Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Green-tailed Towhee in Haller’s Haven

Post by Wayne Meyer, PhD
Photo by Jack Chiles

Last December, while I was participating in the Tishomingo NWR Christmas Bird Count, I saw a photo that absolutely astounded me.  Someone had found a Green-tailed Towhee on Pennington Creek, just north of town.  A truly beautiful bird, one I have seen only a few times but always in the sagebrush country of California or Colorado, I never expected one to be in dense, riparian shrubs in southeast Oklahoma.  I would have loved to chase after the bird later that day, but I had to get back to Denison because it was my wife’s birthday and I figured I was already lucky to have been able to spend half a day birding.  I lusted over the photo one more time and went back to Texas thinking, “there’s a bird I won’t be putting on my year list”.

Later in the winter, I noted with interest that several more Green-tailed Towhees showed up on Texbirds and OKbirds, the listserves for Texas and Oklahoma birders.  All those birds were showing up in far western Oklahoma and northwest Texas.  Apparently several of these birds had been forced to leave the hills in Colorado by the lack of seeds due to last summer’s drought.  The winter of 2011-2012 was very special because of a number of sagebrush species wintering far east of their normal wintering country combined with a near record irruption of Snowy Owls after an unusually good year for lemmings in the Arctic.  Since I had to teach a Janterm class this year, I was again prevented from chasing after any of these birds.

Fast forward to March.  It was spring break at Austin College and I had 5 days to myself.  On the 12th I decided to join Jack Chiles and Dick Malnory on a Monday version of the usual Tuesday bird census at Hagerman NWR.  The refuge was going to be closed on Tuesday for invasive species control work, so we braved the fog and rain to get in a morning’s birding when we could.  I had hopes of making up for some of the regular winter species I had missed in the first two months of the year.  The weather hadn’t been great, it had rained all weekend so I was really aching to go birding.  We walked along the Haller’s Haven trail toward Dead Woman Pond to see how many species of sparrows we could find.  We had gone as far as the dam and were searching the dense brush where sparrows are always pretty common when I saw a big one jump up into view.  My first thought was Fox Sparrow.  Once I got the binoculars onto it, however, I saw a red cap and yellowish-green back and tail.  I recall saying, “Here’s a … oh my gosh, Green-tailed Towhee. Green-tailed Towhee!”  All three of us starting clicking off photo after photo, knowing that most of them wouldn’t be any good, but maybe one or two would be usable. 

Later that day Jack and I posted the bird to Texbirds, thinking at the time that we had a Grayson County first record.  Later Jack found that there had been one previous record at Hagerman NWR in the 1980s, but it was still a very surprising find and all three of us had gotten very good looks at a bird that was a lifer for both Jack and Dick.  Apparently the bird stayed around for about 5 days until the area flooded.  Jack returned for more photos and several birders from the metroplex and Tulsa found it before it left.

So what’s my moral here?  Always be prepared for anything.  You never know when the next oddball will be showing up.  And when it comes to birds, oddballs will show up any time of the year.

Ed. Note:  Be sure to visit for up-to-date lists of birds sighted and the Photo Gallery that includes albums for waterfowl, waders, songbirds and more.

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