If Wishes Were Thrushes

I was excited to see a new life bird at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington last weekend — until I realized that I had no way of knowing exactly which life bird it was.

And, in a strange way, that’s the same as not seeing it at all.

Airlie is an almost ridiculously picturesque tract along Bradley Creek, which flows into the Intracoastal Waterway. Its stunning flower gardens are alive with butterflies. Footpaths wind through the woods, and cypresses draped with Spanish moss line two freshwater lakes.

The gardens at Airlie were Gulf Fritillaries
Gulf Fritillary
Long-tailed Skipper at Airlie Gardens
Long-tailed Skipper

It’s a superb place to look for birds. You can catch gulls, loons, and shorebirds on the creek. Osprey nest in plain sight, and herons and egrets gather in the mossy walls of foliage around the lakes.

A Tri-colored Heron hiding in the Spanish moss
A Tricolored Heron in the Spanish moss
A Pileated Woodpecker looks out the window
Pileated Woodpecker, looking out the window

I visited the other day hoping to find some warblers. I found a few — although, absurdly, not until I’d wandered over acres of woods and gardens, struck out, and returned to the parking area. There, I discovered that a row of little trees right in front of the visitor’s center was full of American Redstarts, Palm, Prairie, and Cape May Warblers.

A Palm Warbler strikes a pretty pose
A Palm Warbler strikes a pretty pose
Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler
I had a hard time getting this Cape May Warbler to come out in the open
Cape May Warbler, refusingto come out into the open

Earlier, on a shaded path, I had spotted movement low in a thicket. It was a thrush, I could tell, but the canopy was so dense that it felt like dusk, and the bird was deep in the brush. I got off a few dim shots and then looked up to nod a greeting to a couple walking past. When I looked back, the bird was gone.

I got only a couple of poor shots off before the bird disappeared
I got only a couple of poor shots before the bird disappeared
A Mystery Thrush

We have half a dozen brownish thrushes that can be tricky to tell apart. My bird didn’t have white eye-rings or big chocolate-chip breast spots, so it wasn’t a Wood Thrush. Its upperparts were a dull olive-gray, not the rich cinnamon of a Veery, and the absence of a reddish tail ruled out Hermit Thrush. No buffy eye-ring and spectacles, so not a Swainson’s Thrush.

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush

That left just one, I thought: Gray-cheeked Thrush. Sweet! Life bird.

But wait. When I started digging, I discovered that there was another candidate.

Bicknell’s Thrushes are rare and seldom seen. They breed only in a few remote wilderness tracts in the extreme Northeast and Nova Scotia, and they winter on four islands in the Caribbean. When they migrate south in the fall, most head out over the Atlantic before they reach North Carolina. But at least a few pass through our coastal plain.

Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes look so similar that, until 1995, they were considered one species. Experts can distinguish them by vocalization, but, simply put, you can’t tell them apart by looking at them.

Which put me in a pickle. My bird was probably a Gray-cheeked Thrush — but it might be a Bicknell’s Thrush. Either would be a lifer. But without knowing which it was, I couldn’t count it as either one.

Whichever species it was, I wanted it. I wrestled with it. I pored over field guides and eBird reports and scoured the web, trying to nail down an ID. Come on, birding gods! I’m not even asking for the rare one! The common one will do just fine.

But it was no good. Based on the evidence I had, it was impossible to conclusively identify this bird.

Range Matters

That was due as much to where I’d seen it as it was to what I’d seen. If I’d come across this bird in the mountains, I’d be on fairly solid ground in calling it a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

That’s because range matters, especially with lookalike species. On my way to work this morning, I passed a meadowlark on a power line, its blazing yellow breast a miniature sun in the morning light. I know it was an Eastern Meadowlark and not a Western Meadowlark, not because I paused to check whether its malar region was more white than yellow, but because Western Meadowlarks don’t live around here.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlark

I know the chickadees in my back yard are Carolina Chickadees and not Black-capped Chickadees for the same reason: we don’t have Black-capped Chickadees in Orange County.

Carolina Chickadee, in my back yard
Carolina Chickadee, in my back yard
A Black-capped Chickadee, from Cape Cod, not from back yard
Black-capped Chickadee, not in my back yard

That’s not quite absolute certainty. Black-capped Chickadees do live up in the mountains, and one could conceivably stray down here. It’s possible that the meadowlark wasn’t an Eastern but a terribly lost Western. But the odds of that are so remote that they don’t clear the bar of reasonable doubt. I can call it an Eastern Meadowlark with confidence. (On the other hand, if I thought I detected some reason to report it as a Western, I’d better come up with incontrovertible evidence.)

Unfortunately, range didn’t help me with the thrush. So far as anybody can tell, Bicknell’s migration route sticks to the coastal plain. Gray-cheeks tend to migrate further inland, but there’s enough potential overlap in eastern North Carolina to foil my list. The eBird checklist for that area has a box for precisely this situation. Reluctantly, I checked it: “1 Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush.”

My mystery thrush
Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush

I’d definitely seen one or the other. But officially I hadn’t seen either one.

Wishful Thinking

I could have fudged it. Odd are, my bird was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, and if I put it down that way, nobody was likely to challenge me. (eBird reviewers do flag rare or suspect reports, but Gray-cheeked Thrush probably isn’t unusual enough to spark an inquiry.) I wouldn’t be fined or flogged or kicked out of the club, because nobody would know.

But, of course, I would know.

I want to grow my list. I aspire to seeing 400 birds, 500, someday maybe 1,000. It can be tempting to give myself the benefit of the doubt. Wishful thinking is a powerful force. That warbler I glimpsed last month with a flash of yellow and black on its face? Oh, I wanted that to be a Kentucky Warbler! I think that’s what it was; one had even been photographed in exactly the same spot the previous day. But can I swear that it wasn’t a Hooded Warbler or a Common Yellowthroat? I can’t; I didn’t get a good enough look.

As much as I wanted to find a way to count my Airlie bird, I couldn’t. So I’ll just keep on going out there, still looking for that first Gray-cheeked Thrush.


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