Thursday, November 3, 2011

MA - Rusty Blackbird or something else? - 11/02

I checked the Turner's Falls power canal this evening looking for geese especially with the recent Pink-footed, Cackling and others in mind. Despite a decent sized flock of 750 Canada Geese, I couldn't find anything unusual amongst them. By 17:30 hrs, all but eight of the geese had left the canal, presumably heading out to the fields to feed. As the light faded, 15 Common and 6 Hooded Mergansers came into roost on the canal.

In the mean time, small numbers of Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds had been forming a pre-roost gathering in a leafless tree on the opposite side of the canal before dropping down to a small clump of Phragmites by the water. The views were reasonable but distant, and illuminated by late afternoon sun. I started checking the flock optimistically hoping for Yellow-headed Blackbird, a species which I've never encountered locally. One blackbird flew in and immediately caught my attention - Rusty Blackbird, perfectly appropriate for the place and time of year. But it looked odd from the outset, and I immediately started to question my initial id. I couldn't ever recall seeing a 'fall' Rusty that was uniform, glossy black and completely lacking in any type of rufous feathering. It looked much as a male might do in late spring/early summer including the strikingly contrasting pale yellow eye. Surely, a Rusty Blackbird in November should show at least some rufous fringing to the feathers, much like this bird in our yard last November.

Continued observation, albeit distant, revealed a complete lack of rusty tinged feathers. The only color (other than black) that I could detect at this range came from a hint of purple iridescence across the upper breast/lower throat. Brewer's Blackbird crossed my mind numerous times as I watched and digi-scoped, trying to glean as much information as possible. The bill looked also looked short for Rusty Blackbird, but given the distance I couldn't be sure. It remained in view for about fifteen minutes and during that time I never saw a hint of rustiness in the plumage.

Rusty/Brewer's Blackbird - outer left of image, male with European Starlings and female Red-winged Blackbirds. Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. November 2nd, 2011. Extreme digiscope shot taken at about 250 meters range in late afternoon. Uniformly glossy black, with pale yellow eye and a hint of purple iridescence seen on the upper breast in late afternoon sunlight.

Rusty/Brewer's Blackbird - male, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. November 2nd, 2011. Extreme digi-scope shot taken at about 250 meters in late afternoon. Uniformly glossy blackish with pale yellow eye. I may be to add more shots to these later.

A quick perusal of the references and the Internet would suggest that male Rusty Blackbirds should not be in breeding plumage in early November, but at least some male Brewer's Blackbirds can appear to be, as shown in these links;

Since moving to the Pioneer Valley in 2005, I've only heard of one Brewer's Blackbird report, a bird found by Harvey Allen in Amherst in October of the same year. It's with some caution that I raise the possibility here, but it would seem that a male blackbird with uniformly glossy black plumage in November is likely to be a strong candidate for Brewer's. The burning question - can male Rusty Blackbirds completely lack rufous feathering in November, appearing like a breeding plumage male?



Larry said...

A very interesting bird. If only it would have vocalized.

James P. Smith said...

Hi Larry,

Yes, I could see its bill opening at times but it was just too far away to hear anything over the Canada Geese, most of which were leaving at the time. You can imagine how noisy that was!

All the feedback that I've had so far is pointing towards Brewer's. Let's hope that its relocated and photographed properly.



Larry said...

Another great sighting for the valley.

Russell Cannings said...

Nice find James--hard to get any detail on plumage or primary projection from the photos, but from your description, Brewer's is probably your best bet. If I'm not mistaken, BRBL and RUBLs are like starlings in that their "breeding plumage" is in fact the same plumage as their winter/non-breeding plumage. The feathers have rusty fringes when fresh and become glossy black as they wear.

It is possible that a male Rusty could have a retarded moult for whatever reason and be retaining his "breeding plumage." On this other hand, he could have underwent his pre-basic moult on the breeding grounds and be nice and glossy already! [Over here in BC we occasionally see Pacific Golden-Plovers in full alternate plumage in December!]

But I'd guess it's just a stray Brewer's--lots of interior west species popping up across the NE right now!