GNH Lumber February 2024

THROUGH THE WOODS: A rare Western visitor

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Sage thrasher. Photo courtesy of Larry Federman

THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCITING WEEK for birdwatchers in Columbia County. Birders from all over New York state and beyond flocked to the Columbia Land Conservancy Ooms Conservation Area in Chatham. A sage thrasher normally found in Western states such as Arizona was found on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 and photographed by Barbara Sylvester, who sent the photo on to expert birders to confirm its identification. Birders are well connected through various online birding organizations and word went out with the speed of the internet and some of the first bird experts from the Albany area began arriving.

The sage thrasher looks like a yellow-eyed cross between a Northern mockingbird and a brown thrasher. This one is a real ham and throws in a disappearing act periodically to keep observers on their toes. Its favorite spot is a group of shrubs and bushes at the eastern pond edge not far from the highway. A buckthorn loaded with fruit is a feast for the bird which is supplemented with short flights out to the field to forage for insects in the grass. Good birders are patient and quietly waited for the thrasher to satisfy its needs and photographers clicked away from various vantage points obtaining many good shots.

This bird species was first found by me during a trip to Arizona way back in the 1970s. Currently the most excitement has been watching the birdwatchers. The parking spots at Ooms have been packed with vehicles from dawn to sunset each day. Cars pull out and others pull in. Trunks are popped open and backpacks, binoculars, and cameras are carried to the site. Some use tripods. Cell phones are pulled out to look at references and file reports. Varieties of thousands of dollars of equipment are a treat to view and often a cause of great envy.

There have been young to old, amateurs to professionals and the usual hikers and dog walkers stroll through, giving curious stares or stop to inquire about what is happening. Sometimes the scene has choreographed movement. The birders are spread out to cover more vantage points. When the bird is spotted everyone carefully moves to a discreet distance and binoculars are picked up and long camera lenses point to the bird. Most are frozen in place until the bird moves again. Yesterday toward sunset a carload of photographers with an out of state license were less careful than some. Possibly from desperation at the fading light, they were more aggressive in their search. One man sat in the bushes and chain-smoked cigarettes at the damp pond’s edge near the buckthorn. It was comical when a chickadee flew in and perched above his head. He was unaware and I chuckled. Too bad it hadn’t been the thrasher.

Larry Federman of Palenville related his experience: “My wife Joyce and I arrived at Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland Pond around 2:40 p.m. to try to see the errant sage thrasher. There were a couple of other birders on the scene, but the thrasher hadn’t been located since earlier that day. We staked out the favored buckthorn bush and at around 3 p.m., Joyce took a little walk along the main path, to the east. Next thing I know, she’s waving her arms to get my attention! The thrasher was on the ground, foraging!”

The sage thrasher is in good shape, well fed, and we wish it a safe journey home.

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