Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birders Search for the Elusive Thrushes
June 16, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     There are five thrushes, besides robins and bluebirds, that occur regularly in Massachusetts each year. Of the five, wood thrush, hermit thrush, veery and Swainson’s thrush nest in the state. The gray-cheeked thrush is an uncommon migrant that passes through each spring and fall. I didn’t even see a gray-cheeked thrush all of last year and I have yet to see one this year.

     A sixth thrush, the Bicknell’s thrush, was once a subspecies of the gray-cheeked thrush. It has a different song, but it is otherwise hard to differentiate from the gray-cheeked thrush, though it is now considered a separate species. It is a bird of higher elevation and used to nest on Mt. Greylock in western Massachusetts. That is where I saw and heard it more than thirty years ago. For whatever reason, perhaps global warming, this bird hasn’t been confirmed nesting in this state since.

     Margo and I took friends from California up to Mt. Washington in northern New Hampshire to find the Bicknell’s thrush on its nesting grounds this past weekend. We took a guided van tour up the mountain and saw and heard several of these thrushes. It was a life bird for everyone but me. Margo’s pictures of this thrush can be seen at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/7370355630.

     Still, we struggle to see the migrant gray-cheeked thrush each year. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares that quest, and he relates the recent success that he had with this bird on Plum Island:

     “It was one of those moments that we wait for and plan for and usually comes upon us as a sudden surprise. I was on Plum Island this morning and was just starting back down the boardwalk at Hellcat; back from the old blind. It had been a pretty eventful day for a morning in June and I was looking and listening for more; but I wasn’t prepared for what suddenly appeared right in the middle of boardwalk, not ten feet away.

     “There was a bird, right before me; as startled as I was, but seemingly unafraid. Immediately I could see that it was a dingy, dark catharus thrush. It was a dark gray brown which immediately eliminated Veery and when it turned its head I could see that there was no distinct eye ring and the facial pattern, such as it was was gray. Not a Swainson’s . Could it be?…

     “The thrush was most cooperative and just stood there, before turning to snap up some luckless bug and then, with its back to me, halted again. There was not even a trace of reddish in the tail. This bird was a uniform gray-brown; this bird was a Gray-cheeked Thrush. The first one I had seen in seven years; only the second on I had ever seen on Plum Island. For some Gray-cheeked Thrush may be an annual tick on the old list; for me it was a special treat; capping a really good day.

     “Not a half hour earlier I had seen and heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; also on the Hellcat trail. I had been sort of looking for Yellow-bellied but considered my chances to be long. My experience is that Yellow-bellieds are birds found in the last week in May. In fact I had seen one in June only twice in my thirty years of birding. And the handful I have seen in the fall, on their return trip.

     “The rest of the birding day was generally, and surprisingly good. Tom Wetmore and I had two Seaside Sparrows and four Saltmarsh Sparrows, early in the morning, in the salt marshes between parking lot #2 and the Pans. One of the Seaside’s was extraordinarily cooperative; standing up on a low mound of rack; giving us both of its songs; displaying for what seemed a half hour.

     “There were two Blackpolls and a Black-throated green Warbler stubborn holdouts from May, at Hellcat. The locals were very evident and in large numbers. I heard a Least bittern calling and calling from the cattail marshes, but, alas, have yet to see one. The same marshes were brimming with Marsh Wrens, pugnacious and incessant. I counted eleven Willow flycatchers and at least thirty Yellow Warblers. That was thirty that I could hear and see. One might speculate with wonder how many Yellow warblers had taken up housekeeping on the entire island.

     “The only thing that was missing was shorebirds. Considering the shorebirds of the previous few days this was a little perplexing. Two days ago there were over a hundred Semipalmated Sandpipers, a dozen or so White-rumps and a scattering of Dunlin and Plovers were in the Bill Forward Pool alone. Today there was only a single Spotted Sandpiper and a lone Greater Yellowlegs. It was high tide so they weren’t out in the flats. They must have moved on.

     “First week in June I expected to find things a little subdued and although it didn’t compare with mid May, it was a pleasant surprise. Birding is a constant wonder.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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