For the Birds: Molting adds another layer of confusion to fall birding

Photo by Elena Heiden
A molting eastern towhee seen in Winchester, N.H., summer 2019.

I have written several times about the difficulties of bird identification in the fall. I have noted that males often lose their breeding plumage and look much more dull in the fall. The other day I spotted a male scarlet tanager in an apple tree. It looked nothing like the spectacular red-and-black bird that it looked like in the spring. Rather, it was a dirty yellow overall, but the dark wings gave it away as a tanager.

I have noted that first-year birds are heading south for the first time and haven’t reached adult plumage yet. Also, female birds, which often do not resemble males, are not quite as secretive as they are in the spring and are seen more often this time of year. What I failed to mention, however, is that late summer and early fall is also when many birds are going through a molting process. This only adds to the confusion of the challenging fall migration.

I was reminded of this when a photo came through from Elena of Winchester showing a very oddly plumaged bird. The rusty, or rufous, feathers on its side gave the bird away as an eastern towhee, but otherwise the bird looked nothing like the male or Continue reading

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