Painted Redstart. Photograph by the author.
Fall is one of my favorite times to get out in the field and look for birds. The change of seasons brings new weather patterns and large numbers of migrating birds. Here in Southeastern Massachusetts where I live, wind direction and geography influence which direction migrants may come from and which species may appear. Nor'easters may bring Eurasian species, southwesterlies may carry reverse migrants, and northwesterlies may bring species that only infrequently show up in the fall. The geography of Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod, and the Outer Islands all influence what these birds do when they come our way. If the birds are driven to the coast or out onto any of the islands in the south, they often move to points of land as they try to get back to the mainland. It is these points and small islands that I like to explore. The smaller the funnel, the more likely I'll see a good number of birds and possibly something uncommon or rare. I also enjoy the large-scale sight of common birds moving en masse.
Island birding in the fall has been a part of my life for many years. I guess it all started when I was asked to lead a group birding trip to Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. The island is a perfectly shaped funnel pointing north to the mainland. Being there in the morning can be enjoyable because many migrants move north, reach the shore, and forage or move about before taking off. After that first weekend trip I was hooked and made many additional trips to Block Island and to other islands that were accessible by kayak or ferry. My prospects improved when I was able to buy a boat. Finally, I could set my own schedule, destinations, and timing, which allowed for a better experience and chances.
Cuttyhunk Island is the outermost island in the Elizabeth Island chain that extends southwest from Woods Hole in Falmouth, Massachusetts. I have visited the island many times over the years by kayak and ferry. I had already been out to the island a dozen times in 2018, and found the right weather to go again on the morning of October 14, 2018. After a spectacular sunrise, clouds moved in during the crossing. From the dock I made my way to the town center gift shop at the Four Corners intersection and started working the nearby bushes, which are often productive. I soon located a small mixed flock of White-crowned, Clay-colored, Chipping, and Song sparrows feeding on the ground. There were also two Dickcissels with them. Nice start.
I started taking pictures and hoped to get shots of the Clay-colored Sparrows. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew into a bayberry bush next to them. Almost at the same time, another bird flew out of the bush and landed in a tree across the street. The bird's small size and flitting flight made me think warbler, so I took a quick look.
The bird was perched on a horizontal branch in a tall tree in plain sight about 30 feet away. The bird's black head, back, and tail—along with an obvious bright, crimson red belly—told me I had something rare. The bird was fanning its tail and quickly turning left and right on the branch. I noticed prominent white outer-tail rectrices. The bird then flew a short distance toward me to a lower branch. I noticed two very large white wing bars on the black upper wing coverts when it was in flight. No other small birds in the East, and certainly no warblers, have a red chest and belly. Black, red, white, I know this bird but it shouldn't be here. OMG!!! RARE BIRD flashed in my brain. Next was: Get a picture, any picture! Fortunately I had been shooting before the bird showed up so my camera settings were good for the conditions. Camera up! Please don't fly away was repeated in my panicked mind. Plus my heart was seriously racing.
After getting some good shots, I wanted to send a text to a birding group that I knew was on the way to Cuttyhunk. The problem was that I could not think of the name of the bird. I knew it was a redstart, but both European and Central American species names were all blurring together. I know this bird. Why can't I remember its name? Google to the rescue. Yes, I had to Google "AZ warblers" to remember. Embarrassed and feeling as if I were having a mini heart attack, I wanted to send the right name in the text. Don't mess this up. Of course, Painted Redstart! Now that I knew the name of the bird, the group and I completed a series of texts. I hoped the bird would stick around.
Luckily, I got a dozen documentation photos mixed in with some that were totally blurred. Considering the light and wind conditions, I feel fortunate that the bird didn't fly through the trees and quickly disappear. I followed the bird in the hope that the group would arrive soon, but the bird flew away. I decided to wait for the group and then chase the bird. I directed them to the area and direction where the bird had flown. I kept looking. The eighteen members of the group had keen ears and skills, but even with all that talent, we could not relocate the bird. I then decided to look in some other areas that often harbor birds and searched with no luck.
Everyone was running around searching for the bird. I returned to where I first spotted it. When I arrived, two birders from the group —Sean Williams and Maili Waters—were coming up the road and looking for search tips. After looking where I had seen the bird fly earlier, they went off. I decided to look into a dense hedgerow behind a nearby cottage. As I stuck my head slowly around the corner, I saw a bird that I thought was an adult male American Redstart. I was immediately corrected when it turned. The Painted Redstart was only six to eight feet away. I backed out and called to Sean and Maili, "I have it!" We all moved quickly to the corner and the bird was still there. I took a quick look then moved back to the road. At 8:34 am I texted the group, "Got it back where we started near the flag." 8:40: "Are you still on it." 8:40: "Yes."
The bird was located in a tight spot and I knew we could never get the whole group in there. Knowing the area and the homeowners on the other side of the hedge, I thought that would be the best place for everyone to go: open yard, good views of the whole area, and everyone could have space. Three American Redstarts were in the same bushes moving around actively. At any moment I expected the Painted Redstart to fly into the open and be seen by all, but it didn't.
The bird was making call notes that some people heard. Sean, who had remained on the other side of the hedgerow, told the group that the bird was moving down the hill near the ground. He had it for only a few minutes before it disappeared. The Painted Redstart was never seen again.
I went back to Cuttyhunk Island four times since that day to continue my fall observations. There were many good birds and migration scenes, but no Painted Redstart. When I searched the hedgerow again each trip, I realized how lucky I was to have been there at the right time. One minute would have made the difference.