Expecting The Unexpected

By: Mary Richmond


My childhood obsession with birds began when I was eight years old. We had a bird feeder attached to the kitchen window and I had a brand new deck of Audubon bird cards. I also had a third grade teacher who shared her own sightings and recommended that I go to the then fairly new Cape Cod Museum of Natural History on Saturdays for class field trips. My parents agreed to take me and after a few weeks of bouncing around in the back of John Hay’s creaky station wagon learning to identify birds by sight and sound, I was hooked for life.

Many birders keep lists of birds they see in particular places or specific time periods. They join in on all sorts of bird counts and compare notes with other birders. I have to admit I am not a big joiner of groups or events so mostly I go out birding by my lonesome, as my dad would have said. Over the years I’ve seen some wonderful things I hadn’t expected, but to be honest, I’ve never kept a list.

On New Year’s Day I went for a casual beach walk with my husband and our dog. The day was mild and there were many others out for a stroll to start off the new year as well. There were buffleheads bobbing, brant grazing and both herring and ring-billed gulls keeping watch. I heard the snow buntings before I saw them, but they rarely disappoint in this location. There were the resident song and Savannah sparrows and a scattering of fish crows.

I always have my eye out for a particular kind of hawk in this place and as we turned the corner at the point, a female northern harrier glided low over the dunes not far from where we stood. It was a breathtaking view of a beautiful, strong bird. I decided it was a good omen to have seen her on the first day of the year and stamped the vision deep into my memory for safekeeping.

Over the next few days there were many cardinals, chickadees, blue jays and robins. There were nuthatches, titmice, Carolina wrens and house wrens. There was a noisy mockingbird and a flock of cedar waxwings that visited the holly trees. There were golden crowned kinglets, a Cooper’s hawk and a red-tailed hawk. White throated sparrows had arrived a few weeks back in my yard and were now foraging alongside the song sparrows that have claimed my garden as their own.

My urban yard is small but there are trees, shrubs and old flower and grass heads as well as my motley collection of feeders. I just put out black oil sunflower and suet and over the years have attracted some rather wonderful rarities as well as the usual suspects to my yard.

As I rinsed out my coffee cup I watched a pair of house finches feeding. They were joined by a rather lovely green and yellow bird. I turned off the water. For several winters I had an orange crowned warbler hanging around, but this bird was different. I slowly moved away from the window to get my camera. When I returned, the bird was gone.

I quickly looked up the bird I suspected and yep, that was it. I didn’t have to wait long for it to return. It sat at the feeder, taking its fill of seed with its strong beak. Obviously it wasn’t a warbler. It also nibbled at the suet, but seed was its preference. I looked at it and I swear it looked in the window back at me. By this time I had the camera on and focused and was snapping away. It is one thing to say you saw a rare bird but when you are alone, you need to have visual proof of your find.

Later I sent a few photos to Mark Faherty of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Peter Trimble, a birding friend of mine. My neighborhood, being in the center of Hyannis, is not a place for a lot of binoculars and big cameras, if you catch my drift, so I didn’t make a big fuss about having this bird in my yard. A few trusted folks came by to enjoy the sighting. It’s not every day we have a super star bird in downtown Hyannis.

The bird in question is a female or immature male painted bunting. It’s an elegant, lovely bird with lime green and lemon yellow coloration. The bird in my yard seems to be traveling with the house finches, arriving and leaving with them throughout the day. Apparently it is not the only one to be seen recently as reports have come in from other towns as well.

I often wonder how many amazing and rare birds pass through yards and driveways all around us. This bird has been around the neighborhood for a few days now. It probably visits other feeders. My neighbors had seen it but didn’t bother to identify it. Being alert to different birds or simple changes from the expected sightings can be fun and exciting. You never know what you’ll see out there. Brush off the binoculars and get outside. And don’t forget the bird guide, whether it’s a book or an app. Expect the unexpected.