Painted Redstart on Cuttyhunk a Rare Sight

Oct 17, 2018

Painted Redstart
Credit Sean Williams

While birding Cuttyhunk Island recently, Lakeville birder Mike Sylvia saw something that gave him quite a “start” – a Painted Redstart, that is, representing only the second state record for this stunning warbler from Mexico. Of all the western U.S. rarities that have turned up on the Cape, Islands, and South Coast in recent weeks, this bird is the crown jewel. 

But before we get to the redstart, I’d like to talk about Cuttyhunk, and why it has been such a magnet for rarity-seeking birders in recent years.

Cuttyhunk lies at the end of the Elizabeth Island chain at the pivot point between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. To the north lies the Bristol County mainland and six miles to the east is Martha’s Vineyard, with whom it shares Dukes County. Though one of the state’s more obscure inhabited islands, Cuttyhunk has become a boutique fall birding spot among some of the area’s younger and more adventurous birders, who rightly surmised that its location predisposes it to hosting rare migrant birds. Birds caught over Buzzards Bay or making their way southwest along the Elizabeth Island chain are likely to end up there, and the island’s small size and limited habitat makes it easily walkable, and birdable, in a day. Vehicles are scarce - the islands 50 some-odd residents use golf carts to get around town. If 50 people sounds a little small, Cuttyhunk is nevertheless the bustling metropolis of the Elizabeth Islands, which have only 75 residents between them.

Over the years, the island has amassed an impressive list of rare and vagrant birds, especially in light of how infrequently birders actually make it out there. The list includes Purple Gallinule, Varied Thrush, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and the state’s only record of Bewick’s Wren back in 1975. That makes this redstart only the second rarest bird in the island’s history, even though most entire states east of the rockies have no records of this species.

The Painted Redstart, boldly colored black, red, and white, is primarily a bird of the pine-oak zone in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, though it ranges from Nicaragua to southern Arizona, where it is one of the specialty birds targeted by U.S. birders. Like our local American Redstart, Painted Redstarts have a charming foraging style, where they flit actively about while flashing their white wing patches and outer tail feathers, presumably to startle their insect prey into moving.

I have no hope of getting to Cuttyhunk to look for this bird, so my memories of seeing them during my time in Mexico and Arizona will have to suffice.

If you want to get yourself to Cuttyhunk, good luck – after Columbus Day, the ferry, which leaves from New Bedford, only runs on Mondays and Fridays. The last time a Painted Redstart was seen in Massachusetts was 1947, so if you don’t get to see this one, just be patient – another will likely be along in 70 years or so.