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Two rarities and an oddity

The likely “partial albino” Painted Bunting
Wil Sprauve
The likely “partial albino” Painted Bunting

I’ve noted before that birds come at us from all directions here. This week’s headliner birds are a case in point — one came from Arctic Asia, another from Central America. The third, which will take some explanation, is perhaps the rarest of all, though it only hopped up from the American southeast. Thus begins today’s tale of two rarities and an oddity.

The first of these vagrants we’ll discuss was found on Saturday at my office, Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary. Megan Miller, one of our banders, texted me about a yellow kingbird she found at the sanctuary. These almost always turn out to be Western Kingbirds, a definitely rare but expected species here in fall. But Megan comes from out west, where there are up to four very similar species of kingbird with yellow underparts, and she suspected this bird was something a lot more newsworthy — a Tropical Kingbird. I urged her to get a recording of the call, which she eventually did, cementing the identification of this bonafide super-rarity. This was just the third ever record for the Cape and Islands of this Central and South American species, and the sixth record for Massachusetts.

I was, of course, off-Cape at the time, and hoping this fancy bird would stick around. Luckily it did, and I was able to see and photograph it the next day with the whole family. I was surprised how few birders I ran into that day. It turned out that in addition to this very rare bird, there was an outrageously rare bird just outside our listening area in Rhode Island, and it was sucking up all the regional rare bird oxygen: Rhode Island’s first ever Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was drawing birders in droves from around New England.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Alan Schmierer
CCO 1.0
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers breed in Arctic Siberia and travel and winter throughout the Pacific Rim, so this individual apparently got some bad directions at a gas station. This is a real birders bird – obscure and subtly arrayed in shades of brown – so most would puzzle at the fuss. But many made the trip to Galilee, near Point Judith, for the chance to see it. Most had probably never seen one before, making it a “life bird”, as we say – the ultimate birding prize.

We have to travel back to Wellfleet Bay sanctuary to meet our third bird, the oddity. As often happens, an unusual bird leads to more unusual birds. So it was on Sunday, when some looking for the Tropical Kingbird stumbled upon a small yellow bird feeding in the weeds around the buildings. A few got pictures, and showed them to me on the backs of their cameras, in hopes this was a Painted Bunting. “No”, I scoffed, “this bird is completely the wrong color for Painted Bunting”, which should be all green. This mystery bird was pale yellowish with white wings, recalling one of the many plumages of domestic canaries, which sometimes escape into the wild – one was loose in Falmouth just last month.

But, after studying more and better photos on bigger screens and seeking some expert opinion, including from a couple of world-renowned ornithologists and field guide authors, most of are thinking this is a partial albino Painted Bunting, a species I had scoffingly said two days ago that it “clearly was not”. I don’t know how to calculate the rarity of the sanctuary’s first record of Painted Bunting also being an albino, but let’s just say, mathematically speaking, that it’s rare to a wicked high power.

Tropical Kingbird
Mark Faherty
Tropical Kingbird

While the Tropical Kingbird has stuck around for many to see, this unassuming, ultra-rare oddball bunting disappeared before I ever laid eyes on it. If you happen to find it, please let me know right away. I promise not to scoff this time. No one likes a scoffer.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.