Sage Thrasher, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

New England’s Sage Thrashers

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Jan 21, 2021 | by Alex Lamoreaux map of Sage Thrasher sightings in NY, NH, and MA.

During November and December 2020 an incredible vagrancy phenomenon occurred when three different Sage Thrashers were discovered in a small region of interior New England. Stranger still, and to the benefit of birders, each of the three thrashers were found in separate states! On November 4th, 2020 Barbara Sylvester discovered a Sage Thrasher at Sutherland Pond in Ooms Conservation Area near East Chatham, New York. This marks the 7th record for New York, and the 1st for Columbia County. This especially scruffy bird was seen by dozens of birders (and photographed very well) until November 18th. Fifty miles to the east, on December 13th, Theresa Gessing photographed a Sage Thrasher along Cow Bridge Road near Hatfield, Massachusetts. This bird continues as of January 21st and is the 1st record for Hampshire County and 5th for the state. And finally, 28 miles straight north along the Connecticut River near Hinsdale, New Hampshire a third Sage Thrasher was discovered December 19th by Cory Ross during the Brattleboro CBC. This marks the 1st record for New Hampshire! This bird has a chipped tip to its upper mandible. It continues to be seen as of January 21st.

Sage Thrasher are smaller Mimids, structurally more like a brownish mockingbird than our other thrashers, and are widespread throughout the interior west where they prefer vast sagebrush flats. They migrate south for the winter taking up residence throughout the Southwest, west Texas, Baja, and central Mexico. They have been very rare vagrants to the East Coast with ~30 records for the eastern Great Lakes, mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. The majority of previous sightings were at coastal sites. The fact that 3 thrashers were found in a tiny area of interior New England in such a short timeframe is unprecedented. Close examination of the wing feathers of the three birds shows molt limits in their greater coverts and tertials suggesting they were all juvenile birds hatched earlier in 2020. This shows that a very sudden and defined northeast-ward vagrancy push occurred. But why weren’t any found along the heavily-birded coastline?

On Christmas Eve I was joined by Lauren and Janel diBiccari to chase the New Hampshire and Massachusetts birds and we managed to see both that afternoon which was an excellent gift! Both birds were incredibly cooperative, allowing very close approach – or in the case of the Mass bird actually ran right up to our feet! These were my first vagrant Sage Thrashers and I find it incredible that 3 birds were found at interior sites, all relatively close to each other, and in such a short timeframe. Surely there must be more thrashers lurking around New England! So if you live in the Northeast, next time you’re out birding double-check that mockingbird or take a closer look at that bird hiding in a tangle of Oriental Bittersweet berries! You just might find another piece of this Sage Thrasher puzzle!

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