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Birds of El Paso County

Green-tailed Towhee


Last updated 10/6/2021 at 10:43am | View PDF

Fall migration is coming to an end! You will still see some of the bigger raptors and waterfowl migrating, but for the most part, all of the smaller migrating birds have moved on. All will be missed, but it's out with the old and in with the new. Spring and fall migration are my favorite times to spend in my backyard habitat. This fall did not disappoint me. I got a "lifer" to the habitat this year which always makes it more special. "Lifer" is a term used in birding when you see a specific bird species for the first time. It doesn't matter where you see it or if you get proof, it's just the fun of knowing you saw it. However, it's always more special when you are able to photograph a lifer. Being in the right place at the right time is all there is to it. This fall migration, I was in the right place at the right time to see my first Green-tailed Towhee.

Spring migration is usually the best time to see small migrating birds, especially when you live in or near the final destination of a species. Fall migration for me seems to be hit and miss for seeing many migrating birds in their habitat. The reason for this is simple: when a bird migrates to our area, they typically have a specific location they are headed back to. After days, weeks and even months of migrating, they look for food first and then start looking for the breeding area. Spring migrators may find a yard and stay a couple weeks before heading off to a breeding area. Fall migration, the birds just instinctively start to head south as the days get shorter and the nights get cooler. When the birds decide to leave, they may not make their first stop for a hundred miles or more. Therefore, it is less common to see migrating birds in the fall than in the spring. Every year, I get migrating birds in the spring that will stay as long as a month; in the fall, they are seldom are in my yard for more than a day.

Since migrating birds don't stay long in the fall, you need to be on your toes and ready. That was the case with the Green-tailed Towhee. Last month, as the fall migration was getting started, I was spending time in my yard photographing hummingbirds before they left. I have a dead aspen tree in the back of my yard that all birds stop at before coming into the yard. I spot most all of my migrating and even regular visitors in that tree before they come into the yard.

Oftentimes, I will have to get a picture of a bird with my big lens and then put the image on my computer to confirm its identity. The Green-tailed Towhee was no different. There are six different species of Towhees in North America. Abert's Towhee, California Towhee, Canyon Towhee, Eastern Towhee, Green-tailed Towhee and a Spotted Towhee. The most common to see in El Paso County is the Spotted Towhee. I have seen a number of Canyon Towhees in my yard in the spring and in the fall. Until last month, I had only ever seen Spotted and Canyon Towhees. While photographing hummingbirds one day last month, a bird landed in the dead aspen and I immediately thought it was a Canyon Towhee. Since I don't see them in my yard that often, I got excited that I might be able to get some good pictures of it. Like usual, I looked up "Canyon Towhee bird calls" on my phone and started playing them. I was able to get a couple of shots before it went low into the bushes. I looked at the viewing screen on my camera to see if any of the shots I got were any good. I was a bit shocked to see that it had some colors on it that I had never seen on a Canyon Towhee so I decided to search for some images to compare. Before that day, I had never even heard of the Green-tailed Towhee. After searching Canyon Towhee images and not seeing any with these colors on them, I searched to see if Canyon Towhees had any green on them. The first image to come up was a Green-tailed Towhee. I couldn't believe it. I was so excited about it that I immediately pulled up a Green-tailed Towhee call on my phone and started playing it. Within a couple of minutes, he stuck his head out of the bushes. Well, needless to say, you know where I spent the rest of that day.

Towhees are one of the largest members of the Sparrow family. The Green-tailed Towhee is the smallest of the six Towhees. The Green-tailed Towhee has deep olive color to yellow-green on the edges of the wings and tail. The chest is gray with a white throat and it tops off its beauty with a rufous colored crown. They spend their summers and breed in the West's shrubby mountainsides and sagebrush expanses. All Towhees can be hard to see and follow because they spend most of the time on the ground under bushes scratching at the leaves and cover, searching to find bugs and seed. They will occasionally pop out to look around or to send out a little chirp to the other Towhees. I spent hours just sitting by the bush I knew he was in and playing calls waiting for him to check on me. Playing calls and staying perfectly still, I managed to get a couple of these Towhees to come within a couple of feet from me. As little as these birds come out of the bushes, I wouldn't be surprised to know that I've had many visitors and just haven't seen them. They will migrate and spend the winter on the southern edges of the United States and into Mexico.

I am always looking up in the trees and in the sky for birds. Sometimes it pays to look at the ground. If you get birds in your yard or you hike trails looking for birds, spend some time looking to see what species you might find down low. If you see a bird and you are not sure what it is, shoot me a message and we can see if we can figure it out. Often times you don't need an image to identify a bird. Time, location, behavior and a general size can be all you need to ID a species.

Happy birding!

Facebook: Doug Harling / Email: [email protected]

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