Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rush for the Thrush: One Rare and One Not

[SE Arizona, December 2012]

A chance encounter with Robert B. who is doing a big year (http://my2012bigyear.blogspot.com/) led to a determined search for the Mexican endemic, but annual casual visitor to the US, the Rufous-backed Robin (also more correctly known as the Rufous-backed Thrush). I first met Robert in June 2012 at Estero Llano Grande in the RGV area of Texas where Huck Hutchens, a very knowledgeable and friendly guide at the Park, had kindly shown us many of the area specialties including rose-throated becard and clay-colored robin. Thus, it was quite a surprise to run into Robert again at Sabino Canyon in Tucson, AZ -- 6 months later, both of us on the same trail at the same time -- and ultimately, the same quest: to find the Rufous-backed Robin.

Thanks to the Arizona Rare Bird Alert (RBA), Robert had "precise" directions to the spot where the robin could be found and in the fading light of the evening, we proceeded to seek the elusive thrush. The dimmer the light, the more optimistic our sightings -- a curve-billed thrasher or a fleeting Towhee -- all became perfect impersonations of the rufous-backed. After several desperate attempts, darkness descended and disheartened but not discouraged, we vowed to reconvene the next morning.

The next day, Robert, who is diligently chasing 600 species for the year, was due to fly out of Phoenix in the late morning and therefore had a hard stop at 8 am; any longer, and both the peach-faced lovebirds in Phoenix [Robert's next target species] and his flight back to Toronto would be at risk.

When the following morning arrived, the temperature was in the 30's and we braved the unseasonal cold to continue the quest for the rufous-backed. Robert looked above the Sabino Dam area while I looked just below it. Ultimately, Robert saw (and photographed) the robin and proceeded to his appointment with the peach-faced lovebirds in Phoenix; giving me "precise" directions before he left: that the rufous-backed could be found under the "big willow" above the dam. It was then up to me, to reconstruct the sighting for my benefit -- but would this thrush extraordinaire cooperate? After several hours of fruitless searching under the big willow, a party of birders lent many more pairs of eyes to the quest. And the resulting accumulation of "good birder's karma" led to the rufous-backed being spotted perched high up in the tree:


Wishing it would come closer, the robin suddenly flew down, and, as if having read my mind, proceeded to drink from a pool of water no more than 20 feet away. It was now very close to me but the light was decidedly contre-jour:


This photo, though poor, highlights the main identification features of this thrush: grey head, white but streaked throat, grey rump and tail, yellow bill, and, of course, rufous back and breast.

Not satisfied with the photographic quality, I made further attempts -- and in doing so, came across a much more familiar turdid -- the Hermit Thrush:



Of course, as a general rule, I've found that the birds you are not desperately seeking tend to photograph a lot better than the ones you are; and, the Hermit Thrush proved no exception as it cooperatively posed for several "killer" shots.

However, ultimately, the Rufous-backed Thrush relented and gave some good views:



A shy bird, it was always two hops ahead of me and constantly aware of the need to be visually obstructed from the photographer. Its preference for dimly lit places, scurrying about in the leaf-litter didn't help either. But, finally, some decent shots:


And, the final shot in the series that shows the rufous-back:


A chance encounter with a birder on a big year -- first Texas and now Arizona -- Robert's news about the Rufous-backed Robin and a satisfying attempt to document this elusive species in the US -- all made this an unforgettable quest for a rare thrush.

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