CHESTERTOWN — Have you ever seen a vermilion flycatcher? If so, you’re either very lucky or well-traveled. The little songbird, native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, has only been spotted four times in Maryland. And one of them was in Kent County, over the recent Christmas holidays.
Maren Gimple, who compiled the Christmas bird count for the Kent County branch of the National Audubon Society, wrote in an email Sunday, Jan. 10, “Jim & Trish Gruber with Amanda Spears were birding on Quail Run Nursery when they found a vermilion flycatcher.”
Gimple said the sighting took place Dec. 27, when 21 volunteer birdwatchers covered an area defined by a 15-mile diameter circle centered on Chesterville, recording every bird they saw. The count recorded 98 species and a total of 118,441 individual birds. But the flycatcher was something special.
According to the online Audubon field guide to birds, the species is most common in Mexico and farther south, though it is known to winter in the Gulf Coast states. It is usually found near water, especially when it’s out of its usual range. The bird spotted here was a female. The males are much more brightly colored.
“We were in the maintenance yard of the nursery, watching bluebirds, and it was in with them” Jim Gruber said Tuesday, Jan. 19. “Amanda knew what it was. She’s birded in the Southwest.”
Gruber said western birds have been showing up in Maryland for years, brought to the East Coast by southwest winds. Part of the reason they’re being noticed recently is the presence of more experienced birders who can identify them, he said. He said there’s an annual “rarities roundup” in Ocean City every November, where local birders see a number of species not native to the area.
Gruber said the flycatcher is an insectivore, as its name suggests. As a consequence, the recent cold snap and blizzard may mean trouble for it by killing off its food supply. Colder weather will either chase the bird to warmer climates or kill it outright, he said. If it doesn’t get enough to eat, it won’t be strong enough to fly away from the cold.
Gimple said in a followup email Tuesday, Jan. 26, that the bird was most recently reported Jan. 20. However, she said, that didn’t mean it had left the area, only that it hadn’t been reported. “If it can find food it seems plausible that it could survive,” she wrote.
Gimple said Rob Ditmar, owner of Quail Run Nursery, opened up the site to birders interested in adding the bird to their lists. As of Jan. 14, eBird, a website run by Cornell University to record bird sightings, listed 139 visits to the nursery, she said. Some of those may have been repeat visits, and not all visitors necessarily saw the bird, she said. Also, she said, not all birders use the website, so there may be more sightings that aren’t recorded.
Other unusual species on this year’s count, Gimple said, included a loggerhead shrike found by the Grubers and Spears a few miles north of the vermilion flycatcher, a hybrid Canada goose/white-fronted goose found by Walter Ellison and Nancy Martin, and a great egret found at Sassafras by Jared Parks, Tara Holste and Zach Parks.
“One weird thing going on with birds this winter is an unusually high number of neotropical migrants that are still in our area, when they should have gone to their wintering grounds in Central America and the Caribbean long ago,” Gimple wrote. She said some birders speculate that there are always a few that don’t leave, and this year’s warmer weather allowed them to survive here — and also encouraged more birders to get out and record them.
The annual Christmas bird count is conducted entirely by volunteers, who report their findings to the Audubon Society. The Washington College Center for Environment & Society, where Gimple works, is a sponsor of the count.
For those interested in learning more about birds and birding, the Maryland Ornithological Society has a Kent County chapter which meets monthly at Heron Point. Martin is the president. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The club is also listed on the Chestertown website: www.kentcounty.com/recreation/birding/birding-club.