For the Birds: Young birds need close inspection to ID

Photo by Chris Bosak An immature Peregrine Falcon sits on prey at Veterans Park in Norwalk, CT, Dec. 2013.

Early and mid-summer can be a tricky time for birdwatchers. I know, I know. I say that about a lot of times of the year.

This is a tricky time in that many young birds are fledging, and they don’t always resemble an adult bird yet. When a young bird is found in the field, it is often difficult to determine what exactly it is.

Some young birds are fairly obvious. A young robin may not look exactly like an adult robin, but it is clearly a robin nonetheless. Many birds fall under that category. But there are other birds, such as young warblers and even some ducks and hawks, that do not yet resemble their parents and therefore require some study to figure out what they are.

It is always rewarding to see young birds at your feeder or birdbath. I’ve seen many cardinals over the years teaching their youngsters how to eat from feeders. Last summer, I had the pleasure of watching a bluebird family visit daily for an extended period eating mealworms I had left on the deck railing.

Usually, however, young birds are not so observable as they are found in the woods or fields.

When that happens, you have to use context to determine which type of bird it is. Habitat is particularly important when making this determination. You typically would not find a young bird of the deep woods in a field or any other different type of habitat. Likewise, you wouldn’t find a juvenile bobolink in the deep woods.

Size and shape come into play as well. Birds tend to grow quickly and often are as big as an adult within a few weeks. They are also similar in shape to adults at this time.

I spotted a mystery young bird in a shrub at my neighbor’s house recently. It was fairly large, like a robin, but did not have the right shape or coloring. I snapped a few photos and studied the images when I got back home. Based on where I had seen it and its color, size and shape, it didn’t take long to determine it was a young mockingbird.

Color, however, does not always offer strong clues for making an identification and, indeed, can be misleading. Many young birds do not obtain adult plumage for a long time. Many do not look like their parents until the following spring or summer. Some birds, like the bald eagle, take several years to obtain full adult plumage. It typically takes four or five years before they have their trademark white heads and tails. In the meantime, they have a mottled brown appearance.

Speaking of bald eagles, did you hear about the eagle’s nest with a red-tailed hawk chick in it as well? The latest New Hampshire Audubon eNews edition featured a story and video showing a young bald eagle in the middle of a nest and a fluffy red-tailed hawk youngster closer to the edge of the nest. The nest is located on Bow Lake. The newsletter, quoting raptor expert Iain MacLeod, executive director at the Squam Lake Natural Sciences Center, cites a fascinating potential explanation for the oddity.

“He speculates that this baby hawk likely came into the nest as a food item in the talons of the adult male eagle, but that having survived that adventure, began food-begging which triggered the adult female eagle’s maternal drive to feed young,” the newsletter reads.

That’s one lucky red-tailed hawk chick. I hope the developing story has a happy ending for the young hawk.

It’s a great time of year for birdwatching. (I know — I say that a lot too.) The next generation of birds is taking flight. Even if some of them are difficult to identify, it’s fun to see them grow.