fuscescens) Note: Record Rejected by California
Bird Records Committee
Fish Docks, Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California
1 October 2004
Photos © 1 October 2004 by James F. Holmes. All rights reserved.
This morning Robbie Fischer and I drove out to Point Reyes hoping to find vagrant rarities. The combination of high overcast skies and light southerly winds at this time of year has proven to be highly favorable for finding rare birds at Point Reyes and today did not disappoint. By late morning we had been fortunate to see two Black-and-white Warblers, 2 Indigo Buntings, a Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Tennessee Warbler. When we arrived at the Fish Docks I decided to take the main trail to the right along the upper row of trees. As I approached the trees a large number of sparrows (Zonotrichia) flushed as well as a few Fox Sparrows. However I noticed one bird fly from the trail down towards the trees that had an unusual rusty coloration on its back and a thrush-like flight. It occurred to me that the bird might be a Veery but it quickly disappeared and I more-or-less forgot about it. Later as we were leaving, we met Ellen Blustein and David Herlocker by the water tanks. They were studying a Myiarchus flycatcher. I was quite interested in getting a look at this bird, because this is the peak time-period for Great Crested Flycatchers in California. We quickly got good views of the flycatcher working in a downed cypress tree near where I had seen the mysterious reddish thrush. The flycatcher turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher. But when Ellen mentioned that they had also seen a very reddish colored thrush in the area I became quite interested. I suggested that it might have been a Veery, a possibility they had considered, but they were not familiar with the species and were unsure and hesitant about it. Then Jim Holmes arrived to look at the Ash-throated Flycatcher. He was at the bottom of the hill and suddenly started shouting "Oh my God! There's a VEERY!" He tried to point out where the bird was; I ran down the hill but the bird disappeared by some rocks under a small cypress near where I had seen my mystery reddish-colored thrush earlier. We decided to try patience and we were rewarded as the Veery appeared several times, hopping on large limbs of the big downed cypress, overgrown with a large nightshade shrub with purple flowers and large green fruits. It also was seen on the ground under the tree, but the best views were when the Veery was on top of the main limbs in full light.
Jim snapped a few distant photos with his 10X optical zoom digital camera . I borrowed David's cell phone and called the Northern California BirdBox to get the word out, as it was not yet Noon, and the bird was being reasonably cooperative. Jim decided to walk over to the upper trail to try to get better photos, but a Cooper's Hawk flew into nearby trees and the birds stopped moving for quite a while. Ted and Scott Cooper arrived and waited with us for the bird to appear again, which it did eventually. This time it came out onto an open limb and stayed still for several minutes while closing its right eye. We were wondering if it was going to sleep. At this point Jim got additional photos of the bird, two of which you can see here, while we all watched it and confirmed all field marks.
We spent about an hour studying the bird, but total viewing time was probably about five minutes of good clear views through 8x40 binoculars. The following description is based on notes made while watching the bird and reference to the photos.
A rather small compact thrush about the size of a Hermit Thrush which was also seen in the area, but the two were never together for direct size comparison. The upperparts struck me as a rather dark brown with a strong reddish cast becoming tawny-orange on the face and throat. The colors varied depending on the light and the bird seemed brighter when in the open than in deep shade. The dark eye showed no obvious eyering under most lighting conditions, but under good light, a narrow grayish-buff eyering was visible. There was no evident pale area in the lores. Instead the rich tawny coloration suffused the entire head (the photos do not do justice to this coloration). The throat was a paler color, but was still suffused with a rich tawny that overwhelmed the smallish light brown spots on the upper chest. This strongly colored chest formed a very distinct bib contrasting with the grayish wash on the rest of the breast and underparts. The breast was marked with diffuse grayish spots. The flanks were grayish with a slight brownish cast, but contrasted strongly with the reddish-brown coloration of the folded wings. The undertail coverts were pale grayish and there was a distinct dark-reddish wedge-shaped mark on the sides of the vent separated from the grayish flanks and sides by pale grayish-white.
The bill was dark and the legs were pink. In the field I was unable to detect a pale base to the mandible.
The wings and tail appeared quite short giving the bird a very compact appearance, and it seemed to assume a more horizontal stance when at rest than the more upright posture of the Hermit Thrush. I looked for dark malar markings and could not see any such marks.
The most obvious difference between this bird and the Hermit and Swainson's thrushes in the area is that the spots on the upper chest were very indistinct compared to the spotting on those species. In fact the chest appeared hardly spotted at all. The strong contrast between the tawny-buff bib and the grayish lower chest was also quite different from the more blended coloration of the ground-color on the other two common species. When the bird was in view, there was never any question about what it was or whether we were on the right bird. It was very obvious.
This is a species which should be identified with extreme caution. In the past I have been skeptical of claims of this species in which the observers were not aware of how bright rufous the upperparts of the West Coast subspecies of Swainson's Thrush (C. ustulatus ustulatus) can be. However this individual showed all the characters of Veery and we were fortunate to be able to study the bird over a prolonged period of time and had the luxury of checking and rechecking the critical field marks.
This is the second Veery I have seen in California. My first was at the Point Reyes Lighthouse on June 20, 1982. I believe that all California records, including this one, are consistent with the western subspecies (C. f. salicicola).
A number of interested birders arrived later in the afternoon and some reported seeing the Veery in a different spot towards the far corner. I checked there and found a Swainson's Thrush and at least one person decided that was the bird he had seen earlier which he had taken to be the Veery. However other observers were sure they had seen the Veery there and reported that they had heard the calls of both Swainson's Thrush and Veery from this clump. During our observations, the Veery was silent.
The photos on this page have subsequently been identified as being of a Hermit Thrush, by one of California's premier birders. In the interest in resolving this issue, I have posted the entire series of photos by Jim Holmes at a temporary site. These are photos of the bird I saw. All photos have been cropped, but not been digitally enhanced in any other way. As always, all opinions are welcome.
I continue to be completely convinced that the bird we saw was a Veery and I stand by my description. The concern apparently stems from an artifact of some of the photos which show the eyering more prominant than it was in life. The contention that we studied a Hermit Thrush for the better part of an hour is bizarre. I am unaware of any plumage of Hermit Thrush which remotely approaches the chest pattern of the bird we saw. It was essentially unspotted as shown in the photos. Also the claim that "unusual molt" could have resulted in the Veery chest pattern on a Hermit Thrush is quite far-fetched in my view.
Final notes (25 August 2006)
Despite rejection by the California Bird Records Committee, I continue to believe this bird was a Veery. Most committee members felt that this bird was actually a Swainson's Thrush, an opinion with which I disagree.