The gray kingbird. Photo by Lanny McDowell
The gray kingbird is a rare visitor to Massachusetts. Photo by Lanny McDowell

Fall vagrant - gray kingbird

By E. Vernon Laux - September 14, 2006

The Vineyard is a spectacular place to bird in the fall. It is also the premiere location in New England for vagrant - as in rare and unusual - flycatchers to appear during the fall migration. It seems to be placed just perfectly, geographically speaking, to intercept and hold wandering flycatchers from elsewhere. From September through mid-November, if one wants to look for and stand a reasonable chance of finding a rare flycatcher in this part of the world, then the Island would be a very good choice of a place to spend time.

This past week it was the discovery, exactly one week ago on the morning of Sept. 7, of a good-sized tropical flycatcher called a gray kingbird. This bird has a very large bill and is gray above, lighter below with a dark patch running through its cheek and eye - kind of a Zorro-like facemask, if you will. They are common on many islands in the Caribbean and show up in fairly regularly in the Florida Keys. They are very rare in Massachusetts, this being only the fourth record for the species in the State, once the record is made official by the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee.

The last occurrence of this species in Massachusetts was on almost the exact same date, Sept. 9, 1988 in Chilmark, a bird that was discovered by Whit Manter. The prior records for the species in the state were of birds that were collected a long time ago. The oldest and first record was of a bird from Lynn, on Oct. 23, 1869, the other record was of a bird from West Newbury on Nov. 22, 1931. This scant pattern of sightings all occurred in autumn. The four records range from Sept. 7 thru Nov. 22, but only four times in some 150 years. This is a truly rare bird this far north.

A birder who visits the Island every fall, Peter Gilmore of Newton, discovered the bird perched on a dead branch at 9:30 am on the morning of Sept. 7. He recognized that this was not one of the Eastern kingbirds that were numerous in the area, because it was much different with a larger bill. He identified the bird as a gray kingbird, realized the magnitude of the find and alerted Island birders. Matt Pelikan was first to arrive with camera in hand and took some excellent photos, confirming the find.

Later that day the bird was not found by a small contingent actively seeking a view of this Caribbean specialty. They did find lots of Eastern kingbirds, a great crested flycatcher, and a dickcissel, but had no joy on the gray kingbird.

The next morning, Sept. 8, about a dozen birders showed up at the Gay Head cliffs and the bird was quickly located. It was very co-operative and Lanny McDowell managed some exceptional photos of the bird with its gape open. It perched on the top of dead branches and telephone wires, sallying out to snatch dragonflies and other delicacies. It was even seen to regurgitate pieces of indigestible insect parts.

The bird was seen all morning but then birders filtered away and those are the last reports of it. A number of birders came from scattered spots in New England on Sept. 9 and spent the day, but the bird could not be found and was not seen all day. So they enjoyed the scenery, made the best of it and got skunked, leaving the Island with a "should have been here yesterday" theme replaying itself in their heads. They then went home and were forced to look at photos of the "alleged" bird at (then click on "sightings" and look at the gray kingbird photos).

As often happens when birders congregate around a rare bird, especially in a place so bird-rich and full of migrants moving by as on the Gay Head Cliffs, they invariably turn up other interesting birds. Lanny McDowell and Peter Gilmore spotted a Western kingbird on the morning of Sept. 8, as it fed along with about 20 Eastern kingbirds before they sighted the Gray kingbird and forgot all about the Western kingbird. This more regular unusual flycatcher is not seen every year on the Island and is always a good find.

Looking for and at birds on the wing, particularly during prime-time migration periods, is never dull. They can and do turn up in the most far-flung places. The more you learn and become familiar with the common birds and expected species, the better your odds at detecting the odd ball in the masses. Chance favors the prepared mind.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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