Serendipity in a stressful year

2020 has turned out to be quite a stress-filled series of months on multiple fronts, so unexpected pleasures and delights are very welcome. For birders in North Carolina (NC), that scenario has luckily been playing itself out this fall and winter. Several unexpected and unusual birds have been spotted in our state, including a Kirtland’s warbler, vermilion flycatcher, MacGillivray’s warbler, and sandhill cranes.

Many bird lovers have traveled to catch sight of these surprising visitors. While I’ve mostly avoided groups the past nine months as part of my COVID-avoiding measures, last week I did join the human migration to an NC home about 20 miles away to see a bird that is normally only found in the northwestern United States – a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius).

The opportunity to see this lovely bird was offered to the local community by homeowners Tony Hewitt and Marla Wolf. They generously allowed people to come to their suburban yard (by appointment) to watch over the backyard fence to catch sight of the thrush.

When I visited on a “slow” day, it was easy to socially distance oneself from other birders and photographers. Only a couple other people were there for a while (and I was alone some of the time) waiting for the thrush to make an appearance. Everyone wore masks, some having double masked as well.

The varied thrushes normally migrate back and forth in the area stretching from Alaska, through Canada, down to northern California, as shown by this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The website remarks that a few of these birds occasionally wander outside their normal range to the Midwest and Northeast. Seeing one in the southeastern USA is highly unusual.

Map credit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/maps-range#

This robin-sized bird is a real stunner – his orange, grey, yellow and white feathers grow in a wonderful pattern. The colors seem to vary a bit, depending on the quality of the light falling on them and the background against which you see him. But he is handsome from any angle – front, side or back!

Something I found particularly interesting was a pattern of wavy lines in his tail feathers when the light hit them in a certain way. This was not something that I saw mentioned in descriptions of its physical characteristics. The observation made me want to photograph the thrush again to see if this would show up again.

 

It is interesting to note that one varied thrush crossed the Atlantic and turned up in Great Britain in 1982. It was a unique bird since it represented a rare variant of the species in which the orange feather coloration has become all white. Only five such representatives of this mutation have been recorded since 1921.

In its home range, the varied thrush prefers to stay in dense, coniferous forests near water. The NC visitor is taking advantage of a backyard nook that Marla designed with multiple shrubs and some open space.

The home is not far from a lake, but the thrush is taking advantage of a bird bath for drinks, which Marla kindly had moved so that it was better visible for visiting birders looking over the fence.

Varied thrushes usually feed on insects, foraging on the ground and often under dense cover.

The thrush’s insectivorous diet can be wide-ranging and include ants, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, snails and spiders.

  

They also eat berries, either in trees or on the ground, during the autumn and winter months. 

Our NC celebrity bird is obviously enjoying seeds furnished daily by Tony and Marla.

A notice placed by Tony near fence announced that the thrush seemed to come out in the open every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that this was indeed the case the first hour that I was there; then the bird came after a couple 15-minute intervals.

He certainly seemed to be a creature of habit because I noticed that after eating, he would go back into the dense undergrowth for several minutes and then re-emerge to take a couple drinks at the bird bath. Eating obviously was making him thirsty and noticing this habit meant it was possible to get “camera-ready” for another appearance.

When it is breeding time, male varied thrushes begin to establish territories and confront other males with threat displays. These begin with the bird cocking his tail and turning it towards his rival, while he lowers his wings. If the rival bird does not go away, the thrush will lower his head, raise and fan his tail and then spread his wings out to the side.

Obviously, our NC bird had no rivals around but there were many other birds foraging in the ground underneath the feeders. They included Northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins and downy woodpeckers among others. And it seemed that “our” thrush was sometimes warning them off.

Or perhaps he was just flashing his wings to scare up insects hiding in the fallen leaves.

There are still large numbers of varied thrushes, with an estimate of some 20 million in the current global breeding population. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey recorded a cumulative decline of the species of 73% between 1966 and 2015. Logging, wildfires and forest fragmentation are ongoing threats to their breeding habitat.

This is only the fifth time that a varied thrush has been seen in North Carolina. The first sighting was in 2005; three other birds were seen in 2010. No one has any idea what got this year’s bird so far off-course during its migration and no one knows how long it will stay around.

Tony and Marla have kept a visitors’ book (with hand sanitizer available for signers) and many people have been recording their visit. When I visited, more than 110 people had already come by, including some birders from Virginia and Tennessee. More people have since stopped by the Hewitt-Wolf residence to admire this vagrant bird. We are grateful to them for giving us this opportunity!

It’s apparent that the serendipitous sojourn of this gorgeous bird has been a welcome gift to many people – both those who saw it in person and those who’ve admired photos distributed through facebook groups. We hope the bird will survive the winter here and be able to return to its home grounds out West so that its journey has a happy ending!

 

‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊