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The Broad appeal

December 4, 2008

When a super rarity is reported, people get excited. When that super rarity happens to be a bird of unusual beauty or novelty, that excitement is compounded. Few families of birds reach that exceptional fever pitch like hummingbirds, and they typically have to be something a bit more unusual than the “regular” vagrants like Rufous or Calliope. It has to be something shocking, both in plumage and the idea that it traveled from points far away to really shake folks out of their complacency. A Broad-billed Hummingbird will likely do the trick.

North Carolina’s third record of Broad-billed Hummingbird was reported in New Bern, a town on the central coast of the state, about three weeks ago. For a week, birders traveled to gawk at the bird which, when banded, was revealed to be the exact same individual that had spent last winter in the Charleston, South Carolina, area. It had returned east, but decided it preferred UNC basketball to Clemson football. Not that I can blame it.

Following that first week, when I was unable to get out, the hosts of the bird shut up shop for some family stuff (Thanksgiving or some such nonsense) and asked that birders not return until after the holiday. So as soon as all that was over I headed down to have a look.

When I pulled into the driveway it was raining and overcast. I sat there with my window open watching the feeders hoping to catch a glimpse and getting little more than a face full of winter rain. I began to worry that the hard freeze we’d had the night before was enough to put the bird off or worse when a big hummer zipped over to a feeder and spent the next 30 seconds or so hovering and feeding.

In the time since I’d seen the bird nearly 15 years ago in Arizona, I’d forgotten how big Broad-billed Hummingbird is. It’s a substantial hummingbird and a real stunner even in the bad light with that bright red bill and green and blue iridescence all the while pumping it’s forked tail. I didn’t get any pictures in the weather, but here are some shots of the bird from earlier this month. Yes, it is impossibly gorgeous.

So with my main target in the books I headed coastward, to Atlantic Beach to see if the weather system was driving anything towards the shore. The waves were churning and this flock of gulls and pelicans on the beach looked as happy to be in the rain as I was, which is, not very.

I did find my first Red-throated Loon of the season and lots of immature Gannets flying as close to the shore as I’ve ever seen them. But no sea ducks, which was my long hope, and I thought about heading back home.

When the rain started to clear I decided to head into nearby Croatan National Forest, a place that’s known to be a good wintering spot for some odd sparrows like Henslow’s and LeConte’s. I didn’t, however, know precisely where in the extensive tract to find those birds, so I was limited to driving up and down the roads aimlessly, stopping from time to time to get out and listen. It was a pretty pointless way to find specific birds and I was kinda frustrated at myself for not taking the time to e-mail someone who might know where the secret special places are. That may be why my Big Year failed to even come close to the record, now that I think on it…

Anyway, I had picked up a map of the forest at a ranger station and saw some waterfowl impoundments that I figured might be productive so I headed that way. When I got to the impoundments, I stepped out and fairly quickly heard this whistly peeping that sounded a good deal like a Sora. I like Soras so I walked over to see if I could flush it out when I found this Myiarchus flycatcher staring back at me and peeping.

I realize this is a family blog, but in the interest of journalistic integrity, I have to admit that my first reaction was “Holy shit, that’s an Ash-throated Flycatcher!!“. So that’s what I said.

Regular readers may remember my failed chase of an Ash-throated Flycatcher a few weeks ago. I was disappointed as it was a missed opportunity to find a bird that’s been seen in the state fewer than 10 times before. Karma must have been with me this time. And this was no normal Ash-throat, it was hanging out with a pair of Mockingbirds who were hassling it at every opportunity. Even so, it was remarkably accommodating (to use traditional field report parlance) and I followed it around till it sat for me while I took these photos through my scope.

Pretty cool, no?

What started as an erratic trip through an area I’d never been before turned into a super self-found state rarity. Chasing vagrants like the Hummingbird is cool, but finding your own all by yourself? Exponentially better.

And to top it off, I flushed up a small flock of American Pipits from a fallow cotton field on the way home. Not a southwestern vagrant or anything, but not too bad.

Just seven more to go to 300.

  1. corey permalink
    December 4, 2008 9:03 am

    Nice find (and great pictures)!

  2. Patrick Belardo permalink
    December 4, 2008 9:43 am

    Wow, nice find on the Flycatcher! I love the BB Hummer too. That’s one we haven’t had in NJ yet, but I’ve seen it in AZ. It’s a beauty.

  3. Christopher permalink
    December 4, 2008 9:58 am

    I have to throw my congratulations in here too – the Broad-billed is a goreous bird regardless of the weather, and finding that Ash-throated is definitely sweet.

  4. Jeff Gyr permalink
    December 4, 2008 10:11 am

    Joining the chorus: Nice going, N8! It’s just soooo satisfying to find a bird like that and be able to get good photos. Congratulations.

  5. December 4, 2008 10:28 am

    Hey thanks guys!

    It was a real gas to turn it up on what had been an otherwise slow afternoon, and to get good pictures, you’re right Jeff, very satisfying. One of the high points of my birding career.

    Some folks went out the next day to find it and were successful, which is nice too. I had the pictures and all so there was no doubting it, but that it stuck around for others to enjoy was great.

  6. John permalink
    December 4, 2008 12:37 pm

    Congratulations on the flycatcher!

  7. noflickster permalink
    December 4, 2008 1:13 pm

    I won’t be saying anything that isn’t already posted but you deserve additional congratulations thrown your way. It’s one thing to (re)find a bird someone else staked already, but to turn up a rarity without that benefit – awesome!

    And to be able to provide solid documentation, priceless (I was going to say the re-find was 0 dollars, but it wouldn’t have made any sense, plus you had to pay gas, etc . . .).

    Out of curiosity, will you be passing on a report to to the records committee?

  8. December 4, 2008 3:22 pm

    @John- Thanks!

    @Mike- I should report it. NC has online submission to the RBC, I’ll probably do it tonight just to get it in the records.

  9. Jochen permalink
    December 5, 2008 4:17 am

    Nate, not a completely shabby day, ey?
    Congrats man, congrats!

    A BIG word of warning though about online submission forms:

    DON’T DO IT!!!!
    When I found a Blue Grosbeak in Michigan way back in 2007, I also submitted it online, quick and easy, the same day I had found it (no photos though, just a description).
    BUT as it was so tempting to just quickly write up a report, especially in a language that’s not your own, I must have somehow goofed up some of the description and it got rejected. This was so maddening as it was an absolutely obvious and certain ID and they wrote that some minor small bits of my description pointed to the bird being an immature Indigo Bunting! CRAP, there is simply no mistaking these two birds, they’re obvious by “Gestalt” alone!

    NEVER ever submit anything online. Write it up, print it out, leave it on your desk for a week, then read it again and finally have a few friends read it over. When you are absolutely satisfied, send it out by snail mail with a digital version on CD.
    In your case, with pictures and all, of course my “warning” is rather pointless, but I was SO frustrated about the rejection that I simply had to write this off my soul… I really would have loved to leave a tiny yet durable little footprint in Michigan.

  10. david permalink
    December 5, 2008 9:52 am

    So…how did you rule out Nutting’s and Dusky-capped Flycatchers?

  11. December 5, 2008 10:39 am

    @jochen- Oops, too late. I already submitted it online, but with the photos and subsequent re-finds I think I’ll probably be ok.

    @david- Dusky-capped was easy because of the big peaky head and light auriculars. Plus it vocalized consistent with AT.

    Nutting’s though, well, perhaps it is a Nutting’s. : )

  12. david permalink
    December 5, 2008 10:47 am

    Hehe, well, vocalization is good. And I guess even I have to admit that a west Mexican species seems exceedingly unlikely to turn up there. 🙂 But somebody has to ask the question….

    Great finds.

  13. December 5, 2008 5:27 pm

    @david- It’s a legitimate question. I wasn’t very familiar with Nutting’s but I looked up some other ABA records when you mentioned it.

    It appears that AT consistently has significantly paler auriculars than Nutting’s, which is described often as being a Dusky-capped in an Ash-throated body. So it checks out again there, as you can see that in my bird.

    NC doesn’t have any records of Dusky-capped or Brown Crested, and those birds have been found elsewhere in the eastern US, so those were the two I was most interested in looking at. AT has been seen a handful of times before and has a fairly established history of vagrancy. So that’s all in my favor too.

    It’s good to think about, because if I hadn’t gotten good pictures I certainly would have had to be far more precise with my observation.

  14. Beverly permalink
    December 12, 2008 10:08 am

    What fun! …and how cheeky of the pale little brownish-bird to position itself in such beautiful surroundings. Stunning photos!

  15. Vickie permalink
    December 12, 2008 6:02 pm

    Beautiful flycatcher! I got a chuckle out of your enjoyment of the rain. And I truly enjoyed the link with the pictures of the broad-billed hummer.

    If we focus on the beauty and the wonder out there, the world is a pretty incredible place.

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