Monthly Archives: April 2017

Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Hooded Warbler, and Other April Rarities thanks to this Storm.

While outdoor enthusiasts, those with yardwork to do, Zane at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and many others bemoaned the coastal storm that made for inclement weather from Tuesday through Friday morning, birders from the Mid-Atlantic to Nova Scotia were gearing up.

With the large (if not overall strong) area of low pressure riding up the Atlantic seaboard in late April when numerous species are now on the move, “Rarity Fever” symptoms were reported widely. As if recent “Megas” like Vermillion Flycatcher and Fieldfare here in Maine weren’t enough to stoke the fire, friends in Cape May began posting their “wish list” of possibilities. Storms such as these, sometimes called “slingshot” events can deposit birds further north than usual, facilitate the arrival of record-early migrants, and perhaps produce some astounding vagrant.

This far north, I simply had daydreams of southern “overshoots” that occur in most years – but especially following such storm systems – such as Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and Hooded Warbler. But I also started thinking about things from further afield like Swainson’s Warbler, all sorts of terns, and maybe even something from even further away like a South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher who overshot its goal and then got caught up in the system. Maybe a Magnificent Frigatebird? Or perhaps something else on one of my predictions lists for next birds for Maine, and myself.

While weather isn’t truly the ultimate cause of many vagrants, it certainly facilities their arrival in far-flung places. And weather can certainly impact migrants and displace them slightly further afield than they usually range. And storms like this, moving out of the Bahamas, strengthening in the South Atlantic Bight, and marching up the coast has quite a history of producing some great birding. (I wrote more in depth about some of these factors and causes of vagrancy in Chapter 4 of my first book, How to Be a Better Birder).

Here are the wind maps and surface maps from Tuesday through Thursday.
surface map, 4-25-17
wind map, 4-25-17

surface map, 4-26-17
wind map, 4-26-17

surface map, 4-27-17
wind map, 4-27-17

So, I cleared my schedule, kept an eye on the listserves to our south during the rain on Wednesday, and hit the field on Thursday, starting at Biddeford Pool. A few years ago, one similar (but stronger) storm system yielded a Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded Warbler in the neighborhood, and I had similar hopes for this morning.

I got really excited when one of the first birds I saw was a Magnolia Warbler (very early, perhaps by as much as 10-14 days!). Surprisingly, it was the ONLY warbler I saw all morning, and its early arrival is undoubtedly related to the storm. My first House Wrens were right about on schedule, however, and my first Veery was only marginally early.

However, in the same yard on Third Street, and loosely associating with said Veery, was not a bird I expected at all! In fact, I have a rule that I like to instill on my birdwalk participants: if it’s April in Maine and you see a dark-spotted Catharus thrush, it IS a Hermit Thrush. This was the exception to the rule.

There’s no doubt it was either a Gray-cheeked or a Bicknell’s Thrush, but those birds can be very challenging to ID. Generally very secretive in migration, getting good looks – let alone good photos – is often impossible. And neither is expected to be walking around front yards in a neighborhood!

It is also incredibly early, as neither of these species is usually detected in Maine (if at all, especially Gray-cheeked) until the third week of May, and sometimes not until even later. This was beyond early, and certainly suggests its arrival here was at least partially influenced by the storm system.

The overall cool gray appearance without any hints of reddish-brown anywhere (no matter what light angle I viewed it in) immediately suggested Gray-cheeked Thrush, but the date and circumstances warranted careful study. I even posted the photos online, sent them directly to friends, and added them to at least one forum, hoping for additional feedback.

However, other than the seemingly “dumpy” shape of the bird, nothing here suggests Bicknell’s Thrush to me. There’s just nothing warm anywhere in this bird’s plumage, and the cheeks are finally streaked gray, not more even washed warmish-brown as in most Bicknell’s. There’s no contrast within the wings, or especially between the uppertail and the rump, either.

Although this bird’s bill is fairly extensively pale, it isn’t as bright yellow as many Bicknell’s – although I can admit to not really being a fan of this fieldmark – and even has a hint of pinkish.

In other words, as several commenters mentioned, this really looks like a “classic” Gray-cheeked Thrush, with perhaps the appearance of a smaller size and more compact shape suggestive of the subspecies minimus that breeds mostly in Newfoundland and Labrador (it’s also the subspecies whose breeding range makes the most geographical sense to appear in Maine in spring). Of course, without measurements or vocalizations, there is still a little tinge of doubt in coming to a conclusive identification.

Now, a Bicknell’s Thrush, wintering somewhere in the northern West Indies or perhaps Cuba, beginning its trek to the mountains of the northeast, could have been entrained or “slingshot” by this storm. In fact, it would make a lot of sense. But Gray-cheeked Thrushes winter mainly in northern South America, and head north through Central America. That route would not seem to be effected by this storm. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, and the storm was only a proximate cause of its arrival in Biddeford Pool.

Anyway, elsewhere in Maine, a White-eyed Vireo was in Cape Elizabeth (present through Friday) and a Summer Tanager was reported in Southwest Harbor. Early migrants included a Scarlet Tanager in Ogunquit and one found deceased in Cape Elizabeth, along with a few scattered Indigo Buntings as far inland as North Yarmouth.

Meanwhile, to our south, birders in Cape May had a White Ibis (and, even more excitingly, a –our!? – Little Egret, a first state record that may not have anything to do with the storm); a Red Phalarope and a smattering of birds just beyond their normal range, such as Summer Tanager, were in Manhattan, and a Kentucky and Yellow-throated Warbler were on Cape Cod among some of the widespread reports of “early” migrant arrivals.

During the day on Thursday, the low pressure system continued to weaken and dissipate over the Gulf of Maine, with a snotty easterly and drizzly onshore flow continuing. A weak, slow-moving cold front finally cleared things out mid-day on Friday.
surface map, 4-28-17
wind map, 4-28-17

In the dense fog on Bailey Island in Harpswell early Friday morning, I found pockets of migrants (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows) but also several surprises, led by 1 male Hooded Warbler and a White-eyed Vireo, both along Elden Point Road – the kind of southern “overshoots” we have come to expect here in Maine from these type of storms.

There were quite a few other migrants around, as well. A total of 9 Blue-headed Vireos included a flock of 6 together, and there were scattered other migrants such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and Savannah Sparrows.

An early Yellow Warbler was also present, as were marginally-early (based on the current progress of the season) included 1 Common Yellowthroat and 1 Great-crested Flycatcher, while other personal FOY’s included more on-time Black-and-white Warbler (7) and Ovenbird (1-2). 11 Palm Warblers were my seventh species of warbler on the morning (plus Pine Warblers singing at home).

Elsewhere, another Hooded Warbler was found at Timber Point in Biddeford, and smattering of other early migrants included a Warbling Vireo on the Eastern Promenade (where a goodly number of birds were reported in the fog this morning)

I can only imagine what might have been found if every peninsula and island was covered over the past few days! So, with more birders hitting the field this weekend, and more people home from work to check on their feeders, I wonder what will be found. Maybe a Painted Bunting at a feeder? A Purple Gallinule in a marsh? But you know what I would like the most? A Swallow-tailed Kite over Bradbury Mountain during my hawkwatch workshop as part of the annual Feathers Over Freeport events!

Clement, Peter. 2000. Thrushes. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

FIELDFARE in Newcastle (and a rare April case of Rarity Fever!)

Last week was an incredible week in Maine birding. First up was the state’s first Vermillion Flycatcher that appeared on Hog Island on Monday the 17th. While it was #15 on my list of “Next New Birds for Maine,” HOW it was discovered defied imagination: it was seen by on observer watching the Hog Island Osprey Cam, as the black-and-scarlet little bird sallied for insects from the platform. Simply incredible.

Then on Wednesday, a long overdue(#10 on my predictions list) Fieldfare was discovered in Sheepscot Village in Newcastle. No, it wasn’t within a flock of thousands of wandering American Robins of the subspecies/clinal extreme from Newfoundland, it was in a front yard with a handful of “normal” robins. And Jeff Cherry saw it on his way to work.

I have been very busy of late with the new book, spring business at the store, the peak of the flight at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch, the obligatory spring yardwork, and all of those usual things in life, plus – and most importantly and distractingly – our dog’s failing health. With Jeannette running the Boston Marathon on Monday, chasing the Vermillion fly wasn’t in the cards for me. Neither was skipping out on the 7,000 seed delivery on Wednesday morning when the Fieldfare was found.

But when the bird was reported again at 2:30pm, I dropped what I was doing and raced up to Newcastle. I spent a couple of hours unsuccessfully looking for the bird. A Vesper Sparrow was a small consolation prize.

Now, I don’t chase very often, but a first state record within an hour’s drive is usually fair game. And I really like Fieldfares. And I’ve wanted to see one in Maine (or anywhere else in North America) for a long time. I’ve daydreamed about finding one as I searched through wintering robin flocks in orchards or migrants passing Sandy Point in late fall or Bradbury Mountain in the spring.

While it was not seen on Thursday, but I made a dumb decision of heading inland to look for a possible waterbird fallout. There was no such waterbird fallout. My first of year Ruddy Ducks at Sabattus Pond and a singing Louisiana Waterthrush at the Papermill Trail in Lisbon were the highlights. Not a Fieldfare.

My book release party was Thursday night, and I was down in Salem, Massachussetts for a book signing and presentation to the Essex County Ornithological Club on Friday night.  The Fieldfare was refound on Friday afternoon.

During a wet and dreary – but fairly productive, actually – birdwalk on Saturday morning, the Fieldfare was reported again, and it continued to be reported for regular intervals throughout the day. And as the cold and rainy day tempered business in the afternoon, Jeannette says “you should probably go” despite having plans to chase it with friends on Sunday.

So I went. And after a mere fifteen minutes, it popped out into the open. FIELDFARE!

In addition to being my 375th species in Maine (although it just fell out of the top 25 of my personal next birds in Maine), it was a new “ABA-area” bird for me. This was a good one.  I spent an hour watching it for a few minutes at a time, as it hopped between a copse of dense scrub and young trees and a mowed field, foraging with a small group of American Robins for a few minutes before disappearing again into the brush.

After about an hour, a total of 24 American Robins flew up from various corners of the fields and into the tops of some nearby Red Maples, where it lingered for about 5-10 minutes before flying off towards the center of town.

Drizzle, fog, and distance precluded very good photos, but I did Facebook Live the sighting for about 30 seconds…just because.
Of course, I was semi-responsible as I headed back to work, while a few other folks relocated the bird much closer to the road in the village. Oh well, I still had Sunday morning.

Terez Fraser, John Lorenc, Erin Walter and I drove east and met up with Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist, and about 50 other fellow birders. It was not being seen, so people were beginning to split up and check other areas, besides the fields across the pond from 611 Sheepscot Road, where the bird was most often seen (including by me in the previous day).  So the 6 of us began to mosey down a promising side road, and as we strolled back to the corner, we saw the crowds were on the move.

It was seen in roughly the same spot (other side of the island of trees between the fields on the other side of the pond), but most people had scattered by now, so only a lucky few saw it (and apparently saw it pretty well). Unfortunately, it had disappeared into the larger island of trees by the time we got to the edge of the pond.

So we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. At least it was nice out.

Then a couple of hours later, it was spotted in the leaf litter within the dense, young woods. It was glimpsed by many, frustratingly missed by others, and seen well by no one over the course of about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, I had to force my carpool to depart (although we were all very much ready for lunch by then) to head back to the store for a meeting, which was frustrating to me as I had to pull my friends (only 2/3rds of which had unsatisfying glimpses) away from the stakeout. I was also the genius who suggested we walk first and caused us to miss that initial, decent observation. Well at least we had a great lunch at the Montsweag Roadhouse!  (And yeah, I did see it decently at one point, but not like I wanted).

But such is birding life.

More frustrating to me is the selfish birder who decided to walk down through the woods, opposite the group of more than 50 patient people, pishing (which thrushes don’t respond to, by the way) as he went. At one point, when the bird was coming out in the open, people could see this dumbass through their scopes, and he clearly flushed the bird back into the deeper depths…where it was not, as of at least 3:00pm that day, seen again.

While one might be able to argue he pushed the bird into our view, it seemed tough to argue that he didn’t directly ruin the opportunity for it to come out into an open edge for all to see, including those who had driven in from several states away. Of course, we all know who it was, and we all know how selfish some birders can be. And frankly, if there was one prick in the state of Maine who would act this way, it would be that guy. Thanks, buddy.

Anyway, we had a beer at Montsweag and that made me feel a little better.

Moving on…

So in the course of about a week, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in East Machias (also on Monday morning), a Vermillion Flycatcher in Bremen, and a friggin’ Fieldfare in Newcastle. I feel a bit hamstrung right now to hit the field as hard as I like to find out what else might be out there. Perhaps I’ll find the next one tomorrow…

Townsend’s Solitaire at Bradbury Mountain!

It was a very good day up at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, sponsored by Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Leica Sport Optics. The 2017 Official Counter, Zane Baker, had the day off today, so I was the counter for the first half of the day. Jeannette took the second shift, and were it not for Sasha’s declining health, I definitely would have remained until day’s end. We were having too much fun!

With light southwesterly winds aloft (and light and variable at the surface), record warmth, and perfect timing, we knew it was going to be a big day. Zane could not stay away, and Katrina Fenton, the 2012 through 2014 Official Counter, was visiting from New Hampshire. Several other local birders were present as well, as were hawkwatchers from New Hampshire and Mid-coast Maine. After a slow, somewhat chilly start, the day, and the hawkwatch began to heat up.

At approximately 11:10, I spotted a Black Vulture soaring over Hedgehog Mountain. It was low and relatively close, affording prolonged scope views for over five minutes before it drifted away to the north or northeast. Several personal first-of-years included 7 Northern Flickers, 1 Barn Swallow, and 3 Yellow-rumped Warblers. 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet were also first of the season for the count site.  We also had a steady trickle of migrant Tree Swallows, along with a smattering of other passerine migrants. Later in the day, two Sandhill Cranes (our 6th and 7th of the season) also passed overhead.

A steady light flow of raptors was adding up, too. 209 were tallied when I departed at 1:00, led by 59 American Kestrels and 37 Broad-winged Hawks, but a decent total of 11 species in all. (A goodly 361 was our final tally by day’s end).

Sure, we had a little rarity fever on our minds, especially after the Black Vulture (downright expected on such conditions in early to mid-April), but all hell broke loose at 12:18pm EDT. 

Then, a medium-small passerine came flying towards us, moderately high, and suggestive of an Eastern Bluebird with a thrush-like flight and shape. But as I lingered on it, I realized it was definitely not a bluebird – its flight was faster, steadier, and it was solidly colored. It also seemed a little larger and longer. It was backlit by the sun, it was coming right at me, but it was looking odd. 

As it got closer, I said “get on this passerine…Katrina, get your camera!” as she was closer to her long lens than I was to my superzoom. As it passed right overhead, still a little backlit, I yell, “TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE!”

A slim bodied, long-tailed, thrush-like bird passed overhead, with a screaming wide, bold, and buffy stripe through the near-center of the wing (obviously known to be the base of the flight feathers).

As it flew over, then headed straight away, it was finally getting into better light. And it looked gray. Quite gray. As I was calling for it to “turn, turn!” Katrina was unable to find it in the viewfinder, so switched to bins. Zane got on it, as did a couple of other birders, including Don Thompson.

Unfortunately, it did not turn, and I never saw the upperwing. I also never got a real handle on the tail, beyond silhouette.

I don’t think we had really clinched the ID yet, even though I knew it had to be a Townsend’s Solitaire. Only the Catharus thrushes share that wide and distinct buffy wing stripe, which I will address in the notes below.

I stepped aside, turning over the watch to Zane, and wrote two pages of field notes. Only then did I consult a Sibley, and I discussed the bird with others, especially Katrina who was the only other person it saw it fairly well in binoculars.

  • Bold, buff wingstripe obvious, from based of inner secondaries to end, or nearly so, of outer primaries. Wide and fairly even throughout.
  • With sun behind it, it first looked all-dark, with little to no contrast (actually thought of a blackbird at first), but got lighter as it passed roughly overhead, distinctly solid gray as it went straight away. But it was never in perfect light.
  • First impression was of a thin tail, which it may have then partially opened at one point, but as it was going away, no detail was seen (i.e. overall color or white fringes).
  • Only other possibility was a Catharus thrush, but that seems even less likely to be overhead at 12:18pm on April 11th in Maine. While Hermit Thrushes are just now arriving, and we do occasionally see “morning redetermined migration” throughout the day (e.g. some Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, along with at least one surprisingly high Eastern Phoebe today), Catharus thrushes usually don’t reorient, and if they do (at least at Sandy Point in the fall), it’s immediately after sunrise.
  • Question: could the back-lighting have made the wingstripe look wider and bolder from below? From my experience at Sandy Point, when in fact a Catharus does go overhead, that wingstripe is obvious, but it is not as obvious as in this bird. And of course, no lightening scenario would make a brown bird look cool gray.
  • Tail seemed long, and the body especially seemed too slim for a Catharus. It did not have a broad chest or pot-bellied appearance, as it was uniformly more tubular (even slimmer than a bluebird). Smaller and much skinnier than a Wood Thrush, yet larger and longer than a Veery, we of course went to Hermit Thrush as a fallback (due to seasonal status; but see discussion below).
  • Upperwing not seen. Tail pattern not deciphered.


– Katrina: “When I finally got on it (in bins; heading away but now in the best light we had it) it did not look brown at all, and definitely appeared gray.” Zane also thought it looked gray, not brown.

– Katrina thought the tail looked long, body slim and not pot-bellied like a Catharus. And she reviewed my notes with no additional comments or edits.

– We then consulted Sibley Guide to Eastern Birds (2nd edition): Underwing coverts not obviously pale as in Hermit Thrush, wing pattern of solitaire only similar to Swainson’s or Gray-cheeked Thrush/Bicknell’s Thrush. Of course, what would one of those species be doing here now, and flying overhead in the middle of the day? Even if a vagrant/pioneering individual of one of those species wintered far north of usual range, why would it be in flight in the middle of the day? But Townsend’s Solitaires are on the move about now, and do migrate diurnally (like bluebirds).

The light was simply not perfect, and we were unable to get photos, so we carefully discussed the bird. With several birders of various levels of experience around us, we took this as a “teaching moment” to go through the process and exemplify the caution needed to make a call of a rarity under less than ideal circumstances.  But through the process of elimination, we simply cannot come to any alternative conclusions. It was too gray, too slim, and too out of place for a Catharus thrush; we could not figure out how the lighting or the view could have resulted in a solidly-gray undersides with little noticeable contrast (definitely no spots!). Also, I’ll fallback a bit on my initial excited call of Townsend’s Solitaire.

While we would have loved a longer and closer look in better light (or a brief alightment on a nearby tree!), and of course a photo, it is impossible for me to believe this was anything other than a Townsend’s Solitaire, a rare but regular vagrant to the Northeast. This was a new record for the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and the park in general. And it might very well go down as the bird of the season.