November 21, 2021
Identifying birds has taught me the value of looking again, even when you think you know what you saw. I knew what a robin looked like when I started identifying birds nine years ago, but I had no idea how many birds I assumed to be robins were actually Swainson’s thrush, hermit thrush or brown thrashers. One particularly lucky day in 2019 an it-could-be-a-robin-but-maybe-not turned out to be a wayward Townsend’s solitaire who had drifted much further east than typically expected.
This time of year many of our abundant red-winged blackbirds and common grackles have headed south for the winter. Those that remain, along with thousands of European starlings, sometimes form huge flocks roosting in clusters of trees at night and foraging in the remains of the fields by day. Thursday evening I watched an impressive flock near my house that stretched across the fields for nearly a mile.
Because they are common and mostly starlings, I have a tendency not to pay much attention. Friday morning I saw a large flock of blackbirds across the cove in an area I often see starlings. I eventually estimated the flock be about 600 birds, moving in big groups in and out of the grasses along the bank and up under the trees nearer to the bike trail behind. I came really close to walking on by but something made me stop. I looked again through my zoom lens and this is what I saw:
It would have been easy to mistake them for starlings, which are mostly black with from a distance. It would have been easy to assume they were red-winged blackbirds or grackles, though I hadn’t seen many around lately. Something told me to look again.
Thankfully with my camera I can take a picture then zoom in on the display. When I zoomed in to this picture what caught my eye was the lighter color of many of the birds and that distinctive button eye. Starlings and red-winged blackbirds don’t have that eye, though if you look carefully you will find a couple red-winged blackbirds in this photo. Grackles have a similar eye, but grackles are longer, all dark and shaped a little different. I had seen one other type of blackbird a few days earlier, though I had only seen one - a rusty blackbird.
Could these really be rusty’s? In years past I had seen rusty blackbirds in the winter, typically in small groups (15-20). Rusty blackbirds are a species in steep decline and I knew a flock of this size would be really uncommon in Missouri, even at this time of year. Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website says:
“Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause. They are relatively uncommon denizens of wooded swamps, breeding in the boreal forest and wintering in the eastern U.S. In winter, they travel in small flocks and are identified by their distinctive rusty featheredges and pallid yellow eyes.”
I was pretty sure there were rusty blackbirds in this flock, but were there a few or a few hundred? I couldn't tell from across the cove. It’s a half mile walk to go around the cove with no guarantee the birds would stay until I got there, but I had to try. As I got around the cove, I could see how many birds were up near the bike path. The birds were now directly between me and the rising sun which still made being sure of identification - and taking decent photos - a challenge.
I really wanted to get around behind them so I could take some better photos and be more sure of the species. I walked well out and around hoping they would not fly away. When I got around to the backside I could see that they were indeed mostly rusty blackbirds! One bird even gave me a close up.
I typically have the best luck with birds if I sit down on the ground and let them come to me so that’s what I did. I figured the park gates were closed and I had a pretty good chance that no one would disturb us even on the bike path since it was a weekday morning and below freezing.
Taking pictures of small birds in leaf litter is a rather humorous task and not so easy for camera focus, but it was still amazing just to be watching this large flock of endangered birds. I was about 15 yards away and as you can see these birds are just a little larger than the oak leaves they were foraging in.
Though I’ve seen rusty blackbirds before, I’ve never had this nice a view of their rusty colored backs and coloring variations.
They started to come closer and I was so hopeful I’d get even better photos but unfortunately a trash truck showed up and by the time he finished changing out the bags in the trash bins, the birds had all flown away.
There were a few starlings or red-winged blackbirds in the mix, but almost all of the birds I saw were rusty blackbirds. I counted a few times and estimated the flock at 500-600 and then reduced my estimate a bit since they weren’t 100% rusty blackbirds. Still, this was far and away the most rusty blackbirds I had ever seen!
There’s plenty of research on how little we actually see and how much our brain fills in. Lately I’ve been thinking about this in regards to how we see ourselves. In one of the modules in the “unwinding anxiety” app, Dr. Jud Brewer proposes that maybe even our own sense of self is just a habit - the way we’ve learned to see ourselves. Perhaps if we look again, over and over, we just might see something new.
Love this! Beautifully composed and a call to seek to understand, our world and ourselves. Thank you, thank you…made my day.
Same! Great how that works. And I figure these things must be at least somewhat common of the human experience, that's what makes the sharing so important.