Please identify this bird.
March 23, 2015 6:20 PM   Subscribe

Sorry no pics, but it was so distinctive that I'm hoping you guys can help me. I'm in Portland, OR, and saw it last week in a large park. It was a perching bird, about 6", and was either on the ground flipping over leaves or perching about eye-level in the small trees. It let me get quite close, and seemed more curious than wary.

It was almost entirely black, with tiny rows of white flecks on the covert feathers (upper wings). It had dark rust-colored eyes, a small bushy crest, and I'm pretty sure an insect-eating beak. Most notably, it had a long, slightly flared tail with two white spots on either side, at the end. The spots were visible only when it was flying or flicking its tail in some sort of display while perching. I think it had a raspy, one-note call, but I couldn't be sure as I never actually saw it at the same time as I heard the call.

I couldn't find ANYTHING like it in my Golden Field Guide's Birds of North America. It's vaguely similar to a Phainopepla, but the coloring and tail are wrong, and they don't make it this far north anyway. It's not a black Phoebe or an Oregon Towhee, either. Not a grackle or blackbird. Did not look like any corvid I've ever seen. Any ideas? Thank you!
posted by Specklet to Pets & Animals (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Stellar's Jay?
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:36 PM on March 23, 2015

Belted Kingfisher?
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:49 PM on March 23, 2015

I did a size/color/shape/bill search in my iBird app and the closest match was Phainopepla. As soon as I enter black as the dominant color and it has a crest, that is the only bird tha comes up. But it doesn't have tail spots. GAH.

Behavior-wise, it sounds like a towhee. But they don't have crests.

Another suggestion: check ebird entries for the days around your sighting, and do a yahoo group search for birding listservs in your area. I will keep thinking about this and poking at it. Caveat: I am not very good at passerines!
posted by rtha at 7:12 PM on March 23, 2015

Why are you convinced it wasn't the Oregon subspecies of Spotted Towhee? That sure sounds like the most likely possibility to me. The rust colored eyes, the black color with white flecks and spots, the behavior and habitat, and the call all match. Apparently towhees sometimes raise their head feathers in a crest, though I don't think I've ever seen that. It sounds like you didn't notice any rufous or white on the body, which you should have seen, but maybe the light or the viewing angle were wrong for you to see anything but black. And the impression you got of the beak doesn't fit a towhee, but you don't sound completely certain about that. I bet it was a Spotted Towhee.
posted by Redstart at 7:22 PM on March 23, 2015

I like how we have three bird-named mefites answering so far!
posted by rtha at 7:29 PM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

Here we have a discussion on the towhees of OR. If those don't look like your bird (and it'd have to be a really weird angle to miss the orange), that website looks like it could be helpful.
posted by theweasel at 7:33 PM on March 23, 2015

Silky Flycatcher?
posted by brbmaroon at 7:40 PM on March 23, 2015

I had what i determined (with spotty info) to be a Rufous-sided Towhee try to get in my apartment over two summers when I lived in western Washington. Your description sounds a lot like how my bird acted when it was hanging around.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:50 PM on March 23, 2015

I was just in Zion National Park last week and saw a Spotted Towhee with a crest. It completely baffled me because I didn't know they did that until I just read this thread.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:52 PM on March 23, 2015

Is this your guy?

posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:24 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pater most likely has it. Western rufous-sided towhee, quite common in Oregon. Distinctive in their behavior -- quite amusing as they go around kicking up leaves with their feet, trashing the place with an attitude.
posted by JackFlash at 9:43 PM on March 23, 2015

Response by poster: Not a Stellar's Jay (know those guys well) or a Kingfisher. Not a Silky Flycatcher, because that's a Phainopepla, and they really don't come this far north (it's highly unusual for them to make it to Southern Oregon, and that's 300 miles from here). I suppose it's possible, if not probable.

It really seems like it must have been a Towhee, but it was completely black on the sides and belly, no white or rufous sides, hence this question. I watched him (I assume it was a male) for about five minutes from about ten feet away in good morning light. Huh.
posted by Specklet at 10:27 PM on March 23, 2015

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