Category Archives: ID Tips

ID Tips: Ivory-billed Woodpecker vs. Pileated Woodpecker

One of the most controversial topics in birding is whether the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists, or if it is extinct. It is/or was the largest species of woodpecker north of Mexico, and the 3rd largest in the world. The last universally accepted sighting was around the 1940s when a team from Cornell took video, photographed and recorded audio from a nesting pair of Ivory-bills. However, there have been alleged reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since then, including audio recordings and some video evidence that is left up to the interpretation of the viewer to decide what it is. Many of these reported sightings are actually of the similar looking and common Pileated Woodpecker, or other woodpecker species. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are thought to live or have lived in very specific habitats the Southern United States and Cuba, possibly only in Virgin Bottomland Hardwood forests in the US, although some argue that they have could also live in other habitats. Either way, if you’re out searching for Ivory-bills or just want to know how to tell them apart from the similar Pileated Woodpecker, here are the differences between the two species. 

Both Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker males have a red crest, white lines on their neck, and black and white on their wings. A male Ivory-billed Woodpecker would have a much more noticeable Ivory-colored bill, and a line on the neck extending down the back on both sides. The  Pileated would also have multiple white lines near their eye compared to the single line near the eye of the Ivory-bill. Additionally Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would have a white triangle visible on the lower back, from the folded wings, which would be black on the Pileated. I’ve heard this referred to as the Pileated looking like it’s wearing a Black backpack and the Ivory-billed looking like it’s wearing a white backpack. As far as size, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would also be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. A female Ivory-billed woodpecker would have the same color pattern as the male except with an all black crest that may be recurved, such as Cindy Lou who’s hair. A female Pileated will still have some red on their crest.

In flight, when the wings are viewed from below, the Pileated will have more white visible on the leading edge of the wing where on an Ivory-billed Woodpecker it would be on the leading and trailing edge of the wing, appearing more white overall. When the open wings are viewed from above, the Pileated will have crescents of white in the middle of the wing, while the Ivory-billed will have white visible on the trailing edge of the wing. It is also thought that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would have faster wingbeats compared to a Pileated Woodpecker and make faster swooping motions to land on the trunks of trees.

Another bird that could be mistaken for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker because it also appears to have a white backpack and white on the trailing edge of its wings, however they would have an all Red head and be much smaller than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be, unless the birds is a juvenile, which may have less red on its head. 

Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus showing “white backpack” on lower wings and red head.

The calls of both Ivory-billed and Pileated Woodpeckers are also very different, with Ivory-billed Woodpecker making what are called “Kent” calls, and doing double knocks as opposed to the Pileated Woodpecker’s call and rapid drumming. I’ve heard people say that other birds such as Blue Jays could mimic the sounds of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers but I have not yet personally heard one doing so. 

One of the more advanced identification differences between Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Pileated Woodpeckers is that because the birds are members of different genus’ they perch on a tree trunk differently. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is in the Campephalus genus, which means due to their larger size their “ankle will appear to rest on the tree, where in the Pileated it normally appears to be held more away from the tree. This can be seen in the below image of a Pale-billed Woodpecker from Costa Rica, which is also in the Campephalus genus. Seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would likely look more similar to seeing a Pale-billed woodpecker as opposed to seeing a Pileated Woodpecker.  The neck of Campephalus woodpeckers may also seem linger and more thin, compared to the thicker and stubbier looking neck of a Pileated Woodpecker.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Campephilus guatemalensis in Costa Rica showing “ankle” appearing closer towards tree trunk and long, thin neck.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have reportedly been seen in the last 40 years in the Big Woods of Arkansas, the Pearl River in Louisiana, the Choctawhatchee River in Florida, and more. This is and would not likely be a bird you would see at your bird feeder or in urban areas. Please do you research before claiming you have seen or heard one in unlikely habitats. With that being said you are always welcome to send us possible images, videos, or sound recordings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers to Please  be sure to rule out all other common species first though. 

Learn all about how to identify Ivory-billed Woodpeckers compared to Pileated Woodpeckers in video form

Cooper’s Hawk vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk is one of the most common identification questions for backyard birders. Adults both have a gray/blue back, long legs, and a banded tail, and juveniles also look similar to each other. However, if you know the identification points to look for, it can be much easier to differentiate the two.

When deciding between a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk one of the first things to consider is range. The range of the Cooper’s Hawk spans over more of the United States year round, with Sharp-shinned Hawks spreading out more in the winter. Depending on the time of year, this could narrow down your choices.



First, let’s start with features that apply to adult and juvenile birds. In general, Sharp-shinned Hawks will be smaller than Cooper’s Hawks with the average individual measuring about 12.5 inches, and the average Cooper’s Hawk measuring about 16.5 inches. However, females are larger than males in both species and a large female Sharp-shinned Hawk can be about the same size as a small male Cooper’s Hawk. In general, if the bird seems very small (about Blue-jay size or smaller for Sharp-shinned) or very large (about crow sized or larger for Cooper’s) then then size can be used fairly reliably.


Another field mark present in both adults and juveniles is body shape and head size. Sharp-shinned Hawks will appear to not have much of a neck, with a small head. Cooper’s Hawks will appear to have normal proportions compared to other hawks. This feature can also be noticed in flight. The general body shape of a Sharp-shinned Hawk will also appear barrel chested with smaller hips, making the bird look top heavy, almost like the Hawk version of Gaston from beauty and the beast. The Cooper’s hawk body shape will be much more tubular with a center of gravity more near the middle of the body.


In adults and juveniles Sharp-shinned Hawks will appear to have longer thinner legs than Cooper’s Hawks and the eye on the Sharp-shinned may appear closer to the middle of the back and front of the head where in the Cooper’s they may appear closer to the front of the head, although this field mark can be subjective.


If you get a clear view of the tail this can also assist with ID, although I wouldn’t rely on this as your only field mark. In general, Cooper’s Hawks will have tail feathers that appear more rounded at this tips, while they are more squared off in the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This can be deceiving depending on how spread out the feathers are, and if there are missing feathers. There can also be differences in the amount of white on the tail tip (Cooper’s Hawks will have a broader white tip of the tailfeathers while Sharp-shinned may show a thinner white band) but this can be worn off the feathers which makes it a difficult feature to use reliably.

Flight Pattern

In flight, the Cooper’s Hawk will often fly with slower wingbeats before gliding. Sharp-shinned Hawks may have a more erratic-looking flight with faster wingbeats before gliding.

Hood vs. Cap

Now let’s move on to characteristics of only adult birds. Both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks will have gray-blue backs with rufous and white barring on their chests, and red eyes. One of the more distinctive differences in adults is that the Sharp-shinned Hawk will often appear hooded with a dark nape while the Cooper’s Hawk will appear capped, white a light nape.


Sharp-shinned Hawks may also appear as though they don’t have a neck, while Cooper’s Hawks will normally show a more pronounced neck.

Chest Streaking

Now let’s move on to the juveniles. Juveniles of both species have brown backs with white spots, brown streaks on the chest, and yellow eyes. The most reliable color field mark is that the streaking on the chest is bold and larger in Sharp-shinned Hawks (it may also appear more blurry) and is thinner and more defined in Cooper’s Hawks. The streaking may also not go down as far on the lower stomach in Cooper’s Hawks.


There are also some more anecdotal behaviors that have been noted between the species that may be true some of the time but not always. It’s been suggested that Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer to perch in trees and shrubs while Cooper’s Hawks may be found more often on fences or poles. Additionally, Cooper’s Hawks may target larger prey such as does while Sharp-shinned Hawks might go after smaller birds.


In summary, an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk will normally appear smaller with almost no neck, a broad chest, a hooded head, long thin legs, eyes closer to the middle of the head, and a squared off tail with a thin white tip. In flight they may also appear more erratic. Cooper’s Hawks will generally be larger with a capped head, normal neck, tubular appearance, thicker legs, eyes closer to the beak, and rounded tail feathers with a thicker white band at the end. Their wingbeats in flight may also appear slower. Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks will have more streaking on the chest that appears almost blurry, while Cooper’s Hawks will have finer, more defined streaking with possible less on the lower stomach. While you’re out in the field try to note as many ID features as you can and get photos when in doubt. In the end, it’s always okay to mark the bird down as a Cooper’s/Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is a tricky ID, but hopefully with these tips, you’ll be armed with the best knowledge about differentiating these two species.

If you prefer to watch our video on the topic, check out the link below!

Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee

The Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee are two extremely similar looking birds both native to the United States. While at a quick glance they may seem difficult to distinguish from one another, there are actually a few simple ways to tell them apart.

Fun Fact: The Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee used to be lumped together as a single species called the Rufous-sided Towhee. To learn more about the Eastern Towhee check out this article.


While range can’t always be used to correctly determine between Eastern and Spotted Towhees, much of the time it can be. These species have ranges that typically don’t overlap, but both have been known to end up in places they aren’t normally found in.

The Eastern Towhee resides in the Eastern United States, living year round in the Southeastern states such as Florida and Georgia. During summer, many of them migrate north ending up in places like New York, Southeastern Canada, and Michigan.

Click here to see a video of Badgerland Birding searching for an Eastern Towhee in its normal range.

Eastern Towhee Range Map by

The Spotted Towhee is a bird of the Western United States and Mexico. They winter in the south-central U.S. in states such as Texas and Oklahoma and move into the Northwestern states and Southwestern Canada to breed. Many Spotted Towhees live in Western states such as California and Oregon year round.

Click here to see a video of Badgerland Birding finding a Spotted Towhee outside of its normal range.

Spotted Towhee Range Map by

Most of the time, range is going to be a significant factor determining which of these two species is in the area, but they do sometimes cross over to the opposite side of the country, making location a fairly reliable, but not iron clad way of telling the Spotted and Eastern Towhee apart.


Male Eastern and Spotted Towhees both look very much alike. Both have a black back, black head, white underside, and rufous color on their sides. However, there is one major diagnostic difference; the Spotted Towhee lives up to it’s name and has white spots on its back and wings. The Eastern Towhee does have white markings on it’s back and wings but not nearly to the same degree as the Spotted Towhee.

The females of these two species look fairly different. The female Eastern Towhee has brown on its back, wings, and head, with the same rufous sides and white underside as the male. The female Spotted Towhee looks just like the male Spotted Towhee complete with white markings on the wings and back, but has more of a charcoal gray color, making it look quite different from the female Eastern Towhee.

Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee
Eastern Towhee vs. Spotted Towhee


The Eastern and the Spotted Towhee have very similar calls. but with subtle differences. The Eastern Towhee sounds something akin to “drink your tea” with the first note being sharp and the rest of the call being a trill. They also make other sounds as well including a “chew-wee” or”tow-hee” call.

Eastern Towhee Call

The Spotted Towhee’s call is a lot like that of the Eastern Towhee but it can have several sharp notes before a more accentuated and somewhat faster sounding trill.

Spotted Towhee Call

Eastern Towhee summary

An adult Eastern Towhee will have the following characteristics that can be used to separate them from Spotted Towhees:

Range in the Eastern half of the United States

A mostly black back and wings with some white markings but no true “spots”

Overall brown color on the head, back, and wings of the female

A song that sounds like “drink your tea,”

Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee side profile

Spotted Towhee summary

An adult Sotted Towhee will have the following characteristics that can be used to separate it from an Eastern Towhee:

Range in the Western half of the United States

A black back and wings with numerous white spots

Gray color on wings, back, and head of female that looks otherwise the same as the male

A song that sounds faster and more buzzy than the Eastern Towhee with more notes at the beginning of the call

Eastern Towhee x Spotted Towhee hybrid

It’s worth noting that these two species do hybridize and can often create offspring that confuse birders. Hybrid Eastern and Spotted Towhees can be identified by the markings on the back and wings. They will have a combination of white lines, blotches, and spots. To see what one of these hybrid birds looks like you can click here.


At first, the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee look like very similar species. However, with a bit of knowledge on how to distinguish them, it can be a lot easier to make a positive identification.

Franklin’s Gull vs. Laughing Gull

Out of all of the different birds in the world, there are few more vexing when it comes to identification than gulls. Two individual species in this grouping that can pose problems for birders are the Franklins Gull, and the Laughing Gull. While these birds certainly share many physical characteristics and can overlap in range, there are actually some fairly reliable ways to tell them apart.


The first thing to note when trying to make an identification between these two species is range. Franklin’s Gulls move through much of the continental united states and into central Canada. They aren’t typically found near the ocean coastlines and are much more likely to be in states such as Oklahoma and Nebraska. Laughing Gull on the other hand are mostly found along the Atlantic Ocean from New England down to the gulf of Mexico. They are not found inland with nearly the same regularity as Franklin’s Gulls, but they have been known to end up around the Great Lakes. Laughing Gulls are almost never found in Canada other than the eastern part of the country and typically very close to the US border. In sum, range can be a factor in determining species, but can’t always be used by itself since there is overlap and both species tend to wonder from time to time.

Franklin’s Gull Range Map
Laughing Gull Range Map


Moving on to the physical traits that separate these two birds, there is a slight size difference between the Franklins Gull and the Laughing Gull. On average, Franklin’s Gulls are smaller than Laughing Gulls with a length between 32 and 36 cm, and a wingspan between 85 and 95 cm. Laughing Gulls on average have a length between 39 and 46 cm with a wingspan between 92 and 120 cm; making for a small but noticeable difference if the birds are side by side. With just a single bird or single species present, size should not be used on its own to make an identification between these two species.


One of the first features that can be helpful to note when differentiating between these two birds is the bill  Franklin’s Gulls and Laughing Gulls both have black bills in non breeding plumage and deep red bills in adult plumage, but the Franklin’s Gull’s bill is more petite looking than the bill of the Laughing which is quite robust and slightly curved.


Another feature that can be noted is the difference in the white near the eyes. Both have white that surround the eye, but Franklin’s Gulls have crescent shaped markings that will be thicker and more pronounced than those of the Laughing Gull. Additionally, the laughing Gull has breaks on both the right and the left side of the eye markings (looking more like two semi-circles) while the Franklin’s Gull will sometimes only have one break in the white crescent. When the two species are viewed side by side this difference is quite noticable.

Note the smaller bill and large white eye crescents on this Franklin’s Gull
Note the robust bill and eye smaller white eye markings on this Laughing Gull


Out of all of the different ID features used to tell these two birds apart, one of the most reliable is the wings. When they are folded, the Franklin’s Gull displays large white spots on the tips of the primary feathers, while the Laughing Gull’s primaries are either entirely black or show very little white. This feature is most noticeable in breeding plumage birds but can also be seen in non breeding adults as well. 

Non breeding adult head pattern

Speaking of non breeding plumage birds, another ID point is the amount of black on the head. Franklin’s Gulls will have significantly more black almost creating a partial hood, while Laughing Gulls will only have black behind the eye. Again, this is only in non breeding plumage, as in breeding plumage the head color is basically identical.

Franklin's Gull vs. Laughing Gull
Franklin’s Gull vs. Laughing Gull

Underside Color

The last difference to note is the underside color. Franklin’s Gulls sometimes show a light pink wash on the underside that the Laughing Gull typically does not. This feature can sometimes be difficult to pick out but can help lead to a correct identification if present. It is worth noting that many gull species can show this pink wash, so like many other identification points, it shouldn’t be used by itself but rather along with all of the other features.

Note the pink wash on this Franklin’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull summary

Franklin’s Gull – Photo by David Michell

Adult Franklin’s Gulls will have the following characteristics:

Slightly smaller size

More petite bill

Large white crescents around the eye

More defined white markings visible on the folded wings

Hooded appearance when the birds are in nonbreeding plumage

Pink wash on the underside of breeding adults

Laughing Gull summary

Adult Laughing Gulls will have the following characteristics:

Slightly larger size

Larger and slightly curved bill

Thinner white semi-circles around the eyes

Smaller or no white markings visible on the folded wings

Only marginal black on the head in non breeding plumage

No pink wash on the underside.


Although these two birds look extremely similar, there are ways to tell them apart. By regarding the characteristics listed above, it can be much easier to make an identification between a Franklin’s Gull and a Laughing Gull. We hope you found this post helpful, to see more posts like this please subscribe and be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding YouTube channel.

Loggerhead Shrike vs Northern Shrike

Shrikes are incredibly fascinating birds. While they may look cute, they are actually quite fierce and use their sharp, hooked bills to catch and tear apart prey. 

In North America there are two species of shrikes; the Loggerhead and the Northern. At first glance these two species look remarkably similar, but when taking into account a few ID features, it becomes significantly easier to distinguish one from the other.


One of the first things to keep in mind about these two species is that they each have a different range. The Loggerhead Shrike inhabits most of the southern U.S. and Mexico throughout most of the year. Some of them migrate north during the breeding months and can go as far north as Canada.

As its name suggests, the Northern Shrike spends most of its time in the Northern parts of the continent. They summer in Canada and Alaska, coming down into the lower 48 states during winter. 

Due to their ranges, it can be possible to determine which species is most likely based on location, but in many instances both species may be around as their ranges overlap in certain parts of the year.


Bill is one of the physical features that can be used to tell these two species apart with some reliability. Loggerhead Shrikes typically have a completely black bill, while Northern Shrikes typically have lighter colors at the base of the bill. Others have also stated that Northern Shrikes have a larger bill than Loggerhead Shrikes but this may be subjective.

Loggerhead Shrike
Northern Shrike
Northern Shrike

Note the completely dark bill of the Loggerhead shrike above compared to the light lower mandible of the Northern Shrike.


The black mask covering the eyes of these two species is one of the most useful things to look at when trying to discern which species you are looking at. The Loggerhead Shrike has a thick mask that goes from the base of the bill to well past the eye. Northern Shrikes also have a black mask but it is noticeably thinner than that of the Loggerhead. This thin mask of the Northern Shrike shows white above the eye that is either lesser or non existent in Loggerhead Shrikes

Loggerhead Shrike
Northern Shrike – Photo by Lorri Howski

Note the thick black mask, clean white underside, and overall darker appearance of the Loggerhead Shrike above compared to the thin mask, barred chest, and overall frostier appearance of the Northern Shrike below.


At first glance these two species may look to have the same colors on their chest, they are actually noticeably different when taking a closer look. The Loggerhead Shrike is known to have a clean white chest and underside with the exception of the juveniles which show more barring. The Northern Shrike however, shows faint gray or brown barring as adults. This barring on the chest can be a key feature to look for in the field when needing to make a quick ID.


The general appearance of the Loggerhead Shrike will be darker with cleaner looking features while the Northern Shrike appears lighter and more frosty 

Loggerhead Shrike vs Northern Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike vs Northern Shrike

While these two species are certainly very similar in appearance, when taking all of the ID features into account, it becomes significantly easier to make a positive ID.

Thanks for reading, we hope you found this post helpful. If you have suggestions for more ID tips videos, please put them in the comments below and subscribe!

Neotropic Cormorant vs. Double-crested Cormorant

Every spring, large flocks of dark-colored, long-necked birds make their way across North America: Double crested Cormorants. Due to their distinctive shape, these birds are easy to identify in the marshes and lakes that they inhabit. However, there is another cormorant species that occasionally makes its way north from central and south America that looks incredibly similar to its double-crested relative: The Neotropic Cormorant.

In most places in the United states, with the exception of some southern states, the Neotropic Cormorant is extremely uncommon. For that reason, it pays to know what to look for in order to find a rare species or simply to differentiate them from Double-crested Cormorants in states where the two species regularly overlap.


The first thing to look at is the size and shape. Neotropic Cormorants are shorter and sleeker than Double-crested Cormorants with an average 61cm height, and a wingspan of 102 cm compared to the 70 to 90 cm height and 114 to 123 cm wingspan of the Double-crested Cormorant. In addition to the basic size difference, the Neotropic Cormorant’s tail will appear longer (compared to its body) than the Double-crested Cormorant’s tail. These characteristics are most noticeable in flight when directly compared to the other cormorant species but can also be seen when the birds are perched.

Size Comparison
The Double-crested Cormorant on the left appears larger than the Neotropic Cormorant on the right

Lore Color

Size can be difficult to determine without a direct comparison to other nearby birds. Fortunately, there are some other field marks that can be used to distinguish these two species. First, note the lores (just above the bill, going from the eye to the bill) on the Double-crested Cormorant. Both juveniles and adults display yellow to orange colored lores. In Neotropic Cormorant, the lores are significantly darker. When comparing these two next to each other, there is actually a significant difference.

Double-crested Cormorant
Note the bright orange lore, 90 degree angle of the gular, and the  lack of white around the gular on this Double-crested Cormorant


Another important area to note on these birds is the gular (which is essentially the upper throat). Both species have orange or yellowish gulars, but the shape is different depending on  the species. If you look carefully, you can see that the Neotropic Cormorant has a gular that angles toward the bill in an acute angle. The gular on the Double-crested Cormorant angles far less, and in many instances makes a 90 degree angle.

Another field mark birders regularly use to distinguish these species is the white triangular marking that lines the gular on the Neotropic cormorant. It’s very obvious in adults but less visible in juveniles.

Neotropic Cormorant
Note the dark lore, acute angle of the gular, and white triangle around the gular on this Neotropic Cormorant


It can be really difficult to make a positive ID based on just one characteristic between these two species. For that reason, it’s best to look at all the field markings. As a whole, an adult Neotropic Cormorant will have a smaller, sleeker stature, a longer tail, dark lores, a gular that acutely angles in toward the bill, and a white triangular marking around the gular. An adult Double-crested Cormorant will be larger and blockier, have a shorter, stubbier tale, brightly colored lores, a gular that is less angled near the mouth, and no white triangle mark around the gular.

A Double-crested Cormorant can be identified by regarding these characteristics:

Larger size
Bulkier Appearance
Brightly colored lores
More obtuse angle where the gular meets the throat
Lack of white around the gular

A Neotropic Cormorant can be identified by the characteristics below

Smaller size
Sleeker appearance
Dark lores
Acute angle where the gular meets the throat
White triangle marking around the gular in adults

With these traits in mind, it becomes much easier to differentiate between these two species. We hope you found this post helpful. Be sure to like and subscribe for more ID tips, and leave a comment below if there are any specific species you would like to see an ID tips about.

Adult Neotropic Cormorant photo by Gary Leavens


Hairy Woodpecker vs. Downy Woodpecker

Hopping up and down trees across North America are two very similar woodpecker species: the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. Both are black and white with almost identical patterns, and both can be found in the same habitat. At first glance it may seem impossible to tell these two birds apart, but upon closer inspection there are some tell tale differences that birders can use to make a positive identification.


The first thing that helps to differentiate these species is size. The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the downy with an average length of 18-26cm and a wingspan of 33-41cm. The Downy Woodpecker measures in at 14-18cm long on average and a wingspan of 25-30cm. This means that the Hairy Woodpecker is approximately one third bigger than a Downy Woodpecker and is about the size of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in size. While size isn’t always the most reliable tool when identifying a species, the difference between these two birds is fairly substantial.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Bill Length

The second and possibly best way to tell the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker is by looking at the bill. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill that is about equal in size to the length of the head. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter more triangular bill about one third to one half the size of the length of the bird’s head. Bill size comparison is much easier than overall size comparison when there are no direct comparisons available in the field.


Hairy Woodpecker
Note the long bill and clean outer tail feathers of this Hairy Woodpecker

Field Markings

There are two field markings that can be used to separate the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker. The first is a comma mark that goes from the shoulder to the breast. This marking is seen most prominently on the Hairy Woodpecker and is often not visible at all on the Downy. The second marking to look for is the black barring on the white other tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker that the Hairy Woodpecker lacks. While at a distance these two things can be hard to spot, closer up or with optics, both field markings can be used to differentiate these two woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker
Note the small bill, lack of extended “comma” mark and barring on the outer tail feathers of this Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Larger size
Longer bill
Defined comma marking
Pure white outer tail feathers

Downy Woodpecker

Smaller size
Short triangular bill
Less defined or non existent comma marking
Black barring on outer tail feathers

Although these birds have strikingly similar color patterns and behaviors, with the right knowledge they can be very easy to tell apart. We hope this post was helpful, follow our blog and give us a like of Facebook and Youtube

Common Redpoll vs. Hoary Redpoll

Each winter, the search for food drives birds from the north woods into areas south of their summer range. This winter migration brings many new species within view of birders who eagerly search them out. One such species that makes this journey is the Common Redpoll. Common Redpolls are small, colorful finches that eat seeds and often show up at bird feeders.

While Common Redpolls can be scarce in certain years, another Redpoll species is even harder to find: The Hoary Redpoll. Hoary Redpolls look incredibly similar to Common Redpolls and they often flock together. In fact, they look so much alike that there has been talk about lumping them together into one species. For now, however, the two remain separate, and some key identification features can help to tell them apart.


While both birds have very small, triangular-shaped bills, the bill of the Common Redpoll is slightly larger. Hoary Redpolls will have a shorter bill than a Common Redpoll that will appear stubbier and more pushed in.


One of the most notable differences between the two species is the streaking on the  chest. Common Redpolls have chest streaking that is more defined than in Hoary Redpolls. They also have bold streaking on the flanks, along with streaking on the rump and undertail coverts, which is either absent or subtle in Hoary Redpolls. Note the differences in the photos below with the heavy streaking on the Common Redpoll (Top Left and Top Right) vs. the Hoary Redpoll’s lack of streaking (Bottom Left and Bottom Right).


Crown and Chest

Another distinguishing characteristic of Redpolls are their red coloring on the crown and chest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls display bright red crowns, however the Hoary Redpoll’s crown is smaller and primarily at the front of the head, whereas the Common’s crown will extend back further. Additionally, the male Common Redpolls will have more red on their chest compared to the male Hoary Redpoll, which may have only washed out red coloration on the chest, or almost no red.

Overall Appearance

All in all, the Common Redpoll has a body coloration ranging from tan to brown, compared to the “frosted” and muted browns seen in Hoary Redpolls. The red on the breast of the males is typically more apparent in Common Redpolls, as is the red on the crown. When compared with Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls sometimes look like they are in black and white other than their darker red crown.

With winter approaching, these birds will start to pop up in local parks and bird feeders. Finding a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons can prove a difficult task to the untrained birder. Hopefully these ID tips can help you differentiate between the two species.

Haory Redpoll photos by Ryan Brady


The Ultimate Wisconsin Winter Grebe Guide

Birds in winter (non-breeding) plumage can be extremely difficult to identify, especially Grebes. With these tips, hopefully it makes identification a little easier, and will help to make you a “Grebe expert” in the field. The guide is broken up into 3 different size categories (Large/Medium-Large/Small) and discusses the most frequently seen Grebes in the state of Wisconsin.

Large Grebes

Western Grebe

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)

Overview: The Western Grebe is a rare visitor to the state of Wisconsin. It is extremely similar to the Clark’s Grebe (which is far less-likely to be found in the state with the last ebird record dating back to 1987). They often show up as one solitary individual on a large body of water such as Lake Michigan. They are bright white and dark gray/black with a long, slender, yellow bill, and a red eye.

Bill: Long, thin, yellow bill. Bill is normally at least 3/4 the length of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray body, black back and top of head and neck. White underside of neck and body. Stark contrast between white and dark coloration. Red eye.

Body Shape: Medium sized, large for grebes (21.7-29.5 inches). Similar to the size of a large Red-breasted Merganser (20.1-25.2 inches) or a smaller Common Loon (26-35.8 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Western Grebe is larger than most Grebe species except for the Red-necked Grebe which can be similar in size, although the Red-necked Grebe is far less bright, and more dull gray and white, compared to the bright white and black seen in the Western Grebe. Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than horned grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns (see photo below). The Western Grebe will have a longer, more slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as 3/4 the length of the head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.

Medium-Large Grebes

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Overview: Red-necked grebes can be seen on larger bodies of water during migration in the winter months. They lose their bright summer colors and trade them in for dull gray-brown plumage. They are medium in size and larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species, but not as large as Western Grebes or Loons.

Bill: Bill is about 3/4 the length of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray to gray-brown body and top of head with white throat and cheek. The areas are not strongly defined and portions of the plumage appear “muddled”. Brown eye, yellow bill.

Body Shape: Medium sized, medium-large for grebes (16.9-22 inches). Comparable to the size of a Canvasback (18.9-22 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Red-necked Grebe is larger than the 3 “smaller” grebe species and will be mostly gray-brown in color with some white near the face. The horned Grebe will have a smaller bill, and a whiter face when in winter (non-breeding) plumage. The Western Grebe will have a brighter white color than the non-breeding Red-necked grebe.

Small Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Overview: Horned Grebes are the most common gray and white grebe seen in the winter in Wisconsin. They are small in size, and multiple Horned Grebes are often seen in the same location, although they will not necessarily be “flocking” with each other.

Bill: Bill is less than 1/2 length of the head and fairly dark in coloration, black or gray.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray-brown body and top of head with white underside of throat and cheek. Red eye, with line coming down to base of bill.

Body Shape: Small and compact (12.2-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Bufflehead (12.6-15.7 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Horned Grebe can appear very similar to the Eared Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes. The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a Horned Grebe will not. The lack of “peaked” feathers, and more stark gray and white coloration also differentiates them from Eared Grebes. (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). Although Western Grebes are significantly larger than Horned Grebes, they can often be confused at long distances since they have similar color patterns. The Western Grebe will have a longer, slender, yellow bill that’s about the same length as its head, where a Horned Grebe will have a more stubby bill that’s above the same length as half of the head. Another distinguishing feature between Horned and Western Grebes is their body shape. Horned Grebes (12.2-15 inches) will be more stout and smaller overall, while a Western Grebe (21.7-29.5 inches) is longer, and larger. The neck of the Western Grebe will also be longer than on a Horned Grebe. On a Western Grebe, there is a stark contrast between the dark coloration on the top of the bird’s neck and the bottom of the neck. On a winter plumage Horned Grebe, this area will be more “shaded” or “muddy”, and it is more of a “white patch” that is present on the cheek compared to the Western Grebe.

Horned Grebe in transitional plumage (top) and breeding plumage (bottom)

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

Overview: Despite the Eared Grebe being the most common grebe in the world, it is considered rare in Wisconsin. It is one of the “small” grebes and will normally show up solitary or flocking with similar sized birds. They often have “peaked” feathers on the head and are likely to be most confused with Horned Grebes in the winter.

Bill: Thin, dark in color, often can appear to be slightly pointing upwards. Less than 1/2 the size of the head.

Non-breeding coloration: Gray and white body with red eye. Most individuals have peaked feathers on top of their head. Some white is present on the throat and nape of the neck, along with some white visible on the flank.

Body Shape: small and robust, with peaked crown on top of head (11.8-13.8 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches). The back end of an Eared Grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, as opposed to sloping into the water.

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Eared Grebe can appear very similar to the Horned Grebe, especially when molting, when normal color patterns are not always present. In traditional non-breeding plumage, the Eared Grebe has less clear of a border between the gray and white coloration around the face, and the neck is gray, as opposed to white seen in horned grebes (Click here to view a video with both Horned and Eared Grebes in winter plumage). The back end of an eared grebe will also appear to stick up in the water, where the back end of a horned grebe will not. The shape of the head with the “peaked” feathers, and more mottled gray coloration and short, thin bill are also solid identification features.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Overview: During the winter the Pied-billed Grebe is often seen on larger bodies of water in small flocks. Their head is blocky and large compared to their smaller body. They often resemble a small “Loch-ness monster” shaped bird, and dive frequently. Therefore, when looking for Pied-billed grebes, make several scans.

Bill: Small, thick, triangle-shaped, yellow-brown bill.

Non-breeding coloration: Brown body (sometimes gray), brown eye.

Body Shape: small and lanky, with long neck compared to body (11.8-15 inches). Comparable to the size of a Ruddy Duck (13.8-16.9 inches).

Key identification features from other winter grebes: The Pied-billed grebe is the only common grebe in Wisconsin that is small in size and brown in color. Their blocky head, slender neck, short and stocky bill also differentiate them from similar species.

All in all, picking through winter Grebes can be tricky, but knowing the key ID features can help you spot a rarity in Wisconsin. Whether it’s the “submarine-like” body of the Pied-billed Grebe, the “peaked” head of the Eared Grebe, or the long bill and neck of the Western Grebe, keep an eye out for the key characteristics that make all species of winter Grebes unique.


Photo Credit (Under Wikimedia Creative Commons License)
Red-necked Grebe photo by Ken Janes
Close up Horned Grebe by Mike Baird
Eared Grebe photo by Becky Matsubara
All other photos by Ryan or Derek Sallmann



Nelson’s Sparrow Vs. LeConte’s Sparrow

During fall migration, birders flock to their favorite weedy fields in search of migratory sparrows. While there are plenty of species to see, two of the birds at the top of the list are Nelson’s Sparrows and LeConte’s Sparrows. Both the Nelson’s and the LeConte’s are Ammodramus sparrows, perfectly at home skulking around in tall grasses and often only visible when flushed. Since these sparrows are quick moving and elusive, it’s important to know the key points to look for in order to make a positive ID.

At First Glance

A birder walks through a field of tall grass when suddenly a small bird kicks up for two seconds only to disappear back into the thick foliage. Was that a Nelson’s or LeConte’s Sparrow? Or was it something else entirely? Knowing some things to look for in a situation like this can narrow it down a bit. Both Nelson’s and LeConte’s have  a compact appearance with a short, worn looking tail. They also have notable orange features on their face that most other birds lack. For Nelson’s, their dark gray coloration on their cheeks and nape can be seen even in flight. For LeConte’s, their buffy color and brighter orange is notable.

Nape Color

When perched or relatively stationary, some ID points separating Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows become more evident. One such feature is the nape. The nape of a Nelson’s Sparrow is solid gray. LeConte’s Sparrows have a pinkish brown nape with noticeable chestnut streaking. This may sound like a tiny detail, but when looking at the two images below, the contrast is easily visible.

Facial Colors

Some of the most striking features of the Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows are their unique colors and patterns on their faces. Both species have orange on their face, but the Nelson’s orange is deeper and darker than the LeConte’s which is lighter and brighter. In addition, the same deep gray color on the nape of the Nelson’s Sparrow is also found on it’s ear patch. LeConte’s Sparrows also have an ear patch, but it is much lighter in color sometimes bordering on tan.

Head Stripe

Out of all the distinguishing features between these two sparrows, the most reliable may be the stripe of the top of their head. Nelson’s Sparrows have a dark gray head stripe while LeConte’s Sparrows have much lighter white or cream colored stripes.

These birds can be tricky to identify in the field in large part to their skulky and elusive nature. With these tips it may be a bit easier to discern the two species. Armed with knowledge, start checking damp, weedy fields to see if you can find one of these migratory birds!