What Is That … Teenage Bird?

Waddells

Generally at the cottage, we refer to immature birds as teenagers, partly because they have not come into their own yet and can be difficult to identify.  Their plumage, body shape and size are different from the ‘fuzzball’ chick phase they have recently outgrown and the characteristic adults they have yet to become.  Accordingly, we thought it might be fun to identify and show some of the teenage birds we see around our cottage at White Lake.

Most people are familiar with robin redbreast, the American robin.  The adults have dark grey plumage on their backs, brick red on their breasts (the females being slightly paler red than the males), and a white ring around their eyes.  Teenage robins also have a greyish back but they have grey speckles over their pale rust and white-coloured breasts and a patch of white around their eyes, not an eye ring.  While you might think this picture shows a sick robin, it is a healthy teenager photographed in September.

We have been enthralled for several summers watching for bald eagles while we are canoeing and kayaking.  Adult bald eagles develop their distinctive white head and tail and brown body plumage during their fourth year.  Immature bald eagles have dark brown plumage all over and dark beaks during their first year.  During the second and third years their plumage develops whitish flecks including a whitish breast.  Eventually the head and tail become mostly white and the body and wings become dark brown. Other changes from teenager to adult include the beak and eyes changing from dark to yellow and the shape of the wing changing from broader and blunter to longer and more aerodynamic.  This immature bald eagle, likely two or three years old, was photographed in late August just after it scooped up a fish.

Every spring we enjoy watching adult loons with their distinctive black back with white speckles, black heads and necks with a white necklace, and white breasts and red eyes, as they float, preen and dive for fish in front of our cottage.  Successful breeding pairs are soon accompanied by balls of fluff that range from brown to dark grey.  In preparation for the fall migration, the immature loons grow flight plumage that is dark on their back and whitish on their breast.  With this plumage and their dark-coloured eyes, teenagers look very different from their parents. This teenage common loon was photographed in our bay after several practice runs trying to get air born in late September.

The last few years we have been fortunate to spot individual, and on one occasion three, trumpeter swans taking a brief rest on White Lake during their spring and fall migration.  These swans are larger than the Canada geese that spend their summers at White Lake.  The plumage of adult trumpeter swans is all-white and they have a long all-black bill. Teenage swans are noticeably different from adults as they sport gray-brown plumage into their first summer, as displayed by this teenager who was photographed in early June.

We regularly see female wood ducks; less frequently we see females with their young; and, only occasionally do we see the brightly coloured male wood ducks during our summers at the cottage. We have seen adults and juveniles floating in the water as well as adults perched in trees where they nest.  Plumage of adult female wood ducks is generally a dull brown colour with an iridescent purple-coloured speculum or wing patch; a dark-crested head; and, a distinctive tear-shaped white eye patch.  Teenage wood duck plumage is also dull brown but they lack a white eye ring.  One easy way to identify these teenagers is to spot them swimming with their mother as we did in this late June scene of an adult female, in the foreground, surrounded by her clutch of teenagers.

Similar to some humans, the teenage phase of some birds results in individuals who are very different and sometimes unrecognizable from both their new born and their adult phases.   While this poses short term challenges to novice birders (which includes us), identifying teenagers gives an indication of what species we are likely to see next breeding season at the cottage.

We relied on the following three field guides in preparing this article: Bill Thompson’s Identify Yourself The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges; David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; and, Roger Tory Peterson’s Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.