Spring Migration and Bird Identification


Yesterday my cats woke me up just as the day was dawning, and I clearly heard Song Sparrows and Pacific Wrens singing. They know that Spring and the breeding season will soon begin. And the first of the migrants have arrived as well.

Migration Update – Three early migrants have been spotted so far. Rufous Hummingbirds have joined the over-wintering Anna’s Hummingbirds at our feeders. The Rufous males have a distinctive whirling noise to their wings and bold rusty red coloration.

Swallows are also early migrants, seen feeding over wetlands. The first ones, Tree and Barn Swallows, will soon be followed by other species.

I like to get comments and requests from readers, and one of them asked me to write more about how to identify bird species. So, I asked Liam for paired photos that illustrated identification features or challenges, and for this week, we have three pairs to discuss.

The first pair is Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow. These are fairly common area birds that hang out in similar brushy areas in the winter. Take a look at Liam’s photos. You’ll notice first that they both are brown and have stubby beaks, marking them as seed-eating birds and probably sparrows (our best-known “little brown birds”). But there are differences, even in the beaks, with the Fox Sparrow having a yellowish lower mandible.

Now look at the bird’s breast streaks. The Fox Sparrow’s streaks are better defined, and its back is a more consistent color. The Song Sparrow’s breast is also streaked, but its streaks are not as bold. It has a center dark breast spot, and its back also has obvious streaks.

You can find out more about these species, and all North American birds, at I urge you to check out the entire website and, in particular, download it to your cell phone the free identification app. The site has links to both Google and Apple web stores.

Our second bird pair are two species of woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker. Both these species are fairly common in our area and since they are usually seen as single birds, sometimes they’re a challenge to identify. Again, take a look at Liam’s photographs.

First, they are obviously woodpeckers. They are predominantly black and white, clinging to a tree branch, and they have a bold, chisel-like beak. And the photos show sex difference, with males having a red slash on the back of their heads that females lack. These photos also show another woodpecker feature – two toes up and two toes down. This 2+2 arrangement is different than most other bird species.

The two species differ in size; the Hairy is nearly 50% larger (9+” vs. 6+”), but that can sometimes be difficult to judge for an individual bird, although Downy Woodpeckers usually look smaller. But look at the two birds’ bills. Hairy Woodpecker’s bills look like a bold chisel whereas a Downy’s bill is much smaller and slimmer.

Liam’s third pair of photos present an even greater identification problem. These two birds are the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Hutton’s Vireo. These are small insect-eating birds and year-round residents in our area. Although they both search around for food in a variety of habitats, they are unrelated species. The kinglets often hang out in pairs – if you see one, you’ll likely see two.

Vireos, in contrast, are more likely seen as single birds, but in the winter, these singles like to join small flocks of mixed species. This offers some group protection from predators and also means there are many eyes searching for possible food caches. When you get a good look, you can tell the species apart by the bill (stubby vs. thinner) and sometimes by the bird’s shade of color.

This last comparison is a real identification challenge for even experienced bird watchers. But, you asked, and I’m glad you did. Please continue to send me your suggestions for column topics.

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.


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