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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

And Now For Something Completely Different

A couple weeks ago, I found myself at Mason Farm looking for migrants. I heard Prairie Warblers singing in the fields and Summer Tanager calling from the trees, but I couldn’t find the truly migrant species I was looking for. On a whim, I decided to check out the back side of the large pond. Much to my delight, I found good numbers of Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers probing the mud there.

"Solitary" my ass - there were at least eight or ten of these guys swarming the mudflats!

Some of the Solitaries even started a mating dance, splaying out their tail feathers and performing intricate footwork by instinct. But that wasn’t the most exciting part about the place, nor was the Green Heron I flushed from my feet. Looking out across the flats, I noticed a bird flying and perching on whatever branch it could find sticking out of the mud.

Are you lookin' at me? Are you lookin' at me? There's no one else here, you must be lookin' at me!

It honestly threw me for a loop – at first, it was like nothing I’d seen before, but then logic set in. The bird, for whatever reason, was missing its head feathers. I’m used to this in Northern Cardinals, whose baldness causes them to look like that one Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. But this bird was entirely different from a cardinal, and looking past the odd head, I noticed it looked exactly like an Eastern Phoebe – just, of course, without the crest.

As a matter of fact, no facial feathers of any kind! Makes for a totally weird-lookin' bird...

This bird is positively amazing, and not simply because it looks different from a normal phoebe. Check out how long the bill looks – were the bird covered in feathers, it would seem much much shorter. We take for granted that birds, like this phoebe, are perfectly adapted for flight, and part of that means minimizing all other tissue in the body. Skin, muscles, and beak are extremely reduced in Passerines, and the rest – well that’s, as they say, light as a feather.

As much as I’m looking for rare warblers or flycatchers this migration, I think I’m going to chalk this bird as a lifer. Not my life bird per se, but my lifer experience with something so totally unexpected that it makes me throw out everything I know about bird identification and see it for what it really was – an oddly beautiful Eastern Phoebe.


  1. Hi, Robert,
    Would you be willing to allow me and a friend to join you on one of your birding excursions to Mason Farm? We are pretty serious birders and know how to stand still for long periods and be quiet ; ) You can email me at

  2. Jill - sure thing! I'll let you know the next time I'm heading out there.