SECOND UTAH BIRD RECORDS COMMITTEE REPORT*
Ella Sorensen, 3868 Marsha Dr., West Valley City, Utah 84120
Keith Dixon, Dept. of Biology, UMC 53, Utah State Univ., Logan, Utah
Steven P. Hedges, Bureau of Land Management, 1579 N. Main, Cedar City,
Clayton M. White, Dept. of Zoology, 574 Widtsoe Bldg., Brigham Young
Univ., Provo, Utah 84602
Correct identification of birds in the field can
be an intriguing and exciting challenge. Often identification is straight-forward
and simple. The breeding male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Yellow-headed
Blackbird, with their distinctive plumage and lack of look-alike species,
almost defy misidentification even by a novice. At other times, identification
can be quite complex. Even those who have spent years studying particular
groups such as gulls and flycatchers often find individual birds which
they feel are impossible to correctly identify in the field or even in
the hand. The Utah Bird Records Committee must evaluate records of birds
which vary in complexity of identification from those that are very easy
to those that are extremely difficult. As stated in a previous Committee
report (Utah Birds l(l):1l), the Utah Bird Records Committee will
regularly seek advice from outside authorities when dealing with some of
the more difficult identifications. Each member of the Committee strongly
encourages observers who suspect that they may have seen one of the more
challenging rarities to become actively involved in this consultation process.
It is fun and educational. The observer may personally contact an authority
and submit the correspondence together with his/her written description
of the bird, or the observer may prefer to have a Committee member correspond
with an authority or authorities and send a copy of that correspondence
to the observer who can then decide whether or not to formally subnit the
record to the Committee. Sometimes the observer learns that certain field
marks used in the identification were unreliable, or that he/she needs
more experience with the common Utah species of similar appearance and
their variations in plumage and voice.
The observer may then decide not to formally submit
the record or review. Records sent to the Committee but not formally submitted
for review are stored in a separate file, so that data is not lost. All
Committee members are willing to help observers in any way they can. They
will be glad to share their own field experiences, and suggest articles
on identification of particular species, if available. Specimen collections
can also be consulted.
After reviewing all information on a submitted record,
the Committee will make a decision whether or not to accept the record.
Authorities sometimes disagree, and Committee decisions are not always
unanimous. Anyone who has additional information on a sighting or feels
that the reasons given for a decision in a Records Committee Report are
based on insufficient information is encouraged to submit their comments
in writing to the Committee. The Committee will then reevaluate the record
based on the new information.
The following two examples show how the Committee
and an observer can work together on an identification. On 3 November 1985
Jim Woolf observed a grosbeak in Parley's Gulch in Salt Lake City. He took
detailed notes during the sighting and felt that the bird more closely
resembled a female or immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a rare transient
in Utah, than a Black-headed Grosbeak which is a common summer resident.
Woolf contacted a Committee member and learned that the Rose-breasted Grosbeak
would be the most likely species to occur in Utah in November, based on
verified records for states adjacent to Utah, even though there are far
fewer records of Rose-breasted Grosbeak than Black-headed Grosbeak. On
5 November, immediately after looking at numerous specimens of Black-headed
Grosbeak, Woolf returned to Parley's Gulch and found the grosbeak perched
on the same branch and again noted all the characteristics that he had
recorded two days previously. These marks included a boldly and extensively
streaked breast, quite unlike any he had noted on the Black-headed Grosbeak
specimens that he had just observed. On 6 November Clyde Morris located
the bird in Parley's Gulch and also identified it as a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
He felt that there was some light wash across the breast beneath the coarse
streaking. Both observers stressed the immaculate whiteness of the belly.
The color of the underwing lining was not observed, which would have been
helpful in determining whether the bird was a female or immature male.
All Black-headed Grosbeaks and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have yellowish
underwing linings, while all male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have reddish
underwing linings. Two authorities with extensive field experience with
these two species were contacted. Both stressed that the Rose-breasted
Grosbeak was the more likely species to occur in Utah in November, and
both felt that the observed field marks could be used to reliably separate
the two species.
On 15 September 1985 Joe Leigh observed a bird near
the Salt Lake International Airport which he felt might be a Clay-colored
Sparrow. After consulting with a Committee member, a decision was made
to send a written description of the bird to Allan Phillips and Paul Lehman.
Phillips suggested that Leigh visit a museum and look at specimens, stating
that it is not an easy matter to identify this species correctly. Phillips
stated that a few years ago he checked a specimen of one of the easternmost
records of a Brewer's Sparrow, a specimen on which everyone had agreed
on the identification, and found that it was really a Clay-colored Sparrow.
Phillips said that it is usually the wide black stripes on the head and
the strong contrast between the grays and browns that usually identify
the Clay-colored Sparrow, but that a subspecies of Brewer's Sparrow (taverneri)
also has broad, black streaking. He said that he has personally confused
the taverneri race of Brewer's Sparrow with the Clay-colored Sparrow.
Phillips, an ornithologist with extensive experience with specimens of
these two sparrows, reaffirmed that identification of these sparrows is
Paul Lehman, who consulted with Jon Dunn on his
evaluation, gave the following comments.
"This is an interesting record; however I do not
feel comfortable assigning a name to the bird in question. I believe the
bird was either a Clay-colored Sparrow or a juvenile Brewer's Sparrow.
Juvenile Brewer's are more strongly marked and warmer colored than adults;
while they do not typically show a median crown stripe I have seen a few
individuals with a faint stripe at least in forehead region. So, this bird
seems to have a bolder median crown stripe than a typical Brewer's, although
Clay-colored's median stripe is typically whitish, not 'grayish'. Most
fall Clay-coloreds tend to show buffer breasts than this bird (although
not all) and an even bolder facial pattern. What is important is that two
important field marks for Clay-colored were not seen/mentioned: 1) a distinct
whitish malar stripe (bordered by a thinner dark line), and 2) a distinct
gray collar contrasting with the warm brown crown and back.
"So, in sum, I do not believe the bird was described
well enough to ascertain that it was a Clay-colored. It may have been one,
but it also may have been a juvenile Brewer's."
Both the grosbeak and sparrow examples have been
used with permission of the observers who have remained open and receptive
and very much a part of the consultation process. Woolf has submitted his
written documentation to the Records Committee for review, and is attempting
to locate two observers that he met on 9 November in Parley's Gulch who
also mentioned seeing the grosbeak. It would be desirable to add the details
of their sighting to those of Woolf and Morris, particularly if they noted
the color of the underwing linings.
Leigh plans to visit a museum as suggested by Phillips
and look at specimens, particularly the subspecies taverneri. He
felt that he learned a great deal from Lehman's evaluation, especially
additional field marks to look for in future sightings. He has additional
questions about median stripe coloration, length, and immature plumage
which Lehman has willingly agreed to answer. As previously stated, with
an open mind, exploring the possibilities can be fun, intriguing, and educational.
The Committee hopes that other observers will become actively involved
with them in the evaluation of records. The Committee has set up a filing
and numbering system for records and hopes to become current on its evaluations
by the next issue of Utah Birds. We ask for the continued patience
of the many observers who have submitted records. It has been a somewhat
overwhelming task to get the records organized and evaluated.
The Committee has made the decision to use the recently
published Utah Birds: A Revised Checklist by Behle, Sorensen, and
White (1985) as the basis for future records evaluations, and to accept
all records listed therein. The Committee will only review records included
therein if the Committee receives a written request giving valid reasons
why the record should be re-examined. An exception will be those records
which are listed in Appendix II of the Utah Bird Distribution: Latilong
Study (1983). The Utah Bird Records Committee is a continuation of
the Latilong Records Sub-committee which first met on 20 July1983. At that
committee meeting, a decision was made to consult out-of-state on the records
of the following species: American Woodcock, Philadelphia Vireo, Prairie
Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Baird's Sparrow. There has been considerable
interest in the final disposition of those records. Several of the evaluations
contained so much useful information on the field identification of those
species that the Committee felt that it would be desirable to devote this
report to those records.
SCARLET TANAGER (Piranga olivacea). Specimen of a male taken
at St. George, Washington Co., on 17 June 1950; consulted: Roxie Laybourne.
The record specimen, identified at the time of collection
as a Scarlet Tanager, was preserved for some time as a mount, but was subsequently
destroyed except for several groups of breast feathers which were saved
for use as fishing flies. Many years later, those feathers were given to
Dr. William Behle by Dean Stock and were deposited in the University of
Utah Natural History Museum. In 1983 several feathers were sent to Roxie
Laybourne, who can often identify a bird when only a few feathers are available
and who is considered to be a leading expert in that field. To positively
identify the specimen as a Scarlet Tanager, Laybourne had to rule out other
red birds that occur in the St. George area, namely Summer Tanager and
Vermilion Flycatcher which are summer residents, as well as Hepatic Tanager.
Laybourne judged that the feathers were unlike Summer or Hepatic Tanager
which were ruled out macroscopically. However, since the feathers were
the same size and color pattern as Vermilion Flycatcher, a microscopic
examination was necessary that showed that the microscopic structure of
the downy harbules was that of a Scarlet Tanager. This specimen, on deposit
in the University of Utah Natural History Museum, represents the only verified
record of Scarlet Tanager for Utah.
AMERICAN WOODCOCK (Scolopax minor). One; 22 December 1981; Kanab,
Kane Co.; consulted: Guy McCaskie, Kenn Kaufman, Charles Chase III, Lawrence
Balch, Harry LeGrand.
This record has been the subject of considerable
controversy since it was first observed by a member of the Utah Bird Records
Committee. The observer sent the record to several consultants, most of
who felt that the written documentation adequately described a woodcock.
The record has appeared in several publications as an accepted record,
and is the only report of the species in Utah. In a recent letter to the
Committee, the observer expressed his decision to retract the record for
the following reasons: 1) the dark markings on the bead, nape, and scapulars
were not observed, 2) the flight was not as fluttery as expected of a typical
woodcock, and 3) the bird was not observed on the ground. Several of the
consultants for this record also questioned the missed field marks, but
only one considered them to be essential for identification. However, the
observer felt that all essential field marks should have been observed
for this record to be acceptable as a first state record, particularly
since it was a single observer sighting. He felt "strongly that there can
be no room for error on a first state record, no matter who the observer
or his experience".
PHILADELPHIA VIREO (Vireo philadelphicus). One; 10 October 1981;
Brown's Canyon, San Juan Co.; consulted: Guy McCaskie, Jon Barlow, Ross
Two observers submitted documentation on this sighting.
Three authorities reviewed the record and none recommended acceptance.
The first observer stated that the bird "appeared slimmer than a Solitary
or Warbling Vireo", but all consultants commented that Warbling and Philadelphia
vireos are essentially the same size and shape. The upperparts were described
as being bright olive-green, which is brighter than the usually described
gray-green of Philadelphia Vireo. According to McCaskie, most, if not all,
fall-plumaged Philadelphia Vireos show a faint wingbar formed by the narrow
pale tips of the greater wing coverts, but the observers stated that there
was no wing bar. The Philadelphia Vireo, like most other species of North
American vireos, has relatively pale blue-gray legs, not dark as stated
in the description. The bird was described as having a pale yellow breast,
white belly, and relatively bright undertail coverts. In a Philadelphia
Vireo, the center of the breast would he bright yellow and the bird would
not have a white belly contrasting with bright yellow undertail coverts.
One point that was especially bothersome to two
authorities who have studied vireos extensively was that the behavior of
the bird was atypical of the Philadelphia Vireo. They stated that they
had spent thousands of hours observing Philadelphia Vireos and had never
seen ground foraging by that species. In the east, Philadelphia Vireos
forage more in the tops of trees than in the lower levels near the ground.
The second written documentation was inconsistent
with the first regarding the color of the underparts. The anterior two-thirds
were described as being white-gray while the posterior one-third including
coverts was bright yellow. The whiteness of the breast was again mentioned
under Similar Species and was used to eliminate Orange-crowned Warbler
as a possibility. If the bird did have a white or pale white-gray breast,
then the chances of its being a Philadelphia Vireo are virtually zero!
PHILADELPHIA VIREO (Vireo philadelphicus). One; 29 April 1982;
Provo, Utah Co.; consulted: Guy McCaskie, Jon Barlow, Paul Lehman, Ross
The description of this bird more closely fits a
Philadelphia Vireo than a Warbling Vireo. However, vireos are in fresh
plumage in the fall and acquire spring plumage through feather wear. Hence,
the spring plumage is much less colorful than the fall plumage, and the
breast should not appear vividly yellow. In spring, male Philadelphia Vireos
should be singing. Philadelphia Vireos are fairly late spring migrants,
usually arriving in the United States in late May. In the west, fall sightings
greatly outnumber spring sightings. Monson and Phillips (1981) list only
fall records for Arizona, and the few spring records for California are
24-25 May, 26-27 May, 27-30 May, 14 May, and 12 June (Roberson 1980, Garrett
and Dunn 1981). The 29 April date is exceptionally early and, as such,
the Committee felt that better documentation was necessary. There are no
acceptable records of Philadelphia Vireo for Utah, but the species is not
PRAIRIE WARBLER (Dendroica discolor). One; 28-29 June 1982; Mendon,
Cache Co.; consulted: Val Nolan Jr, J.W. Hardy, Ellen Ketterson.
The documentation for this record states that the
identification was made on the basis of song and confirmed by brief views.
On 29 June l982, a sonogram was made, a copy of which was sent to Val Nolan
for evaluation. Dr. Nolan has spent over 39 years studying this species
and has written a book on Prairie Warblers which is considered to be a
model for life histories. The following is an exerpt from his evaluation:
"When I looked at the sonogram, all but the last
two or three phrases appeared as though they might have been sung by a
Prairie Warbler, although the phrases preceeding the final ones are run
together more than I would have expected, even in the fastest Prairie Warbler
trill. I then listened to the song and felt that the quality of the earlier
phrases didn't sound like the Prairie, again presumably because they have
no energy-free spaces in between them. Further, the last part of the song
doesn't sound like any Prairie Warbler I have ever heard. I asked Ellen
Ketterson, who did a full summer's field work studying Prairie Warbler
song as a graduate student, to listen to the tape too, and she agrees with
"Both of us are reluctant to say that the song could
not be a Prairie Warbler, even though we think it is not. We have been
working on breeding juncos for several years, and every time we think we
have heard the last and ultimate variation on a junco song, we hear a new,
quite unfamiliar one. Nevertheless, I have heard hundreds of Prairies,
and this doesn't resemble anything in my experience."
The habitat in which the bird was found is atypical
for the species. In further correspondence with Nolan, he stated that "certainly
I would not expect to find one in a very thick aspen stand." In this same
letter, which was written after seeing the written documentation, he again
"To sum up, I don't know how rigorous you want your
standards for sight records to be, and I certainly cannot say that another
observer didn't see a Prairie Warbler. But on the evidence available to
me (the tape recording and the sonogram) I would be very surprised if this
bird was a Prairie Warbler."
Almost all records for Prairie Warbler in the west
are fall records. A sighting on 28-29 June would be unexpected and would
require excellent documentation for acceptance. This record was based on
brief glimpses, the bird was observed in atypical habitat, and three ornithologists
familiar with the species and its vocalizations would not endorse the sonogram
as being that of a Prairie Warbler.
BAIRD'S SPARROW (Ammodramus bairdii). One; 1 May l982; Antelope
Island, Salt Lake Co.; consulted: James Rising, Guy McCaskie, Charles Chase
III, Allan Phillips.
None of the four consultants felt that this record
should be accepted. There are no acceptable records of this species in
Utah, but with the breeding ground to the northeast and the wintering grounds
to the south, the species undoubtedly occurs on occasion. Two of the evaluations
contained so much useful information on the field identification of Baird's
Sparrow that they will be published almost in their entirety.
"I must confess that I have seen the species only
once myself, so my 'field impressions' are not strong. However, I do know
Savannah Sparrows, and I did spend some time with their descriptions in
hand while looking through our collection of some 50 (Baird's Sparrow)
"A major point that all three mention is the abrupt
ending of the breast streaking on the upper breast--indeed a characteristic
of Baird's Sparrows, but also not uncommon in Savannah Sparrows, especially
"They emphasize that the tail was not forked, like
that of a Savannah. Judging from the specimens, Baird's Sparrow too has
a forked tail, and it is illustrated that way in my field guides. Also,
they mention that there were no pale or white edges to the lateral rectrices.
That, as they mention, is not universal In Baird's, but on the basis of
our collections, I would say that it is usual, esp (sic) in the spring.
Savannahs never have that white--thus in this way their description better
fits Savannah Sparrow.
"A Savannah Sparrow would never be as yellow as
they describe. The amount of yellow in the superciliary varies greatly,
but, (esp (sic) in spring), it is essentially confined to the superciliary.
On the other hand, if I can judge from the museum specimens, Baird's don't
appear to be as yellow as they describe. That could be misleading, however,
for I know that a nice, fresh bird in good light can be awfully bright.
I have seen this in LeConte's Sparrow. I would never describe the Baird's
yellow as yellow-orange.... It is ochre.
"They call the bill color 'dusky.' That's not very
descriptive. But on the skins the bill color is a pale yellow, or 'straw'
"The size really bothers me. They all say that the
Baird's was the same size as Vesper Sparrow, with which it was found. Baird's
is quite noticeably smaller, and this would be obvious, esp (sic) if they
were seen together.The dorsal surface of Baird's is not darker than Vesper,
at least in our skins. About the same color, or if anything lighter.
"The wide yellow (or better, ochre) head stripe
is not always a good mark of Baird's. Perhaps the majority of birds seem
to lack it all together.... The striking thing about the stripe is that
it is narrow and obscure close to the bill, and widens toward the back
of the head--looks like a v-shaped ochre patch on the back of the head.
There is a lot of variation in the width of the stripe in Savannah Sparrow,
ranging to non-existent (as in many Baird's) to quite distinct--but never
really wide, to my knowledge.
"In short, their description sounds more like a
Baird's Sparrow than anything else, but it is not convincing. I am especially
concerned by three aspects of it, viz: (1) the emphasis on the pattern
of breast streaking, which easily overlaps western Savannah Sparrows, (2)
the size of the bird (it's too big), and the (3) yellowness, or yellow-orange--too
yellow for this species. I think that the record cannot be accepted." (James
"I have reviewed the documentation on the supposed
Baird's Sparrow and feel ... that the bird observed was NOT a Baird's Sparrow.
I have encountered Baird's Sparrows in the grasslands of southeastern Arizona
...and in California. I have also taken the time to review the specimens
of Baird's Sparrow in the San Diego Natural History Museum.
"On each occasion that I have encountered Baird's
Sparrows I have been impressed by the bright buffy-orange coloration of
the head, the noticable pale edgings to the feathers of the upper-parts,
and the pale edges to the tail feathers with the outer tail feathers looking
to be whitish. In size the birds appear slightly larger than Savannah Sparrows,
and I have never encountered the species associating with other birds.
(Baird's Sparrows are loners).
"It is clear that none of the two observers submitting
documentation had any prior experience with Baird's Sparrow, and all appeared
to be relying on information presented in the standard field guides. In
(one) account he states the Vesper Sparrow has white outer tail feathers,
implying that the Baird's Sparrow does not have white outer tail feathers.
I have noted whitish outer tail feathers on Baird's Sparrows in the field,
and consider it a mark that separates it from the Savannah Sparrow (a check
of specimens in the San Diego Natural History Museum confirms the fact
that Baird's Sparrows do have whitish outer tail feathers). Had the bird
under observation been a Baird's Sparrow I feel whitish tail feathers would
have been noted, and the observer would NOT have calmly eliminated Vesper
Sparrow on the basis of outer tail feather coloration.
"The (other) account states the bird was the same
size as a Vesper Sparrow, which immediately suggests a bird larger than
a Baird's Sparrow. The coloration of the head ('yellow-orange' and 'superficially
resembled that of a fall Townsend's Warbler') suggests a bird much brighter
about the head than a Baird's Sparrow, and the pattern (Townsend's Warbler
like) suggests the bird had a noticeable ear patch, which would be wrong
for Baird's Sparrow. The tail is described as 'medium long' and was 'dark
brown to blackish'. The tail of a Baird's Sparrow appears proportionately
short, and all the feathers are clearly edged with white with the outer
tail feathers being entirely whitish (off white to a very pale brown),
very different from that described by this observer. Again we learn that
the upper-parts were 'dark brown with typical sparrow markings' which tells
me very little (my descriptions of birds seen in the field all include
the presence of the relatively conspicuous white edges to the otherwise
dark feathers, this resulting in a somewhat 'scaley' pattern.
"I do not know what the observers saw, but feel
it very unlikely from the descriptions submitted that it is a Baird's Sparrow".
Phillips and Chase both felt that characters described
in the documentation were inconsistent with any known species. In addition,
several important field marks of Baird's Sparrow were not mentioned.
In conclusion, we note the difficulty of dealing
with descriptions that lack sufficient detail to permit a third person
to rule out alternatives. Those observers who provide more detailed reports
stand to make a more substantial contribution to our knowledge of Utah's
The Committee would like to thank Paul Lehman who
reviewed this report and offered many useful suggestions for improvement.
Behle, W. H., E .D. Sorensen, and CM. White. 1985. Utah birds: a revised
checklist. Occas. Publ. No. 4, Utah Museum Nat. History, Salt Lake City.
Garrett, K. and J. Dunn. 1981. Birds of southern California. Los Angeles
Audubon Soc., Los Angeles.
Monson, G. and A.R. Phillips. 198l Annotated checklist of the birds
of Arizona. Univ.Arizona Press, Tucson. 240 pp.
Roberson, D. l980. Rare birds of the west coast. Woodcock Publ., Pacific
Grove, Calif. 496 pp.
Walters, R.E. and E. Sorensen. 1983. Utah bird distribution: latilong
study. Utah Div. Wildlife Res. Publ. 83-10, Salt Lake City. 97 pp.
*Source: Utah Birds 1(3):51-61.