Lifestyle

On Birds: The redwing is out of its element in Washington

By Frances Wood

"Never before seen in the American West." "This bird belongs in Europe."

"How'd it get all the way to Olympia, Washington?" These quotes from last December's newspaper accounts and excited observers describe the redwing, an eight-inch thrush that is very different from the familiar red-winged blackbird. Somehow this brownish redwing with prominent white eyebrows and splashes of rich chestnut on its flanks and underwings, managed a solo journey across the Atlantic Ocean -- possibly pausing in Greenland or Iceland. It then trekked across the Eastern United States and struggled over the Rocky and Cascade Mountains before alighting in Western Washington. Or perhaps, some suggest, it circled the globe from the other direction. We don't know.

I first met the redwing species 20 years ago while living in Liverpool, England. On outings along the Irish Sea north of the city, I observed small, loose flocks flying over rural fields flashing their reddish underwings. In spring the redwings offered a melodic thrush song, somewhat similar to our robin. Not surprisingly, the Olympia redwing has selected a similar habitat for its new, perhaps temporary home, a residential section of our state's capital city. The resourceful redwing joined a flock of American robins, one of its closest kin here in America, roving among and feeding on deciduous trees in the area. When discovered in December, word of the exotic visitor spread through birding circles. Birdwatchers from around the United States and Canada descended in droves.

Many got lucky and sighted the bird, happily adding it to their birding life lists. Others returned home disappointed. As of early March, the bird was still hanging around Olympia with its adopted flock of about 20 robins.

No one knows how the bird got nearly 12,000 miles from its normal range to Olympia. Ornithologists call these out-of-place birds "accidentals."

Sometimes these birds are here due to an error in navigation, other times it's a pioneer, intentionally looking for a new home.

It's bird pioneers who have expanded and relocated bird populations. Their wanderings contribute to the amazing diversity of bird species. Anna's hummingbirds, now year-round residents in the Puget Sound lowlands, are pioneers. Fifty years ago, the bird wasn't seen north of San Francisco Bay.

Yet, year-by-year, members of this hummingbird species ventured farther north to breed. Now their range stretches from Baja California as far north as British Columbia.

Anna's hummingbird traveled over land to expand its range, but other birds have ventured on voyages over sea. Some high-adventure pioneers populated the isolated Galapagos Islands, 650 miles off the western coast of South America. Probably blown from their regular flight plan and swept out to sea during a storm, enough individuals of each species found the Galapagos to establish a population. Even birds as small as a six-inch finch managed the open ocean trek. In addition to the redwing, this winter has brought a handful of unusual sightings to Western Washington. Blue jays, an eastern cousin to our Steller's jay, typically found east of the Mississippi River, have been observed across the west and into Western Washington. Even mountain chickadees, residents of montane conifer forests have fluttered down to the Puget Sound lowlands. The possibility of seeing accidentals certainly adds spice to the hobby of birdwatching.

However, none of these out-of-place birds comes close to the redwing thrush for popping up in the "wrong" place. So far this spring the thrush, a migrating bird, has been content to stay in Olympia. Even though the robins of his adopted clan have begun their spring singing, the thrush has stayed quiet, at least to the ears of its observers.

Many birdwatchers are wondering if our new visitor will migrate away. And if it does decide to leave, where it will go next. Who knows, perhaps the redwing will return again next year and bring along more of its species.

Frances Wood is the author of Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West available in local bookstores. She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com

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