MEGA! Finding a Eurasian Hobby in New England

By Team eBird June 15, 2012
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Eurasian Hobby, Manomet, Massachusetts, 18 May 2011

The discovery of a mind-blowingly rare bird can be one of the high points of birding. Almost anyone who has experienced it can recall that moment of hand-trembling realization that you are looking at a bird that has never before been documented in your state or region. The reality of what you are seeing challenges reason, as your eyes and brain try to make sense of what you are seeing despite the fact that the record flies in the face of all you know about bird status and distribution! Rare bird discovery tales are among our favorites, and they allow us to live vicariously through those thrilling moments of discovery. Our Red-flanked Bluetail story from fall 2011 was a popular one, so we asked ace eBirder Ian Davies to recount his May 2011 discovery of the eastern United States’ first Eurasian Hobby, and all the excitement surrounding it.

Ian is a college student who is now conducting shorebird research on Alaska’s North Slope (see his photos here). Ian was fortunate to have traveled to Spain and to have seen a Hobby before, so he was better prepared for his good fortune than many North American birders might have been. Ian’s eBird checklist, with exemplary notes for the unusual sightings, is here.

Thanks Ian, for the below account of his temporary Hobby-induced palsy and the excitement that followed:

It was a little after 1pm on May 18, 2011. I was sitting in the dining room taking a rare morning off from mid-May birding, since there had been unfavorable winds the night before, topped off by fog in the morning that had lowered visibility to less than ½ mile at times. I am fortunate to have a house, my parents’ house to be truthful, that has a view over a Coastal Plain pond that is also right beside the ocean. This setup has attracted quite a variety of species to the area around my yard, some more unusual than others.

On this day I was eating a lunch of leftover pad thai (it’s funny the mundane details you remember), and hardly looking out the window at all due to the reduced visibility. However, for some reason I just happened to glance out across the pond and noticed a falcon winging its way south along the opposite shore, about 400 feet away or so. Normally I find it fairly easy to differentiate the expected falcons based on flight style, with the rolling wingbeats and large size of a Peregrine being easily differentiated from the more bouncing dainty flight of an American Kestrel, or the very direct and forceful flight of a Merlin. This bird didn’t immediately click into any of those mental categories, having long wings and a strangely long tail, and a flight style that didn’t fit any of the above descriptions.

Thankfully in a place like this I always have a pair of binoculars close at hand, so I was able to get on the bird as it flew by and was still pretty close, straight out across the pond. Immediately upon seeing the bird through binoculars I knew it was something special, but I hadn’t realized the species yet. The first notable feature was the striking white cheek patch, glowing even through the fog and distance, and nothing like the cheek of expected falcons around here. At a distance the dense streaking below looked almost like a vest, and I noticed that and also the rufous ventral region. All of this happened in seconds, and just as I was despairing of this bird vanishing into the mist never to be seen again, it landed in a tree directly across the pond from my house!

OF COURSE this had to one of the few times all year that I didn’t have my scope right by the window; it was in the car since I had been birding the previous day and was planning on heading out again after lunch. My mom was on her computer and probably thought I had finally lost it, as I suddenly jumped up from my lunch, sprinted through the house, grabbed the car keys, and ran to the car in my socks.

While making the mad dash for the scope, I was sifting through the falcon species that I knew, trying to figure out what this was, since no rare falcons were on my radar on this May day in New England. My first thought was Aplomado Falcon, since I had recently been in South America and was heading there again soon, but I quickly realized both that the bird did not look like that, and that it was a fairly impossible occurrence. As I leapt down the stairs of the front stoop it hit me–I still can remember the moment thinking about it now. Eurasian Hobby. I had seen one once before, in Spain, and I instantly knew that this was what was sitting in a tree a mere few hundred feet from me.

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Eurasian Hobby heading away. In this view, its rufous undertail coverts, very heavy thick black streaking, and white cheek patch can be seen. This was not unlike my very first view of the bird! Photo by Ian Davies, Massachusetts, 18 May 2011.

In all of this, still less than a minute had elapsed since the sighting, and I finally had my hands on the scope. Running back inside I quickly set the scope down on the table, not taking the time to extend the legs or do anything except get the scope on the bird as fast as possible. Thankfully, when I got back the bird was still sitting in the tree, and I soon had scope-filling views that confirmed my identification – a textbook Eurasian Hobby!

Next priority was documentation, and since the conditions were far too poor for my 400mm SLR, I babbled something coherent enough to my mom in order to get the idea across that I needed to borrow her point-and-shoot, which she kindly procured quite rapidly. As I tried to digiscope the bird sitting in the tree, I realized that my hands were shaking uncontrollably – funny how something so simple as a bird can elicit such a strong physical response. After what seemed like innumerable hideously blurry shots due to my temporary palsy, I finally got a couple that showed the rufous ventral region and the cheek pattern, as well as part of the breast.

Now to spread the word! I started calling friends of mine in the area. A couple of them said that they would start heading over immediately, while others had to wait due to other obligations, so I said I would keep them posted. The whole time this bird was just sitting there in the tree, preening for a little while but generally just resting.

About 15 minutes after the original discovery of the bird, I was dismayed to see it lift off and circle a few times, gaining a couple hundred feet in elevation, and then head off south into the mist. At this point the fog was starting to burn off, so I had increased visibility and could watch the bird for a little while, but after just a few hundred meters it vanished from sight, and I thought that was the last I would ever see of it. I made sad phone calls to the people who were on the road coming to see the bird to let them know it had left ,and that it seemed like it would be gone for good, so they decided to turn around due to the seeming lack of hope.

Since the area that it headed toward was an area that I’ve had lots of falcons hanging around in before, with occasional wintering Merlin and a fair number of birds around during migration, I figured it was worth a check even if it seemed like the bird was departing for good.

As I hopped into the car the weather was clearing up even more, almost clear visibility with high overcast, causing the overall gloomy atmosphere to have changed to a pretty, bright day overall. Between my pond and the ocean there is just one road, a road that goes through a classic northeastern summer beach community, with small summer homes, sand and dunes everywhere, and not many trees aside from shrubs and a few stunted pitch pines. I was driving along the road heading towards the area where I was hoping the bird went–and there it was! Bombing directly over the car about 20 feet over me at high speed was the Hobby; going the opposite direction from me, the bird was now heading back north!

I quickly turned around and followed it, only to have the bird go by just over the car again, this time going the way I was originally heading! Another quick u-turn and I found a place to pull over and get out, quickly seeing the bird blast by again.

Next order of business was to get the word out on the listserve, so I called a friend to do that for me immediately, and then let the people who turned around the first time know that the bird was back again.

In the end, I ended up staying at that pull off spot for over two hours, watching the bird fly back and forth and feed in the area. The factor that I think attracted it to this area was a massive insect hatch, and the air was just full of large flying insects of some sort. At least 350 swallows were over the pond feeding actively, in addition to both Bonaparte’s and Laughing Gulls doing aerial hawking of the same insects.

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Eurasian Hobby, showing some acrobatic tendencies, as it hawked insects over Bartlett Pond near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Notice how long-winged it is! Photo by Ian Davies, 18 May 2011.

The Hobby had two behaviors during these few hours that I watched it. It would first either shoot through the residential neighborhoods by the road, often no more than 30-40 feet off the ground, doing this every 8-10 minutes and then vanishing in the interim. Alternatively, it would go across the pond over the trees, and soar up high to a few hundred feet, periodically stooping on what seemed to be the same insects that everything else was feeding on. At first I thought it was attempting to catch swallows, but it would then eat food items out of its talons that were not identifiable to observers at our distance.

Luckily, since it stuck around for a while this second time, a few people were able to make it over to see it. Jess Johnson, one of the banders at nearby Manomet Bird Observatory, was the first on the scene, and got to see the bird after a few minutes of waiting before having to head back to work. Jeremiah Trimble (eBird’s reviewer for Massachusetts) was next to pull up, and when he arrived the bird was in one of its high soaring phases, so was constantly visible, albeit at distance. As he pulled up I pointed at the bird soaring, and he hopped out of his car without even turning it off. The whole Manomet banding crew showed up after that, four in total, that got to see it from there, and last on the scene was eBird’s own Marshall Iliff, who skipped out on the end of his workday and showed up at 3:51 pm. The bird had not been seen for some time.

Over the two hours I was there, the bird did its “bombing runs” as I called them, making fast flights through the houses and would always follow one of 3-4 flight lines, always to our west. It never deviated from those every time I saw it–except once. At 3:55, just after Marshall got there, the bird blasted by over the dunes to the east, heading north–a flight line that I hadn’t seen it do before. I called it out and Marshall got on it as it was heading away. He saw it bank once across the road, but after it vanished over a couple rooftops, it was never seen again. I stuck around for a while longer, and people stayed there until dark, but the bird was not seen again that day.

The next morning most of the insectivores had moved on, although some were still around, but the crowd of people waiting for the bird to show in the morning was unfortunately disappointed, since the bird never showed itself again after those initial 2 hours and 40 minutes of sightings.

Upon reviewing previous records, it appears that this was the second record for the Lower 48, with the other one being a bird photographed at Discovery Park, Seattle, WA, 20 Oct 2001. It was also the second record for eastern North America, with one prior record from Cape Spear, Newfoundland, 21 May 2004.

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