Rare bird sighting brings crowds to Greenough

by Susan Emmons

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Birders gathered at the Greenough Land on Monday for a glimpse of the rare Fieldfare thrush. (Photo by Jane Hamilton)

Alan Ankers, a Carlisle resident and avid birder, spotted an unusual-looking bird on Sunday morning at the Greenough Land fields off Maple Street. His identification of this robin-like bird as a rare Fieldfare and his subsequent reporting of this sighting brought throngs of birders to Carlisle. The Fieldfare is a Eurasian thrush and the only other sighting of this bird in Massachusetts was in early April 1986 in Concord at Nine Acre Corner. This new sighting is also only the sixth ever reported in the lower 48 states.

The discovery

When asked about how he discovered this rarity, Ankers said, “Since it was a sunny morning, though a little cold, I decided to take a walk looking for birds, and to start at the Maple Street bridge and walk through the Greenough Land around the pond, through Great Meadows/O’Rourke’s and on to Foss Farm, thinking that there should be a few early migrants around, like Red-winged Blackbirds (yes), Phoebe (no) and Killdeer (no). I specifically went to the edge of the Red Pine woods because that field edge often has some interesting birds, and I wanted to check the larger field for Killdeer. There was a flock of 20-30 robins in the grass at the edge of the field. I’m not sure exactly why I examined them closely, but I suppose I always do that in case there is something unusual in among them. I certainly was not looking for a Fieldfare.”

The identification

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The Fieldfare thrush is seldom seen in Massachusetts.
(Courtesy photo by Justin Lawson)

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America mentions that the Fieldfare is often found with a flock of robins. Ankers noted that “one of the robins was clearly different—paler and speckled, kind of similar to a juvenile robin, but (a) it seemed to be the wrong pattern, and (b) you don’t get juvenile robins in March. Do you?”

Some of the other field marks he noted were gray head and rump, with a brown back between them. The spotted breast had black spots extending down the flanks, but with a clear white belly and a yellowish bill. After continuing his walk, Ankers finally went home and checked his field guides. He noted that, “I always tell people on my bird walks to take a field guide with them, but generally ignore my own advice in order to ‘travel light.’ I had tried to think what it could be, and thought there were two things I needed to check: first, see if robins do sometimes have spots in early spring, in a different pattern than what I am used to, and second, check Fieldfare. I had a strong suspicion that might be what this was. I knew they were rare here. Although I have not seen many of them, I did have some familiarity with them from many years ago in England.”

He continued, “When I checked my field guides, I quickly confirmed that there were no spotted spring robins, and then turned to Fieldfare and checked off all of the field marks. Now I was pretty sure what I had. I mulled over what to do next, how to handle this, whom to tell.”

Verifying the identification

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Fieldfare in flight. (Courtesy photo by J.R. Trimble)

Ankers took seriously the question of verifying his identification and the responsibility of reporting a rare bird which would undoubtedly result in huge crowds rushing to see the bird. There have been incidents of birders not respecting private property in their eagerness to spot a rarity and he was concerned about respecting the Greenough Land’s neighbors.

First to help verify the identification Ankers called Marj Rines in Arlington. Ankers says she “taught me most of what I know in the years we birded together when I lived in Medford. It took about two seconds for her to reply ‘I am on my way. Where should I meet you?’” She also called her former colleague at Mass Audubon, Simon Perkins, who had familiarity with Fieldfares. Local birders Tom and D’Ann Brownrigg were also called and quickly joined the group. “We were handsomely armed with cameras and telescopes now,” says Ankers.

Continuing his story Ankers adds, “When we got there, it took us about ten minutes to locate the bird. It was moving around quite a bit, from the ground to the trees, particularly eating berries of multiflora rose and bittersweet. Perkins immediately confirmed the identification and called Jeremiah Trimble in Cambridge, from the Mass Avian Records Committee. Just like the others he dropped everything and headed right out there. ‘This is going to be huge’ was one of his comments.”

Spreading the word

The reports spread quickly by phone and birding experts began arriving on Sunday afternoon. Ankers says that “By 3:30 p.m. I was starving and freezing, having not had lunch yet, so I headed home. I posted the sighting to Massbird shortly thereafter, and then word seemingly spread like wildfire. It was on the ABA (national) rare bird blog by evening.”

In less than 24 hours birders began pouring into the area. On Monday afternoon I counted over 50 birders, with many more still arriving at 4 p.m. One man said he had driven up from Cape Cod and waited four hours in the cold wind to spot the Fieldfare. Asked if it was worth it he said, “Absolutely!” Others we saw had arrived from Springfield, Kingston, Groton, Ipswich and the “south shore,” and were thrilled to add the Fieldfare to their life-lists of birds seen.

Birders often keep several lists of their sightings such as all birds seen in each state, in the U.S., in the world or in one year. The birders seen recently at Greenough were staying off the private land and graciously helping new arrivals find the latest spot where the Fieldfare had been seen.

D’Ann Brownrigg commented on her second trip to see this Fieldfare, “The human response to a rare bird is almost more interesting than the bird. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years.” ∆