Yellow Rail? Tiny quail?! A new Yellow Rail confusion species

This week, over fifty birders from across Ohio were treated to unprecedented looks at 2-3 YELLOW RAILS (well… except some or all were not rails!) hosted by a local farmer who’s son had found the birds in a patch of sorghum while setting up cattle fencing. These birds were vocalizing regularly, being flushed and seen at eye level from a few yards away, and were seen by many in fading light. Night after night, they persisted and put on a show for delighted onlookers including some of the best birders in the state.

But these were not Yellow Rails! At least not all of them, if we’re lucky. And it took four days and more than fifty visiting birders before everyone realized it!

So here’s how that happened.

The reported Yellow Rails were first found late in the day on Monday (1 September 2014) but not until Thursday night did someone notice that at least one of these birds was actually a male Button Quail (aka Chinese Painted Quail aka King Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) — an Asian species that is kept in captivity throughout the U.S.  At best, there was a legit rail among them, but so far not hard evidence supports that scenario. Dave Smith of Tiffin, OH was able to get the following photo of the well seen male bird:

Button Quail (King Quail; C. chinensis), Knox county, OH. Photo by Dave Smith.

Button Quail (King Quail; Coturnix chinensis) photographed on 4 September 2014 in Knox county, OH. Photo by Dave Smith of Tiffin, OH. Likely an escapee from a nearby farm where this species is kept in captivity.

What’s that? You don’t think that bird in the photo above looks like a Yellow Rail?

Well wait until you see the females! The first photo below is a hen King Quail (Button Quail), and the second is a Yellow Rail:

King Quail (C. chinensis) hen. [Source]

King Quail (C. chinensis) hen. [Source]

Yellow Rail, photographed by Joe Grzybowski at Red Slough WMA, se. OK on 26 November 2010.

Yellow Rail, photographed by Joe Grzybowski at Red Slough WMA, se. OK on 26 November 2010.

Now, who wouldn’t have a hard time distinguishing between these two birds if one of them were flush out of tall grass at dusk!? Yikes!!!

Though not established in the U.S. (as far as I know) King Quail (aka Button Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) should definitely be considered when viewing or evaluating sight-only reports of out of place (or out of season) Yellow Rails — especially if wing details aren’t seen, aren’t reported, or if the white patches seem very atypical (this species comes in pied forms with white primaries and secondaries). Right now, most birders in the range of Yellow Rail may have never even heard of King or Button Quail, making the confusion all the more likely should they encounter a hen Coturnix chinensis in Yellow Rail habitat. So what should we look for to rule out escaped Button Quail?

Separating Yellow Rails from C. chinensis hens

In the case of the Ohio birds, there were some early warning signs that these weren’t rails. First, these birds belted out an unexpected 3-4 note descending series of squeaky vocalizations that seemed a bit inconsistent with the (non-clicking) vocalizations of Yellow Rail.  There was also way too much flying around instead of running when pressed by people or cows walking through the grass, plus no early reports of white secondary patches when seen in flight. Plus, at least to my inexperienced eye, these quail struck me as significantly smaller than I had expected for Yellow Rail based on seeing online photos of in-hand Yellow Rails being banded.

Many reported seeing birds that fit the Yellow Rail description as far as overall body color and pattern, size and shape, but less than a handful report seeing pale secondaries. This is still a key field mark to look for when identifying Yellow Rail, however, there are variable pied morphs of button quail which have white primaries and secondaries. So the details of how much white was where on the wing is quite relevant and it’s worth noting any secondary identifying features like the bill details and upperpart pattern.


These quail were vocal, and their vocalizations were not all that different from some Yellow Rail vocalizations on and on the Sibley app (which many consulted and listened to in the field).  Since most observers were unfamiliar with (if not completely unaware of) these Yellow Rail vocalizations, the vaguely similar quail vocalizations didn’t worry anyone enough to cause people to question the ID.

Yellow Rail (

King Quail (


In short, there are a few things to keep in mind when your Yellow Rail might be a button quail. First, knowing whether it’s way out of range for the time of year is a good start. Second, pay attention to those behavioral clues:

  1. Quail are flighty, rails are not.
  2. Quail are vocal, rails (during migration) are not as vocal.
  3. Quail are more clumsy than rails when moving through tall grass, which you can hear and see.

Separating the two is actually fairly straight forward when a bird is seen or heard well:

  1. Vocalizations should be diagnostic. Know both and get recordings for documentation (a camera in video mode works great in most cases).
  2. As far as I know, pied morph button quail rarely (or never) show white secondaries along side normal primaries. So noting the details of the white secondary patch and which feather are white (or not) may be the best route to a solid ID.
  3. Button Quail are smaller than Yellow Rails. They rarely push 40g (with hens being at the larger end of the spectrum), while Yellow Rails typically weigh 42g-50g+.
  4. The Sora-like yellow bills on Yellow Rail are distinct from the (typically) darker and smaller bill on King Quail.

Here’s how that wing should look, in case you were curious about the feather details. For more photos, including flight shots, check out this photo set from Louisiana during the 2013 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival (YRARF is here on Facebook):

Yellow Rail spread wing

Photo taken on 26 October 2013 by Steve Arena (C) 2013 [Original].               

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Does it count? The case of the Common Loon

Listing. Eventually, it seems all birders who have been seduced by the listing game stumble across a would-be lifer (or would-be county-year bird, or yard bird, etc.) but they just aren’t sure whether or not “it counts.”

Common Loon (Released previous day by rehabbers)

This Common Loon was found in Nelsonville (Athens Co) Ohio and released in Columbus (Franklin Co) on 25 January 2014 where it remained through the end of the month.
Would you count this bird on your life list? Ohio year list? Franklin Co. January List?

So how do you know when a bird counts?  When you can add it to your list? I firmly believe in “Your list, your rules.” If you really want to keep a list that includes birds seen at the zoo, go for it. Ultimately, you decide.  However, a decade or so of birding has taught me that most of us aren’t so open to listing everything, nor are we so fiercely independent that we see listing as a purely personal endeavor.

We keep lists because it’s an enjoyable way to document our birding milestones, to set goals, to push ourselves to learn more about our local or global avifauna, to better enjoy a vacation or business trip, or to engage with other birders through a little friendly competition. In reality, most of us want to keep lists according to community rules. Rules like the those spelled out in the American Birding Association (ABA) Code of Ethics.

But how do we go about applying those criteria?  It turns out it isn’t that hard to find that gray area where it isn’t clear whether a given bird observation counts or not.  For example: Does an injured Great Horned Owl, hit by a car and seen on the side of the road, count under rule 3.c.iii? Do Trumpeter Swans in the Great Lakes count yet? Given that many states farm and release them for hunting, where in North America are Ring-necked Pheasants countable?

One solution is to fall back on “Your list, your rules” but in the spirit of following community rules, what I would prefer to follow instead is precedent. Which brings us to the case of the Common Loon, and my motivation for writing this post in the first place: I’d love to see the ABA’s newly revived Recording Standards and Ethics Committee take up that challenge of (1) summarizing what we know from existing precedent, (2) soliciting examples of those “gray area” observations, and (3) providing an analysis of those “gray area” birds that’s accessible to the rest of the birding community.

Here in Ohio, we kick off each new year by gunning for 100 species in the state during January. This past January, a Common Loon (S16515764) appeared in Columbus (Franklin Co) and for many of us was our only observation of that species for the county during January.  It was swimming freely in a stretch of open river, and was present from 25 January through the end of the month. Seems countable, right?  Well, there’s catch: with little open water in the region at the time, it turns out this bird was released there by rehabbers on the 25th after it was found in a driveway in Nelsonville (Athens Co) about 60 miles southeast of Columbus earlier in the month. It also may have taken a long flight upriver the day after it’s release.

So when, if ever, did this bird count for those of us keeping Franklin Co. lists for that January? Was it “alive, wild, and unrestrained” immediately after release, or did it take a few hours (or days?) before it became countable? Does the fact that it was brought to the county by people strike it from our county lists, but not our “January 100″ list for the state?

In the end, I think we all ended up seeing it long enough after it’s release that we went ahead and counted it for our county lists.  For our local games, I think most of us also counted other “iffy” birds like Ring-necked Pheasants out at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park (very likely released there), and Trumpeter Swans which here in Ohio are almost certainly descendants of introduced birds now breeding in the Great Lakes region (their countability is questionable which has left many to defer to the state records committee).

So what do you think? Are there any species in your area that the locals count but maybe shouldn’t? Any that should count that local birders refuse to elevate to the status of “countable”? Do you apply different criteria to your different lists?

UPDATE:  Check out these two comments threads here and here for some good approaches to interpreting the ABA Code of Ethics.

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Ohio’s first documented Southeastern Field Cricket (Gryllus rubens)!

During the recent Ohio Ornithological Society annual gathering, based out of the Shawnee State Park Lodge, I joined an evening trip in search of Chuck-wills-widows.  We left a bit late, and didn’t pick up any Chucks, however we did manage to document a first state record during our trip!

On our drive out out of the Lodge’s parking lot, we stopped to listen to an E. Whip-poor-will that had just been heard by another birder. While listening, leader Jim McCormac spun around and brought our attention to a stuttering cricket calling from the nearby mowed grassy area.  While excitedly pulling out his smartphone to bring up a recording for comparison, Jim made it clear that “This might be the best find of our trip!” And it was!

Thanks to Jim’s keen ear, and his wealth of natural history knowledge of the regional flora and fauna, he recognized this cricket as a likely Southeastern Field Cricket — an insect whose nearest known populations are in southern West Virginia.  I had brought my recording equipment along for the trip, to record any Chucks we might hear, and was able to grab this recording to document the find:

Jim shared the recording with Wil Hershberger and he concurred.  You can read more about it, and learn more about the significance of this find and the the Southeastern Field Cricket, by hopping over to this post on Jim McCormac’s blog.

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Tips for submitting eBird checklists via BirdLog

One of the primary goals of eBird is to provide us (birders) with way to share and organize our observations. The reason? Well, that’s because it’s the best way to achieve another eBird’s primary goals: collecting and sharing that data with scientists so they can better understand birds and improve bird conservation.

BirdLog app using the map tool for submitting a checklist.

BirdLog app using the map tool for submitting a checklist.

So how can you make eBird work better for you?

If you have a smartphone, one answer is to start using the BirdLog app. Why? Because it makes “eBirding” a LOT more efficient! Many birders find submitting eBird checklists to be a bit cumbersome, or at the very least that it detracts from paying attention to birds in the field. Also, it takes time to transcribe field notes into a checklist at home after your trip.  BirdLog allows you to tally birds in the field on your smartphone and then quickly submit them as an eBird checklists (or at least drafts of checklists) from the field.

So how exactly can BirdLog make your eBirding more efficient? Well, beyond the fact that it allows you to merge the task of data entry with tallying birds the field, BirdLog does a few other things to save you time.

Here are my top time-saving tips for using BirdLog in the field:

  1. Birdlog data entry screen

    Birdlog gives you a list of potential species names that match what you’ve entered as you type. Use that fact to speed up data entry!

    Use short-hand: BirdLog does name matching as you type in a bird name, and gives you candidate names you can just tap. You can exploit this “fuzzy matching” capability by typing only the most unique words instead of full species names! For example, “Northern W” will get you to Northern Waterthrush, but “Water” will get you there faster.  Skip those “Northern” and “Common” words, and you’ll speed things up considerably!Alternatively, do you know any 4-letter banding codes? Well so does BirdLog!! Use them! If you don’t know the 4 letter codes for species names, fear not! They’re easier to learn thank you think (this cheat sheet explains the rules and exceptions for Ohio; Colorado is in the works!).

  2. Don’t pause to enter every bird while birding. Keep what you can in memory, and enter them when you’re likely not to miss any new birds, or are otherwise free to pause.Instead, only enter new species while birding, then enter numbers for each species when you’re finished. I frequently do this, then review the “Likely” species list back at my car, entering species totals and catching any species I observed but forgot to tally, before heading to my next stop. Note: While this won’t affect the accuracy of species only seen once or thrice during your outing, you’re likely to be left doing some guesstimation for more common birds that you saw by the tens or hundreds.  That’s alright! If it helps you submit a checklist that you otherwise wouldn’t have submitted, estimating those numbers means you’re still providing valuable data!
  3. Consider all checklists submitted via BirdLog to be drafts, and edit them later via the web interface (see, log in, click My eBird –> Manage my Observations –> Edit). Why? First, BirdLog only allows comments — it doesn’t allow you to enter age/sex or breeding codes available through the web interface.  So it’s limited. Second, when I’m in the field, I’d rather be birding than cleaning up my writing, so I put that off for later. By considering my BirdLog checklists as drafts, I don’t waste time entering comments (except things I’m likely to forget or that might be valuable for reporting a rare bird) since I always plan on revisiting my submitted checklists at home where I can clean them up, add age/sex and breeding information, embed photos or audio recordings, etc.  Trust me: this approach DOES produce higher quality checklists with less time wasted in the field! 
  4. Share the workload with your (e)birding buddies. By trading off checklist duties, and sharing those checklists with one another later, you get a break! That means more time spent birding.

There are a few pitfalls to avoid (if possible) that might save you time or effort, but do so at the expense of producing less valuable eBird data:

  1. Always give numbers, be they exact counts or good estimates!  Even one “X” in a checklist full of exact counts for each species makes that checklist less valuable, and it’s easier than you think to provide good estimates (see #4 above!).
  2. Don’t submit one checklist for multiple locations, especially spanning different counties!  One of the valuable things about eBird data is that checklist data can be analyzed in conjunction with existing GIS/spatial data: land type, nearest body of water, county population, weather data, etc.  The more location-specific you can be, the better!  Keeping observations associated with the right county is paramount, as eBird data are in many ways organized by county-level boundaries.
  3. Likewise, avoid submitting one checklist for a long duration of time.  Birds are more or less active (and thus, more or less detectable) during different times of day. You might have noticed how dawn and mid-day detectability rates differ? Well your data won’t reflect that if you submit a checklist spanning 5am to noon! Instead, try and break it up into sub-three-hour checklists, or even less time if you’re birding around dusk and on into the night, for example.   Some of the least valuable checklists are those that violate both this and #2 above. 
  4. Finally, don’t over do it!  If you burn yourself out eBirding, and end up giving it up, all your future observations that might have been are lost to science. Pace yourself, have a good time, feel free to go birding and NOT worry about submitting a checklist if you need a break, and plan for the long haul. :-)

UPDATE #1: I should have mentioned above that the Help section of the eBird website was recently overhauled and much improved. Check it out!  In particular, see the page on BirdLog Best Practices.  Second, I’d like to emphasize that the BirdLog app for Andoid phones (what I use) is a bit different from the app on iPhones and iPads, and there’s also the BirdsEye app for iPhones/iPads that allows you to do even more with eBird.  Here’s a quick video overview of BirdsEye, and here’s another.

UPDATE #2: Pre-Order BirdsEye app for Android!!  I just noticed that not only are there are plans for an Android version of BirdsEye, but you can pre-order it RIGHT NOW!  So why has this popular birding app only been available for iPhones? Android apps take more work than iPhone versions due to the greater of diversity of phones and flavors of the Android operating system they must accommodate. So help out the good folks at Birds In The Hand by pre-ordering a copy of BirdsEye for Android to help fund it’s launch.

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Alexander Wilson and the 200th anniversary of American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson. Portrait by Thomas Sully.

Alexander Wilson.
Portrait by Thomas Sully. [Source]

Last week, Jed Burtt hosted a symposium at Ohio Wesleyan University in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the ninth and final volume of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology — arguably the first major scientific publication out of the United States, and a cornerstone of American ornithology. The symposium talks went well beyond the scientific story, and included talks on Wilson’s friends and contemporaries, Wilson the political activist, Wilson the poet, Wilson the artist, and of course Wilson the naturalist and scientist.

In addition to the wonderful talks about Wilson, Jed arranged for collector Tom Blanton to display all 76 of the color plates produced by Wilson and published in those nine volumes. This was perhaps the first time all 76 plates have been put on display together, ever!  So, with my cell phone battery threatening to die on me, I managed to photograph them all.  With a bit of cropping and automatic “enhancing” (color adjustment and deblurring) to correct for the less-than-optimal lighting conditions, here they are!

To view the images, individually or as a slide show, click the thumbnails below.

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Bird Taxonomy Information For Photosharing Websites

Update: The web based version of the R script below, plus fuzzy name matching, can be found at A big thanks to Kent Fiala for putting it together!

A few months ago I came across this Flickr photo via the eBird Rarity Photos group (which I co-moderate with Jon Isacoff) and was struck by the inclusion of common and binomial (scientific) names plus a few lines of additional taxonomic information (order and family) for the bird in the photo description.  It read…

Common Name: Crimson-collared Grosbeak
Taxonomy: Passeriformes/Cardinalidae
Specific Name: Rhodothraupis celaeno
February 22, 2012 – Hidalgo County – Pharr, Texas

My first thought: “Wow! Great idea!” I love finding ways to inject more science into the birdwatching scene, so I committed to doing this with all my photos on Flickr from that point forward.  My second thought was “I wonder how long it takes to do that for ALL your photos?” which made me reconsider that commitment…

Now, it’s pretty straightforward to generate those few lines of taxonomic information, thanks to a little R script I whipped together. The script pulls taxonomic info from the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World (eBird’s taxonomy), and can do different species with a single call of the birdlookup() function — so far, it works like a charm!

If you happen to have a bit more web programming savvy than I do, I have a few thoughts for you to consider:

  • Had I the time and the web server, I’d love to make an online, menu-driven version with fuzzy name searching capabilities, so I could quickly copy/paste the HTML snippet without having to fire up R.
  • Formatting options would be excellent, e.g., packing more or less info into each line like putting the binomial name after the common name in parenthesis versus having that info on separate lines.
  • Text boxes that automatically present you with options from the database (much as the Species box does on the eBird website’s Range and Point Map tool) would be ideal.

To see a few examples of how I’ve used it (some day I’ll go back and add such info to my other photos) check out my Flickr photostream and browse the recent photos.

R code:

## Script to spit out taxonomic information for a given
## bird species according to the eBird/Clements taxonomy.

## Load the database, downloaded as a CSV from
#Tax = read.csv(file.choose())
Tax = read.csv("Birding/Checklists/Clements-Checklists-6.8.csv", sep=",")

## Lookup function
birdlookup = function("Snow Goose (Lesser)") {
ID=which(Tax$;  = as.character(Tax[ID,""])       = as.character(Tax[ID,"Family"])     = as.character(Tax[ID,"Order"])

## Print out HTML
cat(paste("\n\nCommon Name: <b>",,"</b>
Scientific Name: <i>",,"</i>
Taxonomy: ",," / ",,"
Date - Location (County Co.) State\n\n",sep=''))

} # End of birdlookup()

## Example
birdlookup("Red-tailed Hawk (Western)")

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Western Red-tailed Hawk in central Ohio: An annual visitor?

This adult dark intermediate (dark rufous) morph individual was photographed near Glacier Ridge Metro park in Union Co. OH on 6 March 2014.  It may have also been photographed in this area in February of 2009 (Gene Stauffer), and November of 2011 (Irina Shulgina).

This adult dark intermediate (dark rufous) morph Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus) was photographed near Glacier Ridge Metro park in Union Co. OH on 6 March 2014. It may have also been photographed in this area in February of 2009 (Gene Stauffer), and November of 2011 (Irina Shulgina).

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are ubiquitous in North America, and are probably the most abundant and familiar raptor.  They’re also very diverse with over a half-dozen subspecies, a few of which are strikingly polymorphic showing a continuum of color morphs ranging from almost solid black down to very pale. Not to mention solid white individuals that pop up from time to time. But when different Red-tailed Hawk subspecies show up as vagrants on the wrong side of the continent, how often do we noticing them?

In the west, both Harlan’s (B. j. harlanii) and Western Red-tails (B. j. calurs) come in a whole range of colors, from light to nearly black, and these are typically categorized as either light, light intermediate, intermediate, dark intermediate, or dark, with very few birds being solidly dark enough to qualify for the latter category.  Westerns tend to show lots of rusty/rufous tones in contrast to the colder colors of most Harlan’s, so when talking about Westerns many often relabel the above categories using “rufous” instead of “intermediate.” It’s all rather unfortunate terminology, really, as most non-experts are prone to call any bird darker than a typical light morph a “dark” Red-tailed hawk.

Dark Adult Western Red-tailed Hawk in Union Co, along US-33 by Irina Shulgina, on 5 March 2014.The same bird as above, along US-33 in Union Co. on 5 March 2014.
Photo (C) Irina Shulgina.

In the eastern part of the continent, the Eastern Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. borealis) dominates, and is in fact the only subspecies you’ll likely encounter save the Northern Red-tail (B. j. abieticolis) which may just be variation within borealis and not be a legit subspecies, but is distinctive in that it appears to be a bit more richly colored, and more heavily streaked, than other borealis (sensu lato).  That said, there is currently zero evidence that these eastern subspecies exhibit and dark or intermediate morphs.

In any case, the big “take home message” here is that very dark birds (from light intermediate on up to dark) encountered anywhere in the U.S. are very likely to be one of the two western subspecies: harlanii or calurus.

So what does all this have to do with the central Ohio bird?

First, this dark intermediate (aka dark rufous) individual is a pretty typical dark rufous Western in all respects.  No question about the ID once you dig into the details.

Second, and most intriguing, is that reports of a darker Western (calurus) bird have been surfacing from this area west of Columbus, OH sine February of 2009!!!  Given the great rarity of these western birds in the east, I can’t help but wonder this isn’t the same bird returning year after year to the same area during winter! 

eBird Reports of Western Red-tailed Hawk near the eastern border of Franklin Co., Ohio.

eBird Reports of Western Red-tailed Hawk near the eastern border of Franklin Co., Ohio.

Update:  Below is Gene Stauffer’s photo of possibly the same bird from 9 February 2009, just a short flight from where I and other have seen the bird during early March, 2014.

"Western" Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus)

Photo taken on 9 Feb 2009 by Gene Stauffer (shared here with his permission)
at the entrance to Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, north east near Columbus, OH.
eBird Checklist:

For additional photos of the Central Ohio bird(s) depicted above, see these photos and perhaps others on Irina Shulgina’s Flickr page.   These include photos from March 2014, and from what appears to be the same or a very similar bird on 11-10-2012 a few miles south of the above locations along Amity Rd. (Franklin County).

These darker western birds also prompt another question: how frequently do light morph western birds (yes, both calurus and harlanii have light morphs), including Krider’s, stray into the east? How many of these are we overlooking? As far as I can tell, most western (i.e., calurus and harlanii) Red-tailed Hawks that are observed in the east are darker morphs, which understandably stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of our entirely light morph Eastern Red-tails (B. j. borealis), but I suspect that many light morph western birds simply go unnoticed.

Perhaps some day I’ll find the time to put together an informative “crash course” in subspecific Red-tailed Hawk ID, but until that happens, you may want to check out some of the resources below. Additionally, consider purchasing (or acquiring through your local library) the Wheeler Guide to Raptors of Western North America and other raptor-specific field guides that treat these subspecies in detail, and of course make it a point to chase after any western birds that show up in your area and/or pay attention to the local Red-tails next time you find yourself west of the Central Time Zone.

Related Online Resources:

Iron, J. Dark morph Red-tailed Hawk: calurus or abieticola? TOC Newsletter, February 2012, Toronto Ornithological Club.

Liguori, J., and B. Sullivan. 2010. Comparison of Harlan’s with Western and Eastern Red-tailed Hawks. Birding 42(2)2:30-37.

Liguori, J. 2004. Dark Red-tailed Hawks. Birding 36(3): 278-83.

Pittaway, R. 1993. Subspecies and Morphs of the Red-tailed Hawk in Ontario Birds 11(1): 23-29. Ontario Field Ornithologists.

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