Friday, August 23, 2013

Have You Been Challenged by a Bluebird?

Setting gulls aside, I think I've been tricked by Mountain Bluebirds more than any other bird species when it comes to initial impressions for an identification. We have both Mountain and Western Bluebirds in Utah, but the Westerns are found more in the southern part of the state. A bluebird in northern Utah should be a Mountain Bluebird. The first time I saw a group of Mountain Bluebirds in Northern Utah I got excited and declared that one was a Western Bluebird because I saw a rufous coloring on its chest. My birding mentor kindly explained that female Mountain Bluebirds can have some rufous on their chests. I had concluded that rufous on the chest was a sure sign of Western Bluebird based on pictures I studied in a field guide. That was not the last time I messed up an initial ID associated with a Mountain Bluebird. I've been briefly fooled into thinking a juvenile Mountain Bluebird was a Townsend's Solitaire, a Mountain Bluebird was a Pinyon Jay, and a female Mountain Bluebird was some bird that I couldn't seem to identify.

Beautiful adult males like the one below make for a rather easy identification. Juveniles and females can present some challenges.

Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
Below is one of the very first photos (not a very good one) I ever captured of a female Mountain Bluebird, shortly after I starting birding. I could not, for the life of me, figure out what this bird was until after I returned home and saw other, more obviously plumaged, Mountain Bluebirds I photographed in a nearby tree. The rufous throat confused me and I didn't really notice the slight blue tint in the wings with my initial observations.

Female Mountain Bluebird Near Lindon Boat Harbor Utah County, UT
Here is a similar bird photographed at a different time. The blue in the wing helps with the identification.

Female Mountain Bluebird Heber Fields Wasatch County, UT
When I first saw the juvenile Mountain Bluebird pictured below I thought it was a Townsend's Solitaire. A closer look revealed its true identity. The speckled/scaly-looking chest and obvious eye ring had me thinking young Townsend's Solitaire. I'll throw in a juvenile solitaire image for comparison so you don't think I'm completely crazy in associating the two in my mind. The degree of scaliness on the underside is much more drastic on the young solitaire and the tails are quite different for the two species--forked for bluebird but not for solitaire. The solitaire is much more slender as well.

Juvenile Mountain Bluebird at Dry Bread Pond Weber County, UT
Juvenile Townsend's Solitaire at Lava Point Campground in Washington County, UT
I thought I had Pinyon Jays this week when I first saw a small group of Mountain Bluebirds from a distance in Pinyon-Juniper habitat. A closer look dashed my misguided hope for Pinyon Jays. I'll share a couple Pinyon Jay images and then images of some of the Mountain Bluebirds I first hoped were Pinyon Jays.

Pinyon Jay on River Lane Utah County, UT
This image is a bit overexposed and blurry, but it shows the effect that lighting and camera settings can have on images of the same bird.

Pinyon Jay on River Lane Utah County, UT
Pinyon Jays are more pale above and have a noticeably longer bill. Distance and habitat weighed too heavily in my initial impression of the birds this week. The bird I was hoping would turn out to be a Pinyon Jay proved to be a Mountain Bluebird in the midst of regenerating its tail feathers.

Mountain Bluebird (regenerating tail feathers) Along Soldier Pass Road Utah County, UT
This next bird was in the same vicinity with the bird above, but it clearly has a different look. I would say it is a young bird because its eye ring is more obvious and it shows some scaliness on the upper chest.

I'll finish with a few more male Mountain Bluebird images captured around the state of Utah.

Mountain Bluebird Along Soldier Pass Road Utah County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird on Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
What bird species has tricked you more than a time or two when getting an initial impression?


  1. Nice overview of the challenges and excitement of encountering these beauties.

  2. That first male is so beautiful I'd love to see one.

    Multifocal glasses can trick with regard to size very easily, so I always look twice, particularly with birds in flight! (No good giving Australian examples of tricky birds!)