Saturday, February 09, 2008

Towhee Madness

This story begins in a most unlikely way. Standing by the dining room window and looking out at the usual assembly of birds gathering at the feeders on the morning of January 31, I said to Marj, almost in jest, “I want to see something new.”

Those words had barely escaped my lips when Marj said, “Oh! What’s that bird?”

To which I replied, “Where? What bird?”

“There! Right there on the ground beneath the feeders.”

Just at that moment, my eyes spotted the unmistakable profile and jizz of a towhee. The black head and breast, rusty sides, and white underparts were enough for me to identify it at a glance as an Eastern Towhee, a bird I had known in my youth as the Rufous-sided Towhee. This was very exciting, as southwestern Michigan lies north of the normal wintering range of the species. A quick glance at the Niles Christmas Bird Count showed just one record of this species in the last 10 years.

That evening, I sent the following post to the BBCLIST (the listserv of the Berrien Birding Club):
A gorgeous adult male Eastern Towhee has frequented our feeding station at 4776 Erie Drive throughout the day today. He makes brief appearances to feed on the ground beneath the feeders before disappearing again in nearby shrubbery.
Later that evening, I received the following response from Jon Wuepper (one of Berrien County’s top birders and winter-season compiler for the Michigan Audubon Society):
Thanks for the report! I'm always on the lookout for the similar-appearing Spotted Towhee of the west. It's turned up 2-3 times in Michigan, I think all were during winter. It's just a thought.
My first thought was, “Oh, shit!” I hadn’t even considered the possibility of Spotted Towhee! Having just returned to southwestern Michigan to live after a 43-year absence, I took a few quick field marks and instantly jumped to the conclusion that the bird was an Eastern Towhee, the familiar Rufous-sided Towhee of my youth. Having never seen a Spotted Towhee before in my life, my next thought was, “Okay, how does one differentiate a Spotted Towhee from an Eastern Towhee?” To resolve that question, I grabbed the Sibley field guide off my shelves. And then I started kicking myself, “My God, how could I fail to notice whether or not the bird had prominent white spots on its back? What kind of birder am I, anyway?” About all I could do at that point was hope and pray that the bird again put in an appearance at the feeders the next day.

Caption: Spotted Towhee on left, Eastern Towhee on right, both by Kent Nickel, and downloaded from
As fate would have it, the weather gods were on my side, with temperatures dipping down close to zero overnight and the forecast calling for additional heavy accumulations of snow. Dawn arrived reluctantly the next morning: cold, overcast, and snowy. It would have been dreary-looking were it not for the fresh coating of white snow covering the ground and tree branches. The feeders had all been replenished, ready to lure in any towhees lurking in the neighborhood. There were many chores to be done around the house that Friday morning, so I didn’t spend huge blocks of time sitting in front of the windows in anticipation of the bird’s arrival, just frequent casual glances throughout the day as I went about my business.

My “egg-on-my-face” message to the BBCLIST the evening of February 1 read as follows:
It turns out that the towhee frequenting feeders at 4776 Erie Drive in Buchanan is a SPOTTED TOWHEE, not an Eastern Towhee as reported yesterday.

First noted yesterday, the bird was observed briefly this morning, then again for extended periods of time between 4 and 5 pm this afternoon. The white spotting on the scapulars and lack of white at the base of the primaries clearly identifies the bird as an adult male
SPOTTED TOWHEE, making this apparently just the 3rd or 4th record for Berrien County [Actually, this will be the 5th documented record for the entire State of Michigan, if accepted].

Many thanks to Jonathan Wuepper for alerting me to the possibility of SPOTTED TOWHEE. Birders wishing to see this bird are welcome, but please call in advance
(269-697-xxxx) for permission to visit as the bird is quite flighty and best observed from inside the house.
The first to show up at our house the next morning (February 2) were Kip Miller (founder of the Berrien Bird Club and naturalist at the Love Creek Nature Center) and 15-year-old ace birder Alison Village and her father and younger sister. The towhee, of course, did not make an appearance. Of course not. Neither did it put in an appearance in the afternoon, when Jon Wuepper and Dave Vinnage visited the house looking for the bird. In fact, the feeders were strangely silent all day, with even the juncos and redpolls seeming to scorn the seeds we were offering, the same seeds that they had wolfed down eagerly in previous days.

As the day gradually turned to dusk my excitement turned to frustration over the failure of the bird to show up so that my report could be independently verified by other birders. As a relative "newbie" to the area, local birders had no basis on which to judge my qualifications for identifying such a rarity. The only documentation I had been able to obtain was an extremely poor-quality snapshot that showed a tiny image of a dark-colored bird on a snowy background, and on the back of which one could almost make out—with the aid of a magnifying glass—what appeared to be white spots.

About noon the next day (February 3), Jon Wuepper called to say that he had relocated the Spotted Towhee in a brushy area a short distance from our house. And incredibly, it was associating with a male Eastern Towhee!

Shortly thereafter, Kip Miller reported the news on the BBCLIST thusly:
Today Jon Wuepper was able to successfully relocate the male Spotted Towhee reported on Friday by John Trapp in a neighborhood in Buchanan. It was not found in the yard where it was originally located, but nearby in a small neighborhood park. Ironically, a male Eastern Towhee is also present at the same location! (Which means John could have had both towhees in his yard….) Alison Village and I saw both towhees at about 3:30 p.m. today in the park where Jon saw it earlier today.
Following is an excerpt from the report I prepared for the Michigan Bird Records Committee on February 5:
The bird appeared huge in relation to the juncos and tree sparrows with which it was feeding, but in reality was probably robin-sized or slightly smaller. The entire head, neck, throat, upper breast, back, and bill appeared black, in stark contrast to the orange on the flanks and sides of the breast and the white of the lower breast and belly. Leg and feet coloration were not noted. The tail appeared quite long in relation to the size of the body and was held in an upright posture when on the ground. The size, proportions, posture, and color patterns of the bird led me to instantly ID it as an adult male Eastern Towhee, and I reported it as such on the BBC listserv. Only after Jon Wuepper alerted me to the possibility of Spotted Towhee did I check the bird closely for the presence of dorsal spotting when observed again on the afternoon of Feb 1. The bird had prominent white spots on the scapulars and wing coverts. I could also clearly distinguish a very thin horizontal white line that was apparently formed by the tips of the folded primaries. I looked closely for a white spot at the base of the folded primaries (said by Sibley to be characteristic of Eastern or Eastern x Spotted hybrids) and could see none. On several occasions the bird was noted “scratching” the surface of the snow with both feet at the same time to uncover seeds. The best views of the bird were obtained on the afternoon of Feb 1, when the bird was observed feeding beneath the feeders on several occasions between 4 and 5 pm.
In subsequent days, the Spotted Towhee was seen by numerous other birders. And Kip Miller's patience was finally rewarded with an identifiable photograph of the bird. That photograph was used to illustrate an the following article on the bird that was published in a local weekley, the Berrien County Record written by Dennis Cogswell, outdoors editor of the daily Herald Palladium (and appearing 02/08/2008 on Page D04):
Spotted Towhee Makes Rare Appearance in Berrien County

When John L. Trapp of Buchanan looked out his backyard window last week, he found something that had never been reported in Berrien County before.

It was a male Spotted Towhee, a western species which has been recorded in Michigan only four times. Once considered a subspecies of the Rufous-sided Towhee, the Spotted Towhee was determined by scientists in 1995 to be a separate species.

When Royalton Township naturalist Jon Wuepper investigated last weekend he found the bird had moved from Trapp's feeder to a neighborhood park. It was hanging out with an Eastern Towhee. Love Creek Nature Center naturalist Kip Miller snapped several pictures of the Spotted Towhee on Tuesday.

As its name suggests, the Spotted Towhee has white spots or streaks across its wings and back. Males dark black heads, backs and wings, while females are a lighter brown.

Wuepper said the sighting caused quite a stir among local birders.
For me, the object lesson of this amazing adventure is this: Always be on the alert for the unexpected, especially when you least expect it.


Blogger cyberthrush said...

John T. wrote:

"For me, the object lesson of this amazing adventure is this: Always be on the alert for the unexpected, especially when you least expect it."

ditto... I've been trying to make the same point for about 40 years; especially the last three ;-)

anyway, CONGRATS John, even if I don't envy you in Michigan in Feb.!

February 09, 2008 2:06 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

It seems that the biggest difference between you and me, cyberthrush, is the scope of what we consider reasonable expectations.

February 10, 2008 4:04 PM  
Blogger cyberthrush said...

Actually John, the difference is in the amount of trust we have in certain individuals' sight reports -- people who wouldn't be doubted for a second if they were reporting downy woodpeckers on a Christmas count, are thoroughly doubted for reporting an IBWO, for lack of a photograph, over and over and over again.

February 10, 2008 4:20 PM  
Blogger said...

Hello John;

Just happened to come upon your blog while checking links with Technorati. The comments about towhees were interesting because this spring while sitting at the kitchen window I noticed maple leaves flying along the ground from behind a spirea bush. Next thing I saw a new bird that just kept scooting its feet around, stirring up leaves and eating.

Never saw this bird before so resorted to various guides to confirm what I was seeing. Just giving the behavorial description to my birder friend Eric from Massachusetts confirmed it all.

The climate is changing just enough here in the east that insect life and birds are different every year. Last night a newspaper piece mentioned red bellied woodpeckers regularly sited in southern Vermont. Pileated woodpeckers that were almost non existent in 1950 are everywhere based perhaps on the demise of the sugar maples. Life, death and change go on.

I'd like to add your blog to mine if that's ok. Let me know.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Gardens
Vermont Flower Farm (being reconstructed)

February 13, 2009 10:04 AM  

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