Photo Quiz 3: How Many Species in This Photo?

November 20, 2009
Image by Birdshare contributor Robinsegg, taken October 4 in Utah. It’s a crop of a much larger image, with even more species in it. Spoiler alert: following the link will reveal some of the bird IDs in this picture.

It’s nearly winter, and those of you lucky enough to live near some beaches or mudflats probably enjoy gazing out over motley assortments of shorebirds like this one. Until you can get outside, though, cast your eyes over this photo and help us answer the question: How many species are in this photo? (Of course, we’d also like to hear which species you think are in the photo—and how you can tell.)

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One thing I love about this kind of birding is there are always a few birds on view that draw your eye as either pleasantly familiar or at least easy to figure out. I can gauge the intensity of my bird watching partners by how long they’re willing to scrutinize the other birds, like those little inkblots at the top of the frame. I also love the stark contrasts in size. I always find myself surprised by how my mental picture of a bird’s size in isolation doesn’t stack up against reality when two birds are side by side.

So have at it! Let’s try to compile a complete list of species for this photo. And if we need to I’ll try and get one or two of the Lab’s eBirders to weigh in on those mirage birds at the top.


  • sam

    American White-Pelican

    Ibis of some sort


    Black-necked Stilt

    Duck sp. (2 individuals)

    Wilson’s Phalarope

    Peep sp.

  • American White Pelican

    White-faced Ibis

    Black-necked Stilt

    American Avocet


    Long-billed Dowitcher (based on profile)

    Yellow-legs (Greater/Lesser?) (based on profile)

  • Margaret

    American White Pelican

    American Avocet

    Long-billed Dowitcher

    Black-necked Stilt

    White-faced Ibis

    Yellowlegs sp.

    And a wild guess that one of the “mirage” birds in a Great Blue Heron

  • Although no location or time of year (season) is given — the American avocets have white necks which is their winter or non-breeding colors. I see four avocets clearly enough to be certain of this ID, but several more of the more distant birds could also be avocets (five more in all) — all of those with white coloration.

    There is one black-necked stilt — the long pink legs and the high-contrast black & white colors of its body, and its black head (which avocets don’t have) are the keys to this ID for me.

    The American white pelican is hard to miss — size, bill shape, and white body are the signs to note.

    The dark birds — which appear to be not only dark but also mostly in shadow — are the most difficult to ID. Three of these, all feeding with heads down and visible in profile — appear to be curlews, or long-billed curlews. This ID rests mainly on the judgment that they seem larger than the nearby avocets and there does seem to be some curvature in the bills. But neither the presence or absence of curvature nor the entire length of the bills are clearly shown in the photograph.

    If I’m wrong about the curvature of the bills of these dark feeding birds, marbled godwits become my second choice ID — because they are slightly larger than avocets. But since the pictured birds look considerably larger than avocets, this would tend to rule out godwits.

    It seems possible to me that the two dark birds seen in the background almost directly above the white pelican are ducks of some kind. But ducks are usually sitting on the water, or floating on it — and these dark birds appear to be wading. That doesn’t mean they aren’t ducks. But it weakens that possible ID just a bit. Since these two birds are so indistinct, they could also be curlews wading in deeper water. It’s hard to judge size from this distant and indistinct an image, but they would appear to be larger than avocets — making both ducks and curlews about equally likely candidates — since there are many dark or brownish ducks large enough to fit the size and coloration seen.

    I don’t think these birds can be confidently identified with the visible info.

Photo Quiz 3: How Many Species in This Photo?