Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Bird Visits Small New Hampshire Town
March 19, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     When is a redwing not a redwing? When it is a Redwing, of course! Confused? Please let me explain:

     As you may know, the first avian signs of spring have arrived. Robins, bluebirds, killdeer, woodcock, phoebes, grackles and, of course, red-winged blackbirds have been seen over the past weeks. I have received numerous phone calls, photos and even videos regarding flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds. On the Massbird and NHBirds listserves that I monitor, folks like to post when they see their first of these birds for the year. So there are numerous posts about “first-of-year” red-winged blackbirds, often called “redwings” for short, this time of year.

     Margo and I were at the Mass Audubon Birder’s Meeting this past Sunday with a table set up in their vendor area. When the morning lectures were in session, few people would wander the vendor area and it was fairly quiet. During that time, I would occasionally check my email to see what was happening in the “real world.” I saw a couple of posts on NHBirds with redwing in the subject line, so I scrolled right past those hoping that there would be something more exciting found out there. Little did I know.

     Then birding friend, Steve Arena, came by the table with phone in hand and a serious look on his face. Have you heard about the redwing in New Hampshire? At that instant, I knew exactly what he meant, even before he put the photo that was on his phone in front of me. It was not a blackbird at all, but a Redwing, a thrush from Iceland and northern Eurasia! It is a bird never recorded in New Hampshire, or Massachusetts for that matter.

     The photo left no doubt. It was a flight shot of the bird showing bold stripes on a clear breast, white eyeline, red flanks and red under the wings. It was all very diagnostic and it was clearly not a robin. It was found that morning by Chris McPherson, discovered among hundreds, maybe thousands of robins feeding on the ball fields of the Hollis-Brookline High School.

     And so the dilemma began, as it does for many a birder – obligation versus a rare bird. Hollis was only about an hour away. If we waited until tomorrow, school would be in session and the field may be in use. How long would such a bird stay? I even looked for the quickest route on my iPhone maps to get there.

     I checked the NHBirds listserve again and the latest post said that the bird flew off, had not been refound and that there was a ball game in session! Our hopes were dashed a bit and the need for a hasty departure lessened. We would wait and see if the bird is seen again.

     After the busy lunchtime onslaught of attendees through the vendor area, we checked again and there was eventually a positive post that the Redwing had been seen once again. By mid afternoon other vendors started to pack up and we did the same. We headed straight to New Hampshire. 

     When we arrived a little after four o’clock , there were about thirty birders (I expected more) spread out and looking in all directions. It was obvious that no one was “on” the bird. In talking with some of our New Hampshire friends, the Redwing was last seen briefly about an hour prior to our arrival. It was feeding with robins on one of the three ball fields. 

     As we walked around, there were hundreds of robins feeding everywhere. They were on all three ball fields, on a large soccer field/track area, and on a large open field area near a residential area behind the school. In addition, robins were feeding on sumac, berries and crabapples in all the thickets that lined the fields and the roads. They all kept moving around from the fields to the shrubs to the trees and back to the fields. Finding one bird among them was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

     I was the only one using a scope, but is helped me get a closer look at each bird in order to see detail. As we stood along a fence with several other birds peering onto a ball field I heard the birder next to me exclaim, “I see it! There it is!” He had everyone rushing toward us. He tried to describe where the bird was that he was seeing. With so many robins on so much grass, he finally used some background landmarks to get us in the area. In my scope, I could see that his bird that he was seeing was a pale robin. It did have some white near the eye, but the breast was not streaked and had some red on it. I told him it was a robin, but it took a long time for him to hear me in all his excitement. He wasn’t convinced until he looked through the scope.

     This incident repeated itself with another birder in another field. He yelled that he was looking at the bird, which eventually turned out to be a pale robin, partially leucistic with extra white even on the back. The power of suggestion is strong in these situations, and one has to be careful to scrutinize the detail.

     After almost three hours of searching and no one finding the Redwing, we were pretty much resolved to call it quits for the day and, hopefully, try another day. Many birders had left and the robins were departing as well. They were starting to flock in trees and then head off to wherever they roost at night. We tried to look at each one as they went up into the trees, but the sun was dimming and we had looked at just so many robins!

     As we walked down the road, we did take another look at a relatively low tree next to the road where robins were gathering. Suddenly I heard Margo say “Ooh, ooh, this is it! I see it! “ In a panic, as she wanted me to collaborate it, she described the location of the bird relative to the other robins in the center of the tree and I found the Redwing quickly. Luckily it was facing us. I put it in the scope, even though it was only 100 feet away, and I could clearly see the bold stripes on the clear breast, red flanks and the distinct eyeline of the Redwing when it turned its head. Margo looked through the scope for a closer view and smiled. 

     We motioned to a couple of birders further down the road, but the robins in this tree were already starting to fly off. The Redwing climbed to the edges of the tree and also flew off into the evening sky. It was a brief but convincing look. Unfortunately no one else got to see it this time. 

     The bird continues to draw hundreds of birders from all over well into the week. The small town of Hollis, New Hampshire probably doesn’t know what to make of it. A small number of lucky birders have seen the bird – lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I know of several that have tried more than once and did not see it. We are hoping to go back for a longer look and, hopefully, a photo!

     And I now read the posts on the list serves a little more carefully these days!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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