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Musings on rare birds and media

Vermilion Flycatcher
Mark Faherty
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The famous Vermilion Flycatcher

After I filed my report last week about the Vermilion Flycatcher I found in Brewster, it went viral — for reasons not clear to me, this rare bird story grew wings. Beginning here with the Weekly Bird Report, it next made the Cape Cod Times, then a couple of Boston TV news stations, then the Boston Globe. Eventually it went national when USA Today picked up the story, bringing news of our little lost Cape Cod bird to half-interested hotel guests all over the country. The bird has since moved on, but it had a wild media ride during its stay.

Unlike most of the interesting and/or very rare birds I cover here in this space, it seemed like every non-birding relative, acquaintance, ex-girlfriend, former cellmate, and college roommate’s uncle had heard about the Vermilion Flycatcher of Brewster and let me know about it. It got me thinking about why this particular bird became such a media darling. It wasn’t even the rarest bird on the Cape in the last few months — that honor goes to a Common Redshank, an attractive Eurasian sandpiper never before seen on the East Coast, and one of just a few North American records. But because it was in an off-limits part of Monomoy refuge in Chatham, that monumentally rare bird was kept secret from birders for several months, including me, killing its chances at becoming a media star.

Then there was the Cape Verde Shearwater photographed east of Chatham back in August — that bird came from West Africa and was not just a first state record but also just the second record for all of North America. But it was a needle in a haystack, a brown and white seabird among brown and white seabirds in a vast ocean, never to be seen again and, thus, never to reach media virality.

In contrast, the Vermilion Flycatcher had it all from the birder’s perspective — rarity, looks, and easy accessibility. During its six-day stay, one could walk a few steps from a parking lot, mount a small footbridge, and enjoy a front-row seat to the flycatcher show. This engaging little bird habitually returned to a perch maybe 20 feet from the bridge and posed for photos.

Lazuli Bunting
Mark Faherty
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Lazuli Bunting

The best analog I can think of for this flycatcher was another little bird that got my picture in the Boston Globe, a Lazuli Bunting that I identified under the feeders at Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary back in February of 2012. That bird was a young male, like the Vermilion Flycatcher, and was also just a third or fourth state record. It started its media tour with the delightful and sadly defunct Cape Cast, still findable on YouTube, then made the Boston media, and I vaguely remember that for some reason Rush Limbaugh actually grumbled about it on his radio show. Someone even created a pretty funny Twitter profile for the bunting.

But no rare bird can beat the charisma and media stardom of the legendary Red-footed Falcon of Martha’s Vineyard, found by the equally legendary Vern Laux and identified by ultra-rare bird king of the Cape and Islands, Jeremiah Trimble, back in 2004. That was a first Western Hemisphere record of a gorgeous and mysterious bird of prey from Eastern Europe and Africa — birders were flying in from all over the country to see it. In addition to coverage in the New York Times, I vividly remember it got Vern on a national news broadcast as the NBC News person of the week.

So after spending several intense minutes analyzing the varying media success of these and other rare bird records, I came up with this helpful PR guide for rare birds wanting to go viral: be at least a little colorful; be super rare; be a cute, lost songbird, a big heron, or a spectacular bird of prey; hang out somewhere public and somewhat accessible; pose for the cameras, of course; and most of all, stay put for a while, so people from off-Cape can get a look at you. Being cryptic and furtive may help you hide from the predators, but you’ll never achieve avian influencer status if you don’t come out of the bushes.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.