Sightings of really rare birds are typically reported only once or twice a year in Maine. But this week there were two in the span of three days in the midcoast region – sending birdwatchers into a mad dash to see two species that were far from their normal haunts and never before documented in Maine.
On Monday, a male vermilion flycatcher – a brilliant red-feathered bird typically found in the southwestern U.S., Mexico and South America, was spotted at the Maine Audubon retreat at Hog Island in Bremen. The bird was reported by a woman in Germany who spotted it via an osprey-watching website with a camera on Hog Island.
Six birders, including Maine Audubon’s naturalist Doug Hitchcox, rushed to Bremen in time to see it. Hitchcox said they had about 10 minutes to view the flycatcher with spotting scopes from a quarter-mile away before it flew off from its perch on a boathouse roof.
Then Wednesday, while driving to his Damariscotta antique store at 7:30 a.m., Jeff Cherry became the hero of the day in Maine birding circles when he identified a fieldfare, a thrush native to northern Europe and Asia. It also qualified as a “state record” – a bird never before documented in Maine.
“That fieldfare made a crazy flight to get here,” Hitchcox said. “With the flycatcher, a lot of birders go to Arizona or Texas – most serious birders do – so everyone eventually gets to see a vermilion flycatcher. But to have a bird come from somewhere in Europe and end up in rural Maine. It’s just amazing.”
Cherry, a birder since 1976, had seen a fieldfare in England in 1980. He realized what he was seeing in Newcastle was rare, so he acted quickly.
“I first stopped and used my binoculars to confirm it was something notable,” he said. “Then I got my camera as quick as I could. The easiest way to document it is with a camera. It was in the distance, the lighting was off, vehicles going by could have scared it. All of that was going through my mind.”
RARE BIRD ALERT
After taking several pictures, he went back home to verify it in his field guide, then emailed the photo to the Maine records committee.
Later, he posted it on the Google listserve, sending out a rare-bird-alert email to the site’s 1,200 members.
“I had this feeling people were on the road driving to see it by 9:15,” Cherry said with a laugh. “I went back later in the afternoon. Everyone was really happy by then. Some of them had been looking unsuccessfully for four to five hours until 1:30. I was happy they got to see it.”
Nathan Hall, a middle school teacher in Kennebunk who has been on spring break, was one. Hall, 40, and friend and fellow naturalist Josh Fecteau, 34, were birding in the Belgrade region for black-backed woodpeckers and sandhill cranes.
They had traveled to Bremen on Monday and been lucky enough to see the rare flycatcher.
On Wednesday around 9 a.m., Hall checked his email on the way down a hiking trail and stopped in his tracks.
“I said, ‘I know what we’re going to do instead,’ ” he said, and they drove to the coast.
“We were so excited,” Hall said. “At every slowed car and every stop sign we would say, ‘Don’t they know where we’re going?’
“We got there at 10:20” and searched for about three hours, he continued. “We were getting a little bored looking at robins. All of a sudden someone down the road said they had the bird. Everybody was running and jumping in random cars. It definitely was a mad rush.”
Hitchcox was one of the first on the scene that morning to search for the fieldfare, which had disappeared after Cherry reported it. He leapt into a moving car.
The group spotted the bird, but it was still a quarter-mile away and impossible to identify with the naked eye. But through a spotting scope, Hitchcox said, it was obvious what species it was.
By then, the group had ballooned to 17.
“It was the camaraderie,” Hall said. “Part of it is, unless you go to Europe, that might be the last time you have a chance to see it.”
A BIRDING MYSTERY
Hitchcox said scientists don’t know why or how birds from Europe occasionally end up in North America.
“What the heck brought a European thrush to Maine? That’s so baffling to me,” Hitchcox said. “It’s got to be tough: a 10-inch-long bird flying all the way across the Atlantic into a headwind. It doesn’t make sense.
“And who knows how long that fieldfare has been around. It could have spent the winter in Newfoundland. Maybe it’s been all over the East Coast and finally a birder saw it. Birders love debating how many rare birds are actually found.”
Fecteau said that over the past two years he’s probably traveled more than two hours to see a rare bird at least once a month.
But seeing a bird native to Europe in Maine might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Luckily, I had no other commitments,” Fecteau said.
Eventually, Cherry returned around 3 p.m. and joined the group – to much fanfare. Soon after, the bird flew off and was not reported again.
“To be the first one to discover a bird in Maine is something,” Cherry said. “I assumed when I made the ID it had been seen in Maine before. I found out quickly that was not the case.”
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: