A vibrantly coloured varied thrush sits in a tree outside Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre in Irondale. The rare bird made its way to Haliburton County from the Pacific coast and has been attracting dozens of birders to see it. /Photo by Joe Fortin

Birders aflutter over varied thrush visitor

By Jenn Watt

A bird rare to Ontario is creating a flap at Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre as a steady migration of birders make their way to check out the varied thrush that has taken up residence outside the office.

Program manager Joe Fortin said at first staff didn’t know they had anything special coming to the feeder but wondered about the bird that looked a bit like a robin and an oriole.

“We eventually reached out to a Facebook community called Ontario Birds with a really bad blurry photo and quite quickly one of them replied back with yes that’s a varied thrush. Then the floodgates were open and folks [were] commenting” he said. “Once we had a name and a confirmed ID we were able to do a little legwork using the All About Birds website from Cornell University. We found out this isn’t a typical bird you’d find in northeastern North America.”

The varied thrush a songbird with bright orange breast blue-grey back with orange stripes over the eyes is typically found on the west coast of North America.

“Varied thrushes hop on the ground or low in shrubs and trees” the All About Birds website says. “They eat mainly insects and other arthropods in the summer and switch to nuts and fruit in fall and winter. On breeding territories male varied thrushes sit on exposed perches to sing their haunting trilling songs.”

Local birder Ed Poropat happened to be at Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre when the songbird was spotted and has been back a few times since.

“I think of it as a west coast rainforest bird preferring damp coniferous mountain slopes. It is a bit of a wanderer in the fall and winter though and they show up almost every year in Ontario even as far as [Newfoundland]” he wrote in an email to the Echo. “Usually only one or two but who really knows! As far as rarity goes it is certainly a bird that draws much attention in the east since only a few seem to be found each year. They will visit feeders for fallen seed although they are normally berry and insect eaters. I suspect there have been well over 100 people from all over the province to see the one at Bark Lake.”

On a weekend earlier this month Fortin estimates between one and two dozen birders showed up with their professional camera equipment to see the varied thrush. He enjoyed meeting the community of bird enthusiasts who were cognizant of the bird’s space and took the opportunity to visit with each other.

“It’s such an amazing community. The birders that have been coming up have been so respectful keeping their distance” he said. “Last weekend we had a couple of young folks maybe 10 or 12 years old a random birder [let] them use their multi-thousand-dollar scope to look at this bird up close from a safe distance.”

Although the varied thrush is used to warmer climates Poropat said it will be fine as long as it has food to eat.

“It can survive here as long as there is food present. If not it will simply move on in search of better areas to feed” he said.

Prior to this year there had been one varied thrush spotting reported in Haliburton County several years ago in West Guilford. However this year there has actually been a second varied thrush in the county.

Following the publication of Poropat’s article in County Life about the planned Minden Christmas Bird Count he received an email from a man in Miner’s Bay saying he saw a male varied thrush at his feeder. It appeared again during the bird count on Dec. 14  – “a first for Minden [Christmas Bird Count]!” Poropat said.

Fortin said the Bark Lake staff intend to keep the food plentiful all winter long and hopes the bird stays put until spring.

“I would hope that as long as we keep the feeder stocked and keep it fed and make it feel safe here it will make it through the winter” he said “and then hopefully find its way back out west with tales of the awesome time it had in the Haliburton area.”