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Identifying waterbirds in winter

STILL IDENTIFIABLE: A Mallard, a Common Loon, and a Red-necked Grebe, all sleeping in the posture characteristic of their families. (Illustrations not to scale.) Art by David Sibley

For birders, winter is a time for standing on frozen shorelines and struggling to identify distant waterbirds. That means focusing on bill shape, head shape, body proportions, and behavior, among other things. It’s understandable that you would be discouraged when you come across a bird that’s sleeping because all of those features will be partly or completely hidden. On the bright side, a sleeping waterbird reveals other useful field marks and in some cases is easier to identify than a bird that is awake.

Even though part of the head is hidden on a sleeping bird, what you can see is still useful. A bird that is awake is constantly moving — preening, stretching, alert, relaxed, courting, sparring, diving, etc. The head shape changes as feathers are raised and lowered with the bird’s mood and activity. A sleeping bird is just asleep. Its head shape stays the same.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

David Sibley on social media