A Bird’s Tale

One Heck of a Tail

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 11:00am

This past weekend a casual birder was at the Brunswick Executive Airport. Ironically, she was standing in the very same spot that we were birding at the week before when we added upland sandpiper and eastern meadowlark, two grassland specialists, to our Maine Mindfulness Big Year list. This birder happened to notice a very odd, silvery bird that she did not recognize. The most striking feature was its very long forked tail. She did what people do nowadays and took a photo of it. Later that day she shared it on the Maine Birds Facebook page. Soon after, she found out that she had discovered a very special bird—an aptly named scissor-tailed flycatcher—that was a long way from home.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers are birds of the Midwest, breeding in open savanna grasslands from southern Nebraska south to northeastern Mexico, reaching their highest abundance in Texas and Oklahoma. They winter from southern Mexico south to Costa Rica.

For some unknown reason, scissor-tails seem to have a predilection for wandering, even in the breeding season when most birds to stay put. Or maybe people just notice them more than other birds when they show up in far flung places. They’re a hard bird to overlook—that’s one heck of a tail!

Either way, people have found scissor-tailed flycatchers at one time or another over just about the entire continental U.S. and southern Canada. Right here in Maine, the species has been documented more than 30 times! We ourselves have seen scissor-tails at least twice in the state. One of those birds had an exceptional story. Found hanging around some pitch pines on the blueberry barren-grasslands of Wells, the bird eventually was discovered to have made a nest in which it had laid four eggs. The eggs never hatched or else, who knows, maybe we would have ended up with our own isolated breeding population of this cool bird.  Scissor-tailed flycatchers have had similar isolated breeding attempts before in some southern U.S. states but none have resulted in establishment of new populations. And unfortunately, they, like so many other birds (especially insect-eating birds), are experiencing long-term declines that have become steeper in the last decade or so. We were lucky enough to see the extravagant beauty of the recent scissor-tail in Brunswick and to meet the woman who found it.

The tendency for the species to have individuals in the population that attempt these long, out-of-range flights and breeding attempts may become important in its long-term survival. The breeding range of the scissor-tailed flycatcher has been moving north like so many other species as climate change makes the southern edges of its former range less hospitable. Eventually some of these pioneer birds, perhaps those who end up only a bit beyond the current range rather than a thousand or more miles away, will establish new populations that have a better chance to adapt.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “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 book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.