Latest For the Birds column: Keep an eye out for rarities

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several newspapers in New England.

Photo by David Hoitt This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Photo by David Hoitt
This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Different seasons bring their own rarities.

Rarities, for the purpose of this column, are birds that are typically not seen in our region. It is not necessarily a bird that is rarely seen – it may be quite common in other parts of the country or world – but rather a bird that only every once in a while ventures into New England for one reason or another. In fact, it can also be a typical New England bird, but just seen in a season in which it is usually far away from here.

Winter is a good time for rarities because they stick out so much better. There are only so many birds that haven’t migrated for us to look at in winter, so when something different appears, it really sticks out.

Participants in the annual Christmas Bird Counts crave rarities. The point of the volunteer bird census is to count all the birds they see to contribute to a long-running data base so ornithologists can track bird population trends. There is no competition involved; no awards given. But the unwritten and unspoken truth is: CBC participants want to tally more species than the other counts held throughout the state.

So when a rarity shows up a week or two before the count is scheduled, participants toss and turn at night hoping the bird will stick around long enough to be seen on count day. Such was the case this year for the Keene Christmas Bird Count, which was held Sunday, Dec. 18.

On or around Dec. 12, a Varied Thrush showed up under a bird feeder in Swanzey. Would it stick around until the 18th. Birders hoped.

Count day arrived and, sure enough, the bird was still there. Varied Thrushes somewhat resemble American Robins, but are more decorated with orange coloration scattered throughout the body. The head, with black stripes on the top and through the eyes, is particularly appealing. They are birds of the western U.S., but stray into New England some winters.

So the bird was counted on the 18th, marking the first-ever recorded sighting on the Keene Christmas Bird Count. That says a lot since the Keene count was one of the original counts in 1900. It took some years off, but has been going on for 34 straight years.

I tend not to announce rare bird sightings in my columns because by the time the story is published the bird may be gone. Also, I don’t want to add more stress to the bird or neighborhood. But this bird has been around for almost a month now and the neighbors seem receptive to visitors, so I’ll add some details.

According to Dave Hoitt of Swanzey, the bird has been seen daily at Westport Village in Swanzey, usually between Depot Road and Sandy Road. According to a post on the NHBirds online forum by Becky Suomala of New Hampshire Bird Records, the feeder is located at 117 Westport Village Rd. She said parking is limited on the road, so the “best option may be to park on the southeast side of the road between Depot Road and Sandy Road just south of the feeder location and walk to the feeders. Be sure to leave adequate room for large trucks to get by and do not block any driveways. Please be respectful of the neighbors.”

She added that the bird is usually seen around 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 in the afternoon.

The bird was initially spotted and identified by Butch and Ginny Thompson, who shared the sighting with the birding community. Hoitt described the sighting as a “rare opportunity for area birders to view this colorful visitor to our region.” He said the birds is seen on the ground near feeders or in thickets.

I hope it sticks around for many other birders to seen.

Speaking of rarities on Christmas Bird Counts, I have been participating in a count in southern Connecticut for the last 15 years or so. Rarities, by very definition, do not show up very often, but I have been lucky enough to see some over the years. Those include: Northern Gannet (flying over Long Island Sound); Nashville Warbler; Orange-crowned Warbler; Palm Warbler; and Yellow-breasted Chat.

I haven’t seen a hummingbird during a Christmas Bird Count, but they do occasionally show up in New England in the winter. Often it is not a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but rather one of the many western species that strays into our neck of the woods.

Seen a rarity lately, or even some common birds that brought a smile to your face? Drop me a line and let me know.

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