Photo of Eastern Towhee

Photographing Eastern Towhees and Learning Bird ID Skills

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Whenever I am lucky enough to photograph a new bird, I know that bird can be identified accurately within 5 minutes of uploading the photo to the website. When I’m on the site, the birding experts can make a definitive ID based on some very far away and blurry photos. They do this because they have long experience in the bird ID craft, and look for basic ID clues.

As much as I look forward to uploading newly found birds to this ID forum, I haven’t abdicated all responsibility for learning basic birding ID skills. To be a successful bird photographer, you have to learn about the who, what, where, and when of bird ID skills while out in the field.

Photograph of Eastern Towhee
Male Eastern Towhee Trying to Get His Balance
ISO 1600; f/6.3; 1/1250 Second

ID Process Built Into Merlin

I can’t possibly remember the names of every bird I come across, there are simply too many. Luckily, scientists who study birds have developed a bird ID process. This process involves observations of certain characteristics that will group birds and help lead to an ID. These characteristic include:  The size and shape of birds, color pattern of feathers, behavior, habitat, field markings and songs and calls.

Photo of Female Eastern Towhee
Female Eastern Towhee Foraging For Seeds On the Ground.
ISO 1250; f/8.0; 1/2000 Second

The Merlin Bird ID app, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, incorporates this bird ID process to help the user identify birds. The app begins the process by querying the user with the following questions:

  • Where did you see the bird (current location)?
  • When did you see the bird (date) ?
  • What size was the bird (sparrow size, robin size, crow size, goose size?) ?
  • What were the main colors  (You choose from a palate of 9 colors)?
  • Where was the bird (feeder, lake, ground, tree, flying, etc)?

Then, based on your answers to these queries, the app quickly compiles a list of possible birds from which to make an ID. For each bird listed, the app provides ID photos (for male, female and juvenile), habitat map, ID description, and a link so you can listen to various songs and calls for each bird.

The more I use this app, the better I understand how critical these categories are for an accurate ID.

Take a Photo First

When I’m in the field and find a new bird, I don’t stop everything to check the Merlin Bird ID app. The birds just don’t hang around that long. I always take photos of new birds, no matter how far away or unappealing the scene. I need something to refer back to because my eyewitness ID skills are not that good, especially when committed to memory. The photos help me assign the bird ID criteria and identify it when I get home.

Eastern Towhee

There is a pair of eastern towhees in our yard.  Before I knew what they were, I made the following identification observations:

  • Male has black face, brown feathers and red eyes (colors)
  • Female is brown where male is black (colors)
  • Larger and chunkier than a sparrow, but same thick triangular bill (size comparison)
  • Rummages in the undergrowth for food (location)
  • Long tail points upward (size)
  • Not in Michigan in the winter (location)
Photo of Male Eastern Towhee
Male Eastern Towhee, Ground Feeding.
ISO 4000; f/8.0; 1/2000 Second

I was able to ID the Eastern Towhee very quickly using the Merlin app. I was surprised to learn that this bird is in the sparrow family. The towhee coloration is so different than the sparrows I have photographed. But, as I look over the ID criteria for sparrows, the towhee fits in that category.

The Merlin phone app is free and available for I-Phones and Droids. For more detailed information about the process of identifying birds, I recommend these two web resources:   a) Bird ID Tips and b) All About Birds.

Photo of Juvenile Eastern Towhee
Juvenile Eastern Towhee.
ISO 1000; f/8; 1/1000 second.



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One thought on “Photographing Eastern Towhees and Learning Bird ID Skills

  1. great info and shots nanc. I’m forwarding your link to Kristi Chapman, the organizer of the Southwest Michigan Conservancy’s Wednesday (workday) Warriors. When we finished our work session this week, there was a good chunk of time spent listening to and looking for a great number of birds. I think they will very much appreciate what you’re doing and what you’ve learned.

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