Montezuma NWR – A Lesson In Swan Identification

Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, and Trumpeter Swans way off in the distance, Montezuma NWR 11-24-12.

Last weekend Tricia and I made it out Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge while visiting her family just outside Syracuse, New York. As we pulled into the refuge, we immediately saw a group of large white birds fly over…I was hoping and expecting to see some Snow Geese, but these birds did not have black wing tips. I remembered that we had seen a Trumpeter Swan the last time we were at Montezuma NWR in early September. What I forgot though, was that we spent some time trying to determine whether it was a Trumpeter Swan or the more common Tundra Swan. From what I have read, Montezuma NWR is one of the relatively few places where both species occur. So we spent the day at the refuge and saw many swans and at the time I was thinking they were all Trumpeter Swans. It wasn’t until we were back at the house that I realized that what we were seeing could have been either Trumpeter Swans or Tundra Swans (or both!)

So I looked over my photos and did some reading, and it seems like even for experienced birders, it is not very easy to tell the two species apart. One of the best guides that I found for identifying the two species can be found on the Sibley Guides website. I particularly like the drawing on this page that compares the head of the Trumpeter to that of the Tundra. David Sibley focuses on what he calls “bill-shape field marks”, and this certainly what was most helpful for me as I went through my photos and tried to identify them. I also spent a lot of time on the Trumpeter Swan Society‘s page. They have a Swan and Goose Identification Brochure that is very informative and it is printable.


Two Tundra Swans in a field not far from Montezuma NWR 11-24-12
  • There is a small yellow spot on the bill, in front of the eye for 90% of Tundra Swans. In the above picture you can see this on the front bird (looking left), while it can’t easily be seen in the back bird (in other photos of the back bird, it can be seen but only very faintly). The remaining 10% percent have all black bills – just like Trumpeter Swans.
  • When seen in profile, the bill has a slight curve to it and the connection from the bill to the eye is slight; it almost comes to a point. The bird on the left in the above photo illustrates both aspects nicely.
  • When viewed head-on or top-down, where the bill meets the head and connects the eyes is rounded. I did not get a photo from this angle, so click here for photos by Mike Cooper that illustrate this view.
  • The shape of the head – the Tundra has a more rounded head that rises up a bit at the crown. The slope of Trumpeter crown more closely matches bill slope.


Trumpeter Swan with a wing tag. I reported this bird to the USGS Bird Banding Lab.
  • All black bill that is a bit larger in proportion the head as compared to the Tundra Swan.
  • When seen in profile, the bill appears pretty straight and where the bill meets the eye is a heavier connection. Most of my photos are in profile and for me this was very helpful.
  • When viewed head-on or top-down, where the bill meets the head and connects the eyes is pointed. You can see this a bit in my photo below, or you can click here for the photos by Mike Cooper that illustrate this view.
  • The shape of the head – the crown of the Trumpeter Swan’s head more closely matches the slope of the bill. The back of the head is not rounded like the Tundra’s, rather it drops off more sharply.
Trumpeter Swan at Puddler Marsh, Montezuma NWR 11-24-12.
Trumpeter Swans or Tundra Swans?
  • Identifying these birds in flight is another matter! If I had to guess for the above birds, I would say they are Trumpeter Swans – for two reasons. 1 – if I zoom in on the heads of these birds it looks like there is a substantial connection between the bill and the eye. 2 – I read somewhere in the past couple of days that you are more likely to see Trumpeters in small groups like this and Tundra Swans are likely to be in larger groups of 20 or so birds.

Oh, and we did also get to see some Snow Geese. All were at a great distance, but they were so beautiful to see:

Snow Geese fly over Montezuma NWR 11-24-12.


The Trumpeter Swan Society – Website

The Sibley Guide – Website

The Crossley Guide

iBird Pro – iPhone Application


Jones Beach – Unplanned Birding 11-18-12


I’m, of course, still struggling with shorebird identification, but I am pretty sure that these are Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlin.

On Sunday afternoon, Tricia and I made an impromptu visit to Jones Beach. We were heading back to Goshen after celebrating my little sister’s 40th birthday at the Irish Times Pub in Holbrook, Long Island the night before. A skein of Brant flying over changed our plans in a hurry – I was really itching to do some birding. Tricia was on the phone with her sister at the time and she told us how to get to Jones Beach.

We had a really good afternoon of birding. We saw many species and were able to identify the following:

  • Canada Goose
  • Brant
  • Mallard
  • Greater Scaup
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-throated Loon
  • Common Loon
  • Norther Harrier
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Merlin
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Oystercatcher
  • Dunlin
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Mourning Dove
  • Norther Flicker
  • American Crow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mocking Bird
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red Crossbills
  • White-winged Crossbills
  • American Goldfinch

I had a pretty good day with the camera – I managed to get pretty good exposures on almost all my photographs. I have thought about it and I think there are a couple of reasons. The first is that the light was pretty steady, there were no clouds moving through or anything else to change the light significantly. The second is that I think I am getting better at making the proper adjustments. I was also making adjustments as I photographed certain birds, getting several shots that were lighter as well as some darker ones.

It really was a very exciting day of birding, I am having trouble deciding on my highlight.  It was a lot of fun to bird in a different location because we got to see so many birds that we don’t normally get to see. I am pretty sure that it is not anything special to see loons at Jones Beach, but it was a thrill for me. Same for the Brant. The Crossbills were very exciting too – life birds for me, but I think getting such a close look at the Merlin was probably my favorite part of the afternoon. Because we don’t get to see them very often,  Tricia’s highlight was seeing all the shorebirds as we walked along the beach.

I’m not much better with gulls…I think this is a juvenile Herring Gull. Please comment if you know!
We saw several Common Loons. This one was hunting very close to the shore, definitely as close as I’ve ever been to a loon.
A Common Loon in flight. Jones Beach 11-18-12
I really enjoyed seeing the Brant.
A puffed up Red-breasted Nuthatch.
It was so exciting seeing this Merlin – what a beautiful bird!
Red Crossbills at Jones Beach. There are a lot of birders and photographers around – when the crossbills landed in a good, close spot, an obnoxious photographer barreled over with his humungous lens and tripod and scared them off…
…fortunately, when we got back to the car the tree next to the car was filled with Red and White-winged Crossbills. This is a male White-winged Crossbill.
Female Red Crossbill at Jones Beach, 11-18-12.
Black-bellied Plovers and Dunlin in flight. Jones Beach 11-18-12.

A Week of Waterfowl

I have spent most of my birding time this week looking for waterfowl and swimming waterbirds. I made three visits out to 61/2 Station Road Sanctuary here in Goshen early in the week and did pretty well:

  • Canada Goose
  • Gadwall
  • Mallard
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Bufflehead
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • American Coot

Most of these birds were located in the small pond located south of the Heritage Trail. It is pretty difficult to get any good looks on this pond – there are many branches and brush blocking the view, plus the birds are pretty far away. I used my scope to get some good looks, but taking photos is tough.

This Double-crested Cormorant was extremely accommodating. Celery Farm 11-18-12.

I also made it out to the Celery Farm a couple days after work. I did pretty well there, seeing more Canada Geese and Mallards, my first Hooded Mergansers of the fall, a Ruddy duck and Northern Shoveler. I also scored with a Double-crested Cormorant that posed nicely for me.

Also located near my work in Bergen County NJ,  The Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve seemed like a good place to search for waterbirds moving through. I made it out there two afternoons after work and I was not disappointed:


  • Canada Goose
  • Gadwall
  • Mallard
  • American Wigeon
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • American Coot



I had a little bonus while I was out there – a GREEN HERON! It is definitely unusual to see a Green Heron in Bergen county at this time of the year, and eBird considers it a rare bird right now. It certainly caught me by surprise but I was able to snap a photo as it flew off:

An unusual sighting – a GREEN HERON in mid November. Franklin Lakes Nature Reserve.

Finally, on Saturday I went out to Swan Lake in Sullivan County NY with my birding buddy Karen Miller. I want to thank John Haas for giving us the lay of the land – it really helped out and we had a great morning of birding. Highlights for me were several Lesser Scaup which is a life bird for me (thanks John for help with the ID!) and also seeing over 100 Common Mergansers (my first of the fall). I was finally able to get some waterfowl photos:

This is the closest I’ve ever been to a Ruddy Duck. Swan Lake 11-17-18
We watched this Bufflehead fly in and I was able to snap a few photos.
A Ruddy Duck and a Lesser Scaup at Swan Lake 11-17-12
Two of many Common Mergansers out at Swan Lake.
Lesser Scaup. Swan Lake 11-17-12.

Fall Birding Photos


Red-tailed Hawk at Wallkill River NWR 11-4-12.
A close-up of the same hawk – this bird was perched on a wire and was extremely accommodating.
My first Dark-eyed Junco of the season. Shawangunk Grasslands 10-27-12.
I played a hunch and stopped at the parking lot of a cafe on route 207 north of Goshen. It payed off with this adult Bald Eagle in the field across the street.
This might be my favorite photo of the year. Ruddy Duck at Kiamesha Lake 10-27-12.
This Golden-crowned Kinglet was very cooperative on my first visit to the Wood Duck Trail at the Wallkill River NWR 11-4-12.