Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Plum Island search for rare flycatcher
September 08, 2007
Steve Grinley

     As much as I enjoy traveling to find new birds, one of the benefits of living in this area is that sometimes rare birds show up in your “backyard.” Such was the case this past Thursday, when I received an early afternoon call that a Say’s phoebe, a western flycatcher, was found at 10 a.m. on Plum Island by Dan Logan of Watertown. I posted the bird on the Massbird list serve, but frustration set in as I could not leave work to chase this bird. This was reinforced by calls during the afternoon that the bird was still being seen. After work, Margo had driven from Cambridge, and we both headed down the island.

     We passed many familiar birders, who were heading off the island, presumably having seen the bird. When we got to the last known location near the new blind, we were two minutes late. The bird had just disappeared. We headed back to the dike behind Hellcat where the bird had been seen previously, and after much searching, I finally found the phoebe in the scope, about halfway down the dike. We watched the bird while other birders arrived, and soon we lost it once again.

     The sun was low in the sky, and we were not sure more birders would arrive, but we searched in all directions for the bird. Just then, we saw our friends Doug Chickering and Lois Cooper of Groveland walking down the dike. But the bird had disappeared, so I’ll let Doug finish this story from his unique perspective:

     “It is pretty much of a universal experience for all serious birders. We have all been there and done that. Racing after a bird as the sunlight dies away. You don’t hear of the bird until very late in the day. The last report is recent enough to harbor hopes and the bird is just too good to pass up. So off you go, half hoping and half expecting disappointment, but you can’t help it. It’s part of the essence of being a birder.

     “It was six in the evening when Lois and I got word of the Say’s phoebe on Massbird. We are close enough to Plum Island to make a trip feasible, and the bird was a Massachusetts life bird. More importantly, it was a Plum Island life bird, so we didn’t hesitate. With a growing feeling of anxiety mixed with hope we made our way through the shortcuts across West Newbury and into Newbury. The optimist in me figured that the bird was feeding and would continue feeding in and around the dike. Why not? The cynic in me was sure that if we arrived to just miss the bird, it would be a one-day phenomenon, and if we were lucky enough to see it, it would linger for most of the month. It would either vanish before sunset or provide great looks for legions. In any case, Plum Island would be busy this weekend.

     “The sun turned deep amber then reddish, and the shadows streamed across the parking lot at Hellcat as we arrived. There were two other cars in the parking lot. Was this a bad sign? Shouldn’t there be scores of birders? It didn’t matter now for we were committed, and quickly we found ourselves walking up onto the dike. There were four people at the fence on the Bill Forward side; binoculars up and one crouched over the a scope. I knew by one of the cars that one of the four was Steve Grinley and another was Margo Goetsches. The other people I didn’t know. The body language was ambiguous. Were they on the bird? Were they searching for the bird? Had the bird just gone? Had the bird long gone?

     “Lois and I picked up our pace. As we turned the corner by the tower and started out toward them Margo waved; still no sign of triumph or of disappointment. I stopped briefly for I had surged ahead of Lois and waited for her to catch up. She motioned me to keep going. Then when I turned a bird flicked out of the grass and on to the wooden bench not 10 feet away. In an instant of intuition I knew it was the phoebe.

     “There it is.” I called back to Lois. “Where?” “On the bench.” And I brought my binoculars to focus. So close it filled my field of view. A strikingly handsome Say’s phoebe. More than that. Brighter and cleaner than the one perched in the field guides. The tail was a deep carbon black; the bars upon the wings weren’t muted and diffuse but sharp and white. The rufous belly rich and brilliant. The black around the eye was also a clean black and faded into the gray in a much wider blotch on the head. It was an unmistakable Say’s phoebe and more besides. Not a classic textbook example, but an extreme textbook example.

     “Maybe it was the dying light, and maybe it was just the excitement of its presence, but it was better than I anticipated. We had challenged the coming night and the fates and had gotten lucky. More remarkable than our luck was Jonathan Center’s luck. For he arrived truly at twilight and still got good looks before the little devil disappeared, presumably to roost. It was Plum Island lifer #318.”

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