After a wonderful warm October, autumn continues with a roller coaster of warm and cool days. Trees are mostly bare. Assorted brown leaves swirl about in the cool breeze, occasionally pretending to be birds. Insects, the ones that have not succumbed to the cold or fled further south, retreat to nooks and crannies to snooze the winter away.
With insect feasts scarce, so too are the birds that migrate, happier now where bugs fly and beetles scurry in warmer climes. Our winter residents move to center stage and as usual the most birds I see on my morning walk are the ones hanging around the feeders near the house. Though the woods are still filled with beeping, peeping red-breasted nuthatches, nary a one has come to a feeder. Maybe they’ll come with the winter snows.
A couple of weeks ago, Danny reads a rare bird alert: A sage thrasher, found by Barbara Sylvester on Nov. 4, is at nearby Ooms Conservation Area in Chatham, N.Y.! The bird is reported to e-bird and the sighting verified. Tweets, twitters and blogs carry the news into the ‘always-on-the-ready-for-a-life-bird’ community. Even if this is not a life bird, there are those avid recorders who keep lists by state, and surely this would be a first for many, many birders’ New York State List.
The sage thrasher is native to western America, in brushy (especially sage brush) plains and semi-dry areas. Danny and I observed one a number of year ago in Eastern California near Mono Lake. The bird would pop up from the midst of a field of thick sage brush, perch on a branch, and start singing. After a while, back it would disappear into the pale green leaves only to pop up again a number of feet away. Or that could have been a second individual, though, like Clark Kent and Superman, we never did see the two at the same time. But we did add this species to our life list.
So there was no hurry to get over to Ooms, when there would be many a birder jostling for position with telescope and camera to record this unusual visitor. Mostly these gatherings have a party atmosphere, but on occasion there’ll be a belligerent birder or two that needs to push people out of the way for their own viewing. I decide to wait a few days for the immediate brouhaha to calm down.
The first time we drive over, it is cloudy and gray. By the time we reach the conservation area, it is pouring. Sigh! The next day is again cloudy and gray, a bit cooler, but not raining. There are no cars parked at any of the lots. Uh-oh, I think to myself, we’re too late. We meet a birder who points to the buckthorn tree where the now famous thrasher has been seen day after day.
Danny and I wander over. The small tree has a few pale brown leaves remaining amid clumps of dark purple berries. As I move a bit forward to see if SEEK can identify the species of buckthorn, Danny says, “There it is, at around 3 o’clock.” Try as I might I cannot see the bird. Danny says move to the right. I move back and to the right and yes! As if by magic, the bird, a similar color to the tangle of buckthorn branches, appears.
The sage thrasher, Oreoscoptes montanus, which translates ‘mimic of the mountain’, is one of the 11 species of birds of the family mimidae that live and breed in the United States. Mimidae (all New World birds) are, as indicated by the name, mimics; the three common ones in our area are the catbird, the northern mockingbird and the brown thrasher. All cover other birds playlists, taking riffs from one, melodies from another and perhaps a refrain or two from others.
This bird is, of course, not singing. I observe the slender brownish-gray bird, whitish breast streaked with dark spots, faint white wing bars, and prominent white spots at the end of the tail. Danny snaps photos of this unassuming, cooperative bird who is not bothered by us at all. We watch as he snags a berry with his rather straight and small bill.
It does not look like its thrasher relatives that have long, curved beaks and long tails, rather more like a stripy, nondescript mockingbird. When I get back to the car, I listen to the sage thrasher’s song. It is waaay more melodic and sweet than his thrasher cousins. Again it is more like a mockingbird. One ornithologist recorded the sage thrasher in a 22-minute non-stop production.
The sage thrasher breeds in the continental U.S., but migrates to Mexico for the winter. There, this bird is known as El Cuitlacoche de las Artemisas. Artemisas tridentata is the Latin binominal for sagebrush, but curiously ‘el cuitlacoche’ is the name of a black fungus that grows on corn. Perhaps the breast looks like corn covered with small black mushrooms.
Eventually the bird dives down into the brush surrounding the small buckthorn and we wander off. I wonder what has driven this individual to fly so far from its native territory. Usually storm systems carry birds from place to place as the hurricanes moving up the east coast often do. Maybe those continual fall fires on the west coast send the birds of the brush skittering away, terrified not only of fires sweeping through the brush, but suffering from smoke-laden air.
Once I am back home I check for other sightings. Twice this species has been found at Jamaica Bay in New York City, once in 1978 and again in 2019. In Massachusetts, I find records of one in Salisbury in 2010 and another on Nantucket in 2018.
This Ooms thrasher is a rare treat for birders, indeed! 20