Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Martin Thrills Birders
October 17, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     Autumn is the time of year when more “mega-rare” birds seem to show up. Migrating birds are blown off course, or some birds radar is askew. Birds may fly north from down south instead of flying further south, sometimes called reverse migration. Some western birds may fly east instead of south. The ‘radar’ problems seem to happen most often to juveniles, first year birds, that, for whatever reason, haven’t been “programmed” correctly.

     So here in Massachusetts we end up with birds that shouldn’t be here. Birders are, therefore, extra careful to check a flock of birds for the unusual during these months. A flock of sparrows needs to be scrutinized for a possible dickcissel, lark, clay-colored, or Harris’ sparrow. A flock of migrating tree or barn swallows needs to be checked for a possible cave swallow, another “victim” of reverse migration.

     Such was probably the case this Columbus Day when some keen birders carefully examined the many swallows that were still feeding over the fields of Cumberland Farms in Middleboro. They were looking for the unusual, maybe hoping for a cave swallow, when they discovered something even more rare – a brown-chested martin.

     About the size of our purple martin, the brown-chested martin is much larger than the tree and barn swallows that were around. This rare bird has a brown back, white front and a dark brown chest band. Its longer wings gave it a falcon-like look, and it looked somewhat like a bank swallow on steroids. This was only the second record for Massachusetts and only the sixth record of this bird in the country!

     For me, such rare birds often pose a dilemma. Often times I will get the call, as was the case this Monday when I got a call around 11 am, and I will post the sighting to Massbird, which is the Rare Bird Alert for Massachusetts on the Internet. I also make a few phones calls to people I think might be able to go to see this bird and/or whom may otherwise not read it on the Internet right away. The dilemma for me comes when this is such a rare bird that I have never seen one before and I am “stuck” at work. My policy is to NOT just close the store and go. Though most of my customers would understand, it is just not an ethic that I’ve acquired. I won’t say that I will never do it, but I never have. Sometimes it is possible to get coverage for the store, but a little notice is always more considerate to employees.

     Factors to consider when “chasing” a bird like this are where the bird is located, how long it will take to get there, and how likely it is that the bird will still be there when one arrives. This bird was in Middleboro, almost to Cape Cod, on the other side of Boston. That means contending with traffic in or around Boston. From here, it would be at least an hour and a half without traffic. Much longer with traffic.

     Will the bird stick around? That is always a crap shoot, especially with migrants. One has to consider weather fronts that are coming or going through, potential food supply for the birds, etc. Many birders believe that you shouldn’t procrastinate – just go. You won’t see the bird if you don’t.

     Well, there was no way I was going to get there on Monday. The store was open until 5 pm and it gets dark just after 6 pm. Those that were not working that day, or could leave work early, and got there and stayed until about 4 pm, saw the bird. The bird was seen in the morning and only again around 4 pm. Those who got there much later did not see it that day.

     That night it rained, and it rained until midday on Tuesday. I thought that the bird would not have migrated that night in the rain and it might still be around Tuesday afternoon. I recommended that to some people, though I didn’t believe it enough to take my own advice. It was seen again around 4 pm on Tuesday afternoon. Again, I was working.

     With frustration mounting, I made a pact with myself that if the bird was seen on Wednesday morning, that I would try to get coverage for the store and go. I was afraid that, with a northerly and westerly wind taking hold, good weather might encourage the bird to leave Wednesday night, if it hadn’t already. Sure enough, the bird was seen early Wednesday morning. I made a phone call and I was lucky enough to get coverage, and off I went.

     I stopped on my way though Boston to pick up Margo, even though she was one of the lucky ones to escape work in time to see the bird on Monday. She wanted more looks. We arrived at Cumberland Farms around 1 pm. People that were there said that the martin hadn’t been seen since 11 am. Still we walked up and down the muddy road in the fields and vigilantly scoured the swallows for the rare martin.

     One of the residual benefits of going to the site of a rare birds is meeting up with birders that you haven’t seen for a while. There were also a few out-of-state birders who drove that day with the prospect of seeing that bird. It is good camaraderie, bird or no bird.

     But this bird did not disappoint. It was around 2:20 when we were walking back up the road toward the group of twenty-five or so birders keeping vigil when we spotted THE bird flying almost directly over them. Most people were talking among themselves, enjoying that camaraderie, or were distracted by something else. I screamed “there it is”. Everyone looked up and then others screamed again as they got on the bird. The martin was watched for less than five minutes as it fed over the field with a few other swallows before it disappeared over the trees.

     Twice more it made an appearance over that same field before we left around 4 pm. The last time, it came soaring right past us below eye level, giving most of us excellent looks. As we were leaving, more people were still arriving, hoping for a glimpse. I hoped that the bird would stay around for them.

     I am glad that I went on Wednesday. As of this writing, the brown-chested martin hadn’t been seen on Thursday. Perhaps it will be found again. I certainly was one of the lucky ones to catch up with this life bird in my own state. They are few and far between these days.

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