A Bird’s Tale

Rare Birds on a Sunday Afternoon

Wed, 12/16/2020 - 8:00am

Faithful readers will remember our trip to Ogunquit to look for Maine’s second-ever-documented rock wren we wrote about a few weeks ago. We failed to see the rock wren on that trip. Amazingly, the bird seems to be doing quite well finding food among the rocks at Perkins Cove and was still there as of this past weekend. We decided to try once again and made the drive down to Ogunquit on Sunday afternoon.

When we arrived, there was a person with a camera sitting on the edge of the sidewalk — and he did not appear to be taking photos of the scenic rocky coastline. Sure enough, he was watching and photographing that spunky little wren as it played hide-and-seek among the massive jumbled rocks.

That bird allowed us, and the other birders who showed up, fabulous views as it bobbed up and down on its jet-black legs and flitted quickly about after insects under, over, and between the rocks. One fine detail that we enjoyed with the close looks at the bird was the rufous color on the lower back/rump area; it was surprisingly vivid when the bird was facing away.

Having had such good luck, we decided to push our fortune and go just a few miles farther down the coast to Bald Head Cliff in York to look for another rare bird that had been recently discovered there: a western tanager. Despite the fact that, like the rock wren, the breeding range of western tanager is west of the Great Plains, there have been something in the neighborhood of two dozen records of western tanager in Maine over the years as compared to the paltry two records of the rock wren. We had never seen a western tanager in the state.

We had, however, had some past luck at seeing western tanagers in unexpected places.

No doubt the most surprising place we saw a western tanager was on the island of Bonaire, which is located about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. There were two things that made the sighting rather incredible. First was the fact that Bonaire is about a thousand miles from the southernmost extent of the normal wintering range of western tanager in northern Panama. The second is that we found the bird, a brilliant adult male, in early July when western tanagers should be on the breeding range in the western U.S. and Canada. The closest part of the breeding range is in west Texas, about 2,500 miles from Bonaire! We got some blurry photos of the bird that day in 2001 and actually published a short note about the record in a science journal called Cotinga.

One of us (Jeff) was lucky enough to see a western tanager on the very northern edge of its apparently expanding range in the Northwest Territories on a late May day in the city of Yellowknife in 2014. Of course, we have also seen some in places where they were supposed to be in the western U.S. over the years.

But never in Maine.

A 10-minute drive from Perkins Cove on the winding road that hugs the coast down to Bald Head Cliff and we were parked in the lower parking lot of the swanky Cliff House resort that sits atop the headland there. As we strolled down the hill, there were three friendly birders staring at something in a bush. And there it was, a pale female-type western tanager. We enjoyed it and photographed it (it was not as confiding as the rock wren so no close-ups!), then we wandered down to the cliff’s edge to revel in watching harlequin ducks and black scoters and long-tailed ducks and common eiders skillfully diving and floating in the surging foamy water just off the dark granite rocks.

What an amazing day!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).