Varied Thrush. Photo by Lanny McDowell
This varied thrush, approaching household feeder in Edgartown, is a long way off its usual beaten path and habitat, the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest. They are prone to wandering afar, however, and sometimes single birds will winter in New England. Last year one was seen briefly here on the Island, another on Nantucket, and one in Newburyport. This year many birders have observed the one that frequents the Fenway in Boston. It really is a western bird of the mountains, though, and we are lucky to have it. Photo by Lanny McDowell

Vagrant thrush

Story By E. Vernon Laux - February 23, 2006

The snow cover resulting from the weekend storm on the evening of Feb. 11 and all day on Feb. 12 created ideal conditions for watching bird feeders. There was no other food available to land birds as food supplies they had been using all winter were buried. Reports from feeder watchers were impressive: rarely or seldom-seen birds appeared and visited regularly at feeders Island-wide.

Most exciting was the identification of a mystery bird that has been visiting the feeder of Pamela Spencer in Edgartown. She first noticed this bird on Feb. 6 or 7 and knew that this was something different. She called this columnist and left a long, detailed message about the bird that frankly had me a little more than confused. She had a bird book, an identification guide that only included photographs and this bird sure did not look like anything pictured in the book.

Fortuitously, Pamela was visiting the Thrift Shop and came across the large print version of Roger Peterson 's "Eastern Field Guide to the Birds," which she eagerly purchased. Thumbing through this, she immediately recognized the plate that showed this distinctive western thrush. It was unquestionably a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius). The Varied Thrush is a robin-sized bird that breeds in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest all the way from northern California to Alaska.

These hardy birds are vagrants in eastern North America. The species is being recorded with greater frequency in these parts, however, particularly in Massachusetts, as the ever-growing popularity of the hobby/sport of birding continues to grow. The swelling number of observers - armed with excellent optics, digital cameras, a variety of field guides and continually growing knowledge - are now finding a higher percentage of stray birds than ever before.

After identifying the bird, Pamela continued to take good care of all the birds visiting her feeders and heated bird bath. She said that when she first noticed the thrush, it was very shy and seemed nervous, making it very hard to get a look at. Then, after the snow the bird seemed to settle in and become acclimated to the area. The bird was still present as this column was being written on Feb. 20.

Several Island birders went in search of this bird on Feb. 20 and some good pictures were taken. The pictures show clearly that the bird is a female as the breast band and head are gray, not the jet black of the male.

Historic sightings
The first varied thrush seen on the Vineyard was found by Whit Manter of West Tisbury among a flock of robins off North Road in Chilmark in 1986. From then to now, there have been at least six others (possibly eight), including one that died when it slammed into a window at Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury; it is now a specimen at the Museum Of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge. The frequency of sightings has gone way up in the past 20 years, from none to six or seven.

Elsewhere in the state, there has been a female varied thrush delighting birders in downtown Boston since mid-December. To see some photos of this bird you can go to the web site and click on the sighting page. There was a one-day wonder sighting on Nantucket in late December and now this bird in Edgartown that has been around for at least two weeks.

It is likely that varied thrushes have always appeared in miniscule numbers on the Island and had gone undetected. Or it is possible that there is some shift going on with the species and it is now wintering routinely, albeit in ones and twos, on the eastern seaboard in response to some shift going on in its population. One can speculate endlessly about human encroachment, global warming, decrease in food supply, or many other reasons about the possibilities that may be causing these birds to show up with a perceived increase in frequency. There probably is not one right answer; more likely is it is a combination of many factors.

The snow not only made the Vineyard landscape more beautiful, at least for a couple of days, but it made birds stand out more. For example, Eastern bluebirds became positively brilliant against the reflected light off the snow. Small flocks resembled nothing so much as an ethereal neon bluish color against an orange-red breast color as they fed on juniper berries against the dark green of the Eastern red cedars they were feeding in. The birds seemed to glow and were detectable at a huge distance. No less than eight callers to the bird line were suitably impressed by these remarkably colorful birds.

Spring is in the air as the level of bird song seems to pick up almost daily. Carolina wrens, Northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, song sparrows and various woodpecker species are heard calling on a daily basis. The lengthening days are making the birds start to prepare for the rapidly upcoming breeding season. Spring is just a few weeks away.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail