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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

The Great Varied Thrush Stakeout of 2019

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

While I was visiting my big brother, Steve Hart, in Lakewood, Colorado, he created a small birding sensation when he spotted a Varied Thrush in his backyard.

Varied Thrush (male) in Lakewood, Colorado

Varied thrushes are a West Coast bird. They are almost unheard of in the Texas Panhandle and I've certainly never seen one. They also don't belong in Jefferson County, Colorado. But about once per year, a birder spots one bird in that area of the Denver metro.

This year, that person was my brother, who enjoys watching birds at his backyard feeders, but isn't out searching for them. On Friday, December 6, Steve was watching soccer on television when he spotted a strangely-colored bird under his seed feeder in the yard. After observing the skittish, orange and black, Robin-sized bird return several times, he took some pictures just so he could identify it. He showed them to me that evening and we read all about Varied Thrushes on Cornell's All About Birds website.

The next morning, the Varied Thrush returned around 7:30 a.m. to Steve and Marilie's yard, so I got to see the rare bird myself. I proudly posted the sighting on eBird that evening, using the site's locator service to pinpoint my location. My exact location. Steve and Marilie's exact home address.

The next morning, I woke up in their guest room and realized with a start the consequences of posting their exact address with a rare bird sighting. I knew that overnight, eBird would have sent out a rare bird alert by email to birders all over Denver. I ran downstairs to warn my brother and sister-in-law that birders might start showing up on their doorstep. No sooner had I said that when their neighbor called to say that several strange cars packed with people were parked in the cul-de-sac and the occupants all had binoculars pointed towards my brother's backyard!

Fortunately, birders are generally very pleasant and respectful people and my brother and sister-in-law are very forgiving. So Steve and Marilie good-naturedly went out to greet the birders, share the photos and sighting stories, and give them permission to walk up to their backyard fence for a better view of the birds around their feeders.

All day on Sunday, December 8, birders occupied the cul-de-sac. On eBird, it appears that at least five birders saw the Varied Thrush and reported it that Sunday. More came on Monday, including one bird nerd who waited 2.5 hours to get a glimpse of that bird. They also saw a Townsend's Solitaire, a Red-Headed Woodpecker, two White-Breasted Nuthatches and one Red-Breasted Nuthatch, along with the usual flickers, juncos, finches and towhees that always populate my brother's backyard. Steve and Marilie didn't realize that their backyard was such an aviary.

I changed the location of the sighting on my eBird checklist to a more generalized area so that my brother and sister-in-law's privacy could be soon restored. I noticed that all of the birders reporting the Thrush respectfully did the same. I chuckled over one eBirder who labeled the location as the "Varied Thrush Stakeout of 2019", which made it sound like my brother's house was the site of a police action.

I'm sure the Varied Thrush will be moving on soon. But for a day or two, it was fun for my brother, sister-in-law and me to be at the epicenter of a minor birding phenomenon.

Update: The Great Varied Thrush Stakeout lasted much longer than any of us imagined. As of Christmas Eve, 2019, that bird was still making an appearance and so were the birders. The Denver Ornithological Society published etiquette rules for birdwatchers wanting to observe Steve and Marilie's backyard. One of the founders of eBird and his wife, who helped create the Merlin app, showed up during their Christmas vacation to see the Varied Thrush, and they explained that migration from Canada through the Rocky Mountains sometimes strands West Coast birds on the eastern Front Range of Colorado. The sensation caused by one bird has been fascinating for all of us to experience. But maybe best of all, my brother has caught the birding bug and even participated in a Christmas Bird Count this year. I have my first convert!

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