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Piedmont Birding: I add state bird No. 412 to my list!

The sage thrasher.
The sage thrasher.

For the second time in two months I made a chase for an ultra-rare bird. On Nov. 4 I was off at 4:45 a.m. for Swannanoa to look for a sage thrasher that had been found on the campus of Warren Wilson College.

There are only two previous records for sage thrasher in North Carolina, and none since 1975. This is a super-rarity anywhere in the Eastern United States. Its normal winter range is south and west Texas west to Arizona. They nest in the sagebrush of the Western United States. As thrashers go they are very small, about 8 1/2 inches long.

For comparison our local thrasher, the brown thrasher, is 11 1/2 inches long. But all other marks clearly identify the bird as a thrasher – the streaked breast, yellow eye, long tail and slightly drooped bill.

We arrived at the site, a weedy hedgerow with scatted shrubs and abundant multiflora rose and poke weed fruits, before 7:30 a.m. Four birders from Winston-Salem were already present, and as we approached they indicated the bird was in view and feeding intently. I raised my binoculars and ticked off state bird number 412. So easy it was almost embarrassing.

Some birders had missed seeing the bird despite hours of looking, while others were catching intermittent brief glimpses during extended searches. Sage thrashers are skulkers, prone to disappearing into thick brush for much of the time.

The sage thrasher is olive gray on the back instead of the bright reddish-brown seen on our familiar brown thrasher. Thrashers are first cousins to mockingbirds, and from the back this bird looked remarkably like a Northern mocker, just not as clear gray as that species. For photo comparisons of the sage thrasher, brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird, visit my blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.

As is often the case with these rarities, the number of birders who will make the trip to Swannanoa to see the thrasher will approach or even surpass 100. At least one birder came in from New York. It’s been 40 years since the last occurrence in North Carolina so it is a new state bird for virtually every birder in the state.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.