their trek northward. The noise and mess they created was astounding! I loved waking up to the roar of their high pitched calls. This flock consisted of around 600 Bohemian Waxwings and a few dozen Cedar Waxwings. The easiest way to tell them apart (for me, at least) is by their vent and under-tail colors. Bohemians have a rufous under-tail and a gray vent while Cedars have a gray-white under-tail and a pale yellow vent.

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Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) Emberizidae

Blue Mountain National Recreation Area, MT
May 13, 2016
Robert Niese

These charming birds are relatively abundant and widespread throughout North America and are a quite underappreciated bird. Here in the west, they are generally only found in or around coniferous forests and pineland savannas, whereas their eastern cousins are a much more urban or suburban bird. Their song is a loud trill which, often to the chagrin of field ornithologists, varies substantially among individuals and can easily be confused with the trills of Dark-eyed Juncos, towhees, and many species of warblers.

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Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) Icteridae

April 2, 2016
Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
Robert Niese

I could photograph and listen to these birds singing all day! Unfortunately, not everyone in the car felt the same way and I only had a single joyous hour with this little guy. Learn more about the “neglected” Western Meadowlark here. Listen to its lovely song here.

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Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) Icteridae

April 2, 2016
Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, MT
Robert Niese

The Western Meadowlark performs a lovely metallic flute-like song throughout the spring and summer. Its Eastern counterpart, on the other hand, has a much flatter, whistled song. Easter and Western Meadowlarks are so similar in appearance that until quite recently they were considered the same species. Since the Eastern species was discovered and named first, the Western, when it finally gained full species distinction, became known as the “neglected” meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). This species is one of the 37 (including subspecies) named by John James Audubon throughout his career as one of  America’s first ornithologists.

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Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Turdidae

National Bison Range, MT
April 2, 2016
Robert Niese

Most birds that posses such striking blue plumage typically get these gorgeous colors from tiny air pockets inside the feathers that scatter light in a way that makes them appear blue. Learn more.

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) Turdidae

Walnut Creek, CA
December 25, 2015
Robert Niese

These rather unassuming birds have a hauntingly beautiful song that was beloved by Walt Whitman and the inspiration for the voice of the fictional Mockingjay. They also have a very interesting genetic history. There are five species of Catharus thrushes that are long-distance migrators (plus the closely related Wood Thrush in the monotypic genus Hylocichla), but the Hermit is not closely related to the others. Instead, Hermits are sister to the Russet Nightingale-thrush (C. occidentalis) which is non-migratory and endemic to Mexico. Along with the Swainson’s Thrush (C. ustulatus) and the Wood Thrush, these birds each evolved long-distance migratory behavior independently of the other thrush lineages. Learn more here.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) Parulidae

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, WA
May 6, 2012
Robert Niese

Yellowthroats are among the most abundant and widely dispersed of the New World Warblers. There are 13 different races of these little birds, but all share their characteristic witchety witchety witchety song. Listen for these birds in any riparian or wetland habitat across the US and Canada.

Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii) Icteridae, female

Palouse Falls State Park, WA
June 8, 2015
Robert Niese

Bullock’s Orioles are the only oriole species found in the Pacific Northwest. I caught this pretty lady mid-stretch. These rectricies (tail feathers) are really worn and she appears to be missing a feather on her right side. Normally, rectricies are molted symmetrically, so perhaps she broke this one feather or lost it in a battle with a rival. Regardless, she’s still quite a lovely bird!

Wilson’s Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla) Parulidae, male

Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area (BLM), OR
June 12, 2015
Robert Niese

Wilson’s Warbler was first identified by the father of American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson, in 1811. In his honor, the species was placed in a new genus, Wilsonia, in 1838 along with the Canada Warbler (W. canadensis) and the Hooded Warbler (W. citrina). But recent genetic evidence suggests that the genus Wilsonia should be split and merged with Setophaga and Cardellina. Although, considering that the methods used to determine these new relations are six years old, another revision of the Parulid family tree would not be surprising. Wilson’s Warblers are a common resident of moist forests throughout the PNW and perhaps best identified, like all warblers, by their song.

Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) Tyrannidae

Palouse Falls State Park, WA
June 8, 2015
Robert Niese

Western Kingbirds are well deserving of the genus name Tyrannus because they are truly tyrannical terrors. Any bird that happens to wander too close to a kingbird nest (even fearsome ravens and falcons!) will immediately be assaulted by a flurry of feathers. I decided not to test their patience with human intruders. This guy did not seem too pleased to be my subject for a photo shoot in the first place.