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A very rare visitor lands in Brewster

Vermilion Flycatcher
Mark Faherty
Vermilion Flycatcher

This week I have the unusual pleasure of talking about a really rare bird recently found here on Cape Cod. That part is not so unusual – some might say I do that too much already. The really rare part is that I’m the one who found the rare bird. And it was a real doozy - this one ticked all the boxes for a crowd-pleasing find. It’s good looking, it’s easy to find and see, almost criminally easy to photograph, and no one has ever seen one on the Cape and Islands before. Since I found it on Friday I suspect a few hundred folks from multiple states have been to Brewster to see it, some multiple times, likely causing a one-bird spike in the shoulder season economy. The bird causing all the stir is a Vermilion Flycatcher.

I had some time between meetings on Friday and found myself in the neighborhood of the same landing in Brewster I talked about last week. The first bird I saw in the parking lot was a White-crowned Sparrow, an uncommon migrant, which seemed auspicious. After a few minutes an odd red hue caught my eye atop a dead cedar in the marsh, close to where I saw a different flycatcher last week. Upon raising my binoculars I quickly realized what I was looking at, improbable though it was. I broke into a sprint, heart pounding from a combination of adrenaline and poor cardiovascular fitness. After getting a few photos for proof, I got the word out, and the birding cavalry began to arrive within 10 minutes. A birding group from Western Mass happened to be nearby and they, oddly, were among the first on the scene, beating all but one local birder.

The males of this species are truly stunning, and this was a young male sporting most of the red plumage of an adult, though more orangey and less intense. The ragged crown and underparts are red – the rest is brown. Describing the color of birds is not my forte – I’m the guy that looks at all the paint shades my wife assembles, the ones with names like eggshell and Chantilly lace and says, “Ok, so white?” This bird is red, but that doesn’t quite cut it. A male Vermilion Flycatcher is truly an intense, glowing vermilion. They used to call it cinnabar, an old color with a dark history, involving Roman prison labor and mercury poisoning – look it up some time. The flycatcher gets the color from bugs, which seems safer. The bugs get it from plant carotenoids.

The Vermilion Flycatcher is an adult male from Belize.
Mark Faherty
An adult male vermilion flycatcher in Belize.

This species had only been recorded three times in Massachusetts, with those records spread out between 1954 and 2017, and never on the Cape or islands. The closest US population would be in Texas or Arizona, so this bird, like Bugs Bunny in the cartoons of old, could literally have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Being a young male, it certainly didn’t stop to ask directions. But it also could have come from Venezuela – at this time of year, both southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere Vermilion Flycatchers would be flying south, either to catch Austral summer in Argentina or to escape northern winter in Arizona. Venezuela is actually closer than Arizona as the flycatcher flies, and there is precedent for South American flycatchers ending up in this area.

I suspect the bird will stay around a while – these wrong-way vagrants don’t tend to slap themselves in the forehead and realize they screwed up, they stick it out wherever they end up. Photos posted by his many admirers show he’s well fed and enjoying a rather catholic diet of invertebrates, including crickets, spiders, caterpillars, and even the little marine crustaceans known as amphipods, which it snatches from the marsh mud. It should be ok here for a while unless we get a lot of snow.

Nevertheless, I recommend looking for this bird sooner than later, as you never know – it might leave, or a falcon could pluck it from its favorite perch any day now. If you miss your chance to see what may be the hemisphere’s most beautiful flycatcher, then boy won’t you be left vermilion faced.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.