Birders flocking to Sackville to see rare avian visitors

A large sparrow called the green-tailed towhee has been spotted in Sackville, about 3,000 kilometres away from its normal range in southwestern North America. John Klymko and his bird count teammates, Beth MacDonald, a lab instructor at Mount Allison University, and Gianco Angelozzi, a master’s student from Venezuela, spotted it Dec. 17, while walking around the waterfowl park behind Tantramar Regional High School. (Submitted by Jaden Barney - image credit)
A large sparrow called the green-tailed towhee has been spotted in Sackville, about 3,000 kilometres away from its normal range in southwestern North America. John Klymko and his bird count teammates, Beth MacDonald, a lab instructor at Mount Allison University, and Gianco Angelozzi, a master’s student from Venezuela, spotted it Dec. 17, while walking around the waterfowl park behind Tantramar Regional High School. (Submitted by Jaden Barney - image credit)

A couple of rare birds have been drawing a lot of attention in Sackville.

A green-tailed towhee, native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, has been seen behind Tantramar High School since Dec. 17, and a great egret, a type of slender, white heron that sometimes ventures this far north in summer, has been hanging around a water retention pond for at least a month.

"It's a long way from home," said Quispamsis birder and naturalist Jim Wilson, one of many who have made the trek to Sackville in recent weeks to see the towhee.

It's a large member of the sparrow family, he said, and has distinctive mossy-green feathers with a rust-coloured tuft on its head.

It normally lives in open arid, desert areas, where there is shrubbery for cover, he said, and likely arrived with a late fall storm.

It may have landed in the Tantramar area because it's a flat, open area, he said.

There's a trend of birds from the southwest being carried to the coast and "dropping down" when they run out of land "trying to figure out what to do next."

Ian Murray
Ian Murray

The only other recorded sighting of a green-tailed towhee in the province was in Saint John in the late 1990s or early 2000s, said Wilson, and that bird managed to survive the winter at someone's backyard feeder.

Wilson is optimistic the same will be true for this latest, as long as it doesn't get eaten by a hawk or other predator.

People who go to see the bird can take certain precautions to help improve its odds, said Wilson.

It's "really important" not to harass the bird, he said.

"You can't run around and take your dog and 10 kids with you."

He recommends asking the first person you see on site to direct you to the best place to stand quietly and watch, using binoculars or a scope, from a distance of at least 30 or 40 metres.

"If the bird stiffens and becomes alert, and obviously stops what it is normally doing and begins to, sort of, look a little wary, back off," he said.

Photographers always seem to want to push the limits, said Wilson, but for the most part, people have been treating it respectfully and it seems to be "quite oblivious" to all the attention.

The other avian celebrity visitor — a "very majestic" great egret — also seems to be "in reasonably good health," said Wilson, so it's "a bit of a head-scratcher" what it's still doing here.

Ian Murray
Ian Murray

Great egrets live in most of North and South America and breed as far north as southern Maine in the summer, but in winter they usually migrate to Maryland and farther south, according to HeronConservation.org.

They often visit New Brunswick for a month or two in summer, said Wilson, but leave when the weather gets cold.

He doesn't believe one has ever been seen here in winter.

At first Wilson thought the egret in Sackville must be ill, but its plumage is "immaculate," he said, and it appears to be feeding normally.

"Almost every photograph that gets taken, there's a fish in the bird's beak."

Once the pond freezes over, Wilson assumes the egret will move on.

Fellow birder Alain Clavette isn't so sure.

Ian Murray
Ian Murray

Clavette is worried that with so many people coming around, the egret may be frequently scared into energy-wasting flights.

"The next night when it's –22 it might be a death sentence," he said.

"These things are vagrants that are at the extreme limits of their survival possibilities. And here we are, humans pushing the envelope and stressing them more and more — for pictures."

As an avid birder and photographer himself, Clavette said he knows the lure is strong, but he's trying to restrain himself from returning to try for better pictures just because he knows the birds are still there.

"It becomes almost like a contest of pictures," he said.

"We really have to think about the welfare of these birds.

"Maybe it's time to leave them be — to leave them in peace," he said.

Those concerns are founded, said John Klymko, a zoologist at the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre who was part of the group that first spotted the towhee.

The majority of people are respectful and follow basic ethics, he said, but there are rare bad actors who do things like generate bird calls with their cell phones to agitate birds for better photos.

There's a movement across North America now, said Klymko, to protect owls from this type of attention, by not disclosing the locations of sightings.

Clavette said he hopes the rare birds inspire those who see them to do more for conservation.

"If only," he said. "Then I would say, well, it's worth it."