Speaking of Nature: The green-tailed towhee: What are you doing here?


For the Recorder

Published: 05-14-2023 5:00 PM

To celebrate our anniversary, my beautiful wife Susan and I decided to spend the first weekend of May in Newport, Rhode Island. This is where we were staying when I proposed to her and every now and then we like to head back to the scene of the crime and just enjoy one another’s company. We go on mansion tours, we walk the strip and visit all of the little shops and, of course, we dine at our favorite restaurants. I don’t think we’ve ever had anything less than an outstanding time in Newport.

Of course, all of the togetherness usually begins well after I’ve taken advantage of our proximity to a magical place called the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Just a few miles east of Newport, this small piece of land is one of the few undeveloped patches of coastal Rhode Island and it is a major destination for birders during the winter “duck” season. In the past I have featured many stories on harlequin ducks, scoters, buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers and common eiders, all of which were photographed at Sachuest Point.

On this most recent visit, I was too late to see the ducks. Spring had already come to the Northeast and with the melting of the ice on the northern ponds the ducks had all headed inland. There were a couple of common loons patrolling the waters off Sachuest and I did see the odd duck here and there, but all were well offshore and none of the photos came anywhere close to a publishable quality. The same could not be said of the songbirds, however.

Mockingbirds, song sparrows, goldfinches, house finches, robins, cardinals, blackbirds and others were all in full display as I arrived at the refuge just before sunrise. The place was simply buzzing with activity and there were times when I simply didn’t know where to point my camera. The rising sun at such a low angle provided amazing lighting and the hours just slipped by as I was totally absorbed in the challenge of getting the “perfect shot.” And that is when I noticed something a little out of the ordinary.

I was standing at the intersection of two trails and reviewing the quality of some photos that I had just taken when my compulsive scanning revealed something in the brush that I didn’t recognize. It was a bird, but what kind of bird was it? I lifted my camera, focused on this bird and found myself looking at a species that I couldn’t identify. This is a rare event for me after more than 30 years of experience and the longer I looked at this thing the more certain I was that I didn’t know what it was.

So, with all of the “usual suspects” considered and dismissed, my brain started flailing around for an explanation. What was this thing? And this is where years of study came in. The complete certainty that this was not a “normal” bird for the area started me thinking about birds that might be vagrants.

The spring migration was underway and sometimes birds make mistakes. So what kind of bird might be North American, but not northeastern North American. Hmmm.

The wheels started turning and an idea boiled up from somewhere. Was this a green towhee? I checked one of the birding apps on my phone and learned that there was no such thing as a green towhee. But the towhee bell kept ringing in my head, so I made my search a little less specific and just entered “towhee.” And that is when I hit pay dirt! There is no such species as a green towhee, but there is one called a green-tailed towhee (Pipilochlorurus). But this was really out of the ordinary.

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The green-tailed towhee is a species that is native to the American Southwest. Common from New Mexico and Arizona north to Wyoming and then west to California through Utah and Nevada, the green-tailed towhee is a bird of dense thickets in the western mountains. It feeds on the ground, much like our eastern towhee (Pipiloerythrophthalmus), by scratching at the ground with both feet in a somewhat ridiculous backward-and-forward motion that is repeated quickly and with great vigor. How I managed to summon this particular species from memory is still something of a mystery to me, but years of poring over field guides in the quiet days of winter seem to have paid off.

It turns out that while this particular bird was about 2,000 miles away from its normal range, it is not necessarily unusual for individuals to stray. It seems that birds will sometimes go on “walkabout” during the fall migration and it is not unheard of that some will end up as far east as the Atlantic Coast.

A quick review of the bird-sighting data from Sachuetst showed that green-tailed towhees had been seen there in the past. For those of you who remember Bugs Bunny cartoons, you will understand the notion that he should have taken a left at Albuquerque!

For me this was a major event. I can now add this species to my personal list as a “Life Bird” and I was also fortunate enough to capture the sighting on film. I am also encouraged to continue getting up at 4:30 a.m. (even while on vacation) and heading out to do some birding. In just 24 hours I managed to collect enough material for two months of columns. But that is how spring always is. So much happening and not nearly enough time to share it all. All you can do is get outside and try to soak it all in.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.