Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee – A Proper November Twitch

Flushed with success at our capture (metaphorically speaking) of the Harris’s Sparrow, when a vagrant Spotted Towhee showed up at Prince Edward Point this week it seemed clear that we ought to go and pay this rare visitor to Southern Ontario a visit.

The bird met two of my three criteria for an off-year twitch: it was local (about an hour and a bit away). And it seemed likely to stick around. The finder – Paul Jones – had been observing it for a couple of days and it was making regular appearances to feed on some seed that Paul had thoughtfully provided.

The third criterion – that the bird be a lifer – was… problematic. I have seen the bird in its natural stomping grounds near Tucson, AZ. However, since this species had never been seen before in the Kingston 50km Circle, on mature reflection and in the interests of ornithology, and with no hint of self-interest, I waived the final requirement. And we were off.

The Chase

The search party – Jim Thompson, John Licharson and me – made good time and arrived at the designated spot at about 08:30. Two birders were already in position and another showed up at the same time we did. There was still seed on the road, the winds were light and variable, the temperature was somewhat clement at +30 C, and though cloudy there was no indication of rain. Now all we needed was for the bird to show up and all would be well.

So we waited.

And we waited.

The road, the seeds, but no Towhee.

Heat, and optimism, seeped gradually out of our bodies.

After about 90 minutes the aforementioned Paul Jones showed up. He showed us some photos he had taken of the bird at 06:45 that morning, and then noted ominously that up until now the bird had been showing up every 45 minutes or so.

So we waited some more.

A Great Blue Heron observes the odd behaviour of humans.

The Reward?

Finally we heard, off in the distance, a Spotted Towhee’s distinct call (which of course we had dutifully boned up on the night before).

Spotted Towhee Call. Thomas Magarian at https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Pipilo-maculatus

The calls started getting closer and we moved out on an intercept course. The beast was spotted in a tree. We had time for quick looks and poor photographs as it carried on towards its target. We scampered back to the road just in time to see a pair of Merlins swoop low over the road.

Classic example of a “record photo”. With a bit of good will you could claim this as a Spotted Towhee.

Merlins, as you may know, are small falcons who primarily prey on small birds. So suddenly our heretofore highly vocal Towhee was silent, and we all envisioned it skulking off ne’er to be seen again.

Merlin, looking for lunch.

So we waited some more. To keep up morale I recounted the time I stood for five hours in a freezing wind waiting fruitlessly for a Ruff. Judging from the reaction this story was not as uplifting as I had hoped.

Finally, at about 10:56, the Towhee made its entrance. We had a few minutes to admire it before it retired into the scrub to digest its meal.

Spotted Towhee. Distinguished from Eastern Towhee by… C’mon now, you can get it!

So all in all this turned out to be a proper twitch. We had a longish and fairly uncomfortable wait, events seemed to conspire against us, but then through a combination of perseverance and luck we got the sighting and went home happy.

Two epic birds in two weeks. What’s next, you ask. Stay tuned!

Gratuitous extra image of this nifty bird.

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