Lost Travelers from the West

A quarter of a century ago, in late February 1995, my 28-year old self, en route to Cape May for the weekend, emerged from a subway station in Brooklyn, New York. Locating the street information given to me by friends, I soon found myself furtively skulking around some block of flats in a sketchy area of Flatbush Avenue. With a variety of colourful characters peppering the neighborhood, I felt quite anxious to say the least. With my bins hidden under my jacket to avoid being a mugging victim, I tried to blend in and look confident that I had some purpose for being there. I couldn’t help thinking, “What the bloody hell was a Varied Thrush doing HERE!!”

There were no trees in sight in this urban jungle of masonry and high-rise tenements. A mild stench of a mixture of exhaust fumes, urine and garbage pervaded the air. I thought about just calling it quits and high-tailing it to perceived safety, but there was a bird to chase. I wandered around for a little while, turning down an alley between two buildings, not really having any idea of where to look for a rare thrush from the West coast. Of all the places for a denizen of lichen-clad Ancient forests to find itself, this spot seemed the exact opposite. This one’s wiring was certainly knackered to say the least.  As I emerged from the alley, I looked across two fenced off areas. At the back, was a tall tree, silhouetted against the sky. At the top of it, was a lone starling, sitting upright.

Looking around, I unzipped my coat and discreetly raised my bins to look at the Starling, since something looked a bit “off”. I was more than shocked to find the Starling was orange and black. “Holy crap…that’s it!!”

It was distant, but there was no mistaking the clear lines of a male Varied Thrush. The black mask and breast band contrasting sharply with orange supercilium, wingbars and underparts – a stunning thrush!

Male varied Thrush, Brooklyn, NY, Feb 1995.

I soaked up the bird but a minute later, and without warning, it dropped from the treetop and disappeared out of sight. Job done, I decided not to tempt fate with any further exploration and high-tailed it out of there.

Life is indeed strange and often circuitous. Fast forward to today, February 16th 2020, and for the past four years, Brooklyn has strangely become my second home of sorts, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time driving down Flatbush Avenue, often within a few blocks of that sighting all those years prior. This past weekend, while hanging out at the apartment of my partner, Ingrid, I took the opportunity to head a few blocks up to Prospect Park, where another Varied Thrush had been hanging out. I had tried for it back in December, but the bird was elusive and I had dipped. It had become a little more cooperative in the past few weeks and while far-ranging, it was favoring leaf-littered slopes around the Nethermead Arches.

As luck would have it, as I left the apartment, I got a text that the bird was showing. I was onsite quite quickly and met Brendan Fogarty who had seen it briefly but had since lost sight of it. I wandered up and down the path along the ravine and pond on the south side of the bridge, but ½ an hour of looking drew a blank. There was bird activity and the thrush had been hanging around with Blue Jays and White-throated Sparrows, so I felt encouraged that the bird was still around. A quick call from Sean Sime helped flesh-out the favored areas in the immediate vicinity to check. There were no other birders around, and the area was clogged with people and dog-walkers. On the other side of the pond, I could hear some American Robins, so I walked over and found a few feeding in the leaf litter. A glance through them twice revealed nothing. I continued to watch from this one spot. Scanning again, I was jolted out of despair by the bold white supercilium and orange underparts of the Varied Thrush tossing over leaves. Boom! Light was great and the bird was close, giving great views. Suddenly something spooked them and the bird flew up, perching thankfully in good light. I hastily squeezed off a few shots before the bird dropped and flew out of sight.

Female Varied Thrush, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2020

I spent a few hours in that area, and twice more the bird came back to the same triangular area of leafy understory and I was able to get a few other local birders onto it. It was quite obliging and performed well.

Female Varied Thrush, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2020. The greyish-brown earcoverts and greyish breast band sex this as a female. The tail was brownish-grey, and with no obvious moult contrast in the wing-feathers, I felt ageing it accurately was not possible.

My second Brooklyn Varied Thrush under the belt. This one though was a female – quite killer looking, but not as crisp and dapper as the previous male.

Cold had penetrated my bones at this point so I left to get some lunch and try for the Painted Bunting at Brooklyn Bridge Park, again only a three minute drive from the apartment. I was not so lucky with that, views being the arse end of it flying away never to be relocated. However it was a good opportunity to check out Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brooklyn Bridge park against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

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