Yesterday, Jeannette and I discovered a Bell’s Vireo on Abner Point Road, Bailey Island in Harpswell. There are only three previous records of Bell’s Vireo for the state of Maine.
In other words: MEGA! And needless to say – especially since I missed the two from last year, despite my best efforts – this was a thrilling find, capping a very productive morning of birding Bailey Island that included a Yellow-breasted Chat (my first of the year) at Land’s End, and a total of 5 species of warblers on Bailey Island this am: Hundreds of Yellow-rumps, and one each of Black-throated Blue, Black-and-white, Common Yellowthroat, and Blackpoll. Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and other seasonal migrants made for a very birdy visit.
In what turned out to be our last stop of the morning, Jeannette and I walked Abner Point Road. Upon reaching a promising thicket (see directions below), I began to pish. Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Winter Wren responded immediately, and as Jeannette attempted to photograph the wren, I sorted through the yellow-rumps, hoping to find one with a yellow throat. A handful of minutes later (about 10:35am), we heard a harsh, scolding chatter emanating from the dense vegetation. “Vireo?” Jeannette asked quizzically as we both looked at each other, unsure of the sound – it sounded like nothing we are used to hearing. I wondered out loud about a Carolina Wren making some odd sound (they’re good at that, and there was one in that particular thicket), and the nasal quality led me to consider a funky Red-breasted Nuthatch. We looked hard but could not turn up anything that fit the sound.
About 5 minutes later, a small vireo pops out of the brush in front of me. At first I called “White-eyed Vireo” due to the bright yellow flanks and overall shape, but then I got a clear look at the head. “BELL’S VIREO!” I exclaimed, as Jeannette, a few yards away still working on photographing the wren rushed over.
As is often the case for Bell’s Vireos, it quickly ducked back into the cover. I continued to pish, and the bird popped back up. I had a second brief, but unobstructed view of the whole bird. Jeannette went for the camera, and prepared to fire away, only to see the bird dive back into the shadows once again. One last brief glimpse of the bird was all we would have for the next hour.
We searched hard, but could not relocate it. A Blue-headed Vireo was more cooperative, and permitted us some comparison. We listened to a recording of the call of a Bell’s, and there was no question in either of our minds’ that is what we had heard earlier.
We thought we heard that call in the distance of the thicket one more time, and perhaps even a snippet of a song, but background noise and an increasing southerly wind made us unsure of that. And that wind was clearly not making this skulker any more likely to show itself. At 11:50, we heard the distinctive call once again, but from thick shrubs behind a house across the street. We hustled over, but unfortunately only managed to pish in a cat (one of at least five in this immediate area; it was worse than Monhegan!), which was likely the object of the vireo’s recent ire. We worked the area as best as we could, and eventually saw the homeowner in her yard and received permission to wander around. No luck. We had also received permission earlier from the homeowner adjacent to the first thicket to check her yard, so we did another circuit, but we came up empty, and it was getting breezier and cloudier. Lunchtime was calling us, too.
While I left with almost three pages of field notes, it was rather frustrating to not get a photo, especially since Jeannette was so close to snapping it! However, as a firm believer in the value of written field notes for documentation of rare birds, I scrawled away in my notebook. Here are the particulars, after seeing the entire bird well a couple of times, with notes entered in rough order of observation, not in order of relative importance (edited only for context, not content):
- Overall relatively dully-marked, small vireo. Body shape and size, and brief glimpse of the body color first suggestive of White-eyed Vireo, the expected rarity here.
- Fairly bright and extensive yellow on sides, from chest through undertail (suggestive of the Eastern subspecies?)
- Dull olive-gray back. Dull greenish-gray wings. Lack of contrast anywhere except the bright yellow of the flanks and undertail.
- One fairly bright whitish wingbar, on the tips of the greater coverts. An indistinct second wing bar, presumably on the edges of the lesser coverts, was discernable, but did not stick out. Not the bold, bright white double-wing bars like Blue-headed Vireo.
- Head grayish, perhaps with a hint of an olive cast.
- White or off-white throat contrasting with gray head and face and yellow on the rest of the underparts.
- Very dull face pattern consisting of a partial eye-ring (or perhaps best described as two eye-crescents) and indistinct supercilium restricted to in front of the eye. Maybe a small hint of a supercilium a very short distance behind the eye, but I am unsure of this. A darker line, or narrow smudge, through the eye gave a subtle hint of a face pattern reminiscent of a darker Warbling Vireo or very pale Philadelphia Vireo.
- Perhaps due to the angle, I though the bill looked relatively long compared to the size of the head, but it was clearly rather narrow for a vireo, and was diminutive compared to the Blue-headed Vireo observed a short time later.
- Relatively long-tailed (NOTE: although in comparing photos later, I wondered if it was actually suggestive of the shorter-tailed Eastern subspecies).
- The first view was of a “sleeker” or slimmer vireo, not the chunky, broad-chested shape of Blue-headed.
- Very active, and did not come out into the open for very long (NOTE: tail movement not seen, or not noticed, which could have been a good key for subspecies), always disappearing into low, dense brush.
In comparison to other species:
- Wingbars and bright yellow underparts distinguish it from Warbling Vireo.
- Lack of yellow in the throat and pale face pattern, along with wing bars and fairly long tail and slim shape help distinguish it from Philadelphia Vireo.
- Incomplete eye ring and lack of broad and bright yellow spectacles separate it from White-eyed Vireo. Wings paler and less contrasty, and no contrasting pale gray nape as on WEVI.
Directions to the bird (although I have not heard any reports, positive, or negative, about the bird as of 4:00pm today):
To reach the thicket we first found it in, take Rte 24 from Cook’s Corner in Brunswick south through Orr’s Island and onto Bailey’s. Make a right onto Abner Point Road at the Johnson Field Preserve. Park on your left in the gravel parking lot for the beach. Walk down Abner Point Road a couple hundred yards, around the bend. On the right, you’ll see a small parking lot with little white signs with people’s names on them. The bird was in the thicket behind these signs, along with a Blue-headed Vireo and a mess of Yellow-rumps.