Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bell's Vireo on Staten Island. Or not?

Tuesday, mid-morning, I got word that Dick Veit had found a Bell's Vireo (a potential third New York State record) at a preserve on Staten Island.  Unfortunately I had commitments in the City all morning so couldn't get there but, as soon as I was free, I checked on the status of the bird hoping that it had stuck around.  The word wasn't encouraging; many had been looking but the bird hadn't been seen since early in the morning.  Based on that information, I decided not to go for it, and stayed in the City, only to hear later that Mike Shanley saw the bird that evening.  So perhaps it would stick.

So no excuses on Wednesday morning and I left TriBeCa at 5:00am, arriving at Mount Loretto Unique Area (the preserve) way before dawn.  As the light came up, I was joined by Corey Finger and we hiked in to the exact spot where the bird had been seen the day before .... and waited.  From 6:30am until 9:00am, we watched the bushes (joined by perhaps a dozen more birders), chased down every warbler, wren or gnatcatcher that popped up, and waited for the bird to show.  Finally, a small, very active, drab, gray-and-yellow vireo popped up and we grabbed glimpses of it as it flitted through the thicket we'd been watching.

The bird looked really good.  It was a small gray vireo with a gray head, greenish back and yellow undersides.  It had a plain grayish face but at moments you could see a faint black eye-line, and a broken white eye-ring.  The two wing-bars were uneven, with the lower one being significantly larger and more obvious.  Plus it was a fast moving bird and seemed to many to be small bodied and long-tailed.  I was certainly 100% sold, added it to my NYS Year List (in my head at least), high-fived Corey, and left happy when the birders dispersed after seeing the 'Bell's'.

To date no-one had managed clear photographs and, while the bird was tough to get in a frame, I got a few distant, not quite crisp, shots as it popped through the bushes.

When I got home, rushing to get onto another commitment, I quickly cropped some photos and threw them up Facebook and on the NYS Birding List.  Then rushed off, fat and happy, to do other things.

Coming back to my email a couple of hours later, I could see that all was not well in Bell's Vireo land.  A couple of folks had posted messages suggesting that the bird could be a juvenile White-eyed Vireo - the white on the lores and a concentration of yellow on the shoulder being the most concerning field marks.  To complicate matters, Shai Mitra had also been to the site, seen a bird that he was convinced was a Bell's Vireo, but was having a hard time reconciling the bird he saw with my photos.  The white-lored bird in the photos didn't look like the plain-faced bird he, and others had seen (an impression also noted by Dave Klauber, and others who were with me when we saw the bird in the morning).  He suggested that perhaps there was a second 'Bell's' present at the site and that I had posted photos of one bird, while others had seen the second.  The debate raged on (to the extent that birding ID debates can ever been said to truly 'rage') all afternoon.

For my part, I was feeling pretty awkward, having posted the photos that started the controversy - especially awkward if it turned out that my photos were of the wrong bird.  I shot an email to Dick Veit, the finder, apologizing for stirring things up, and made plans to go back the next day for more shots.  I also sent the photos to some West Coast friends, who presumably would have more experience with Bell's Vireos (they shall remain anonymous but you've probably bought their books or been on their birding tours).  The answer was a resounding 'maybe' - while they knew Western race Bell's Vireos, they both had little experience with Eastern races, or juvenile White-eyed Vireos, and demurred to local expertise!  This at least made me feel better about my ignorance of the species.

By the evening things were looking bleaker for the 'Bell's' record.  Corey Finger, one of the early Bell's optimists had got home from work, looked at his photos (which also showed white lores) and had defected to the White-eyed Camp.  This morning, Shai Mitra, after having had the chance to study photos, came down firmly on White-eyed too.  So unless some compelling new evidence comes along, or unless someone gets photos of a second bird that looks better for Bell's, I suspect that's where we'll end up.

So no Bell's Vireo, and a little egg on faces - mine included.  In situations like this my silver-lining is usually that the debate, and all the studying associated with it, at least taught me a lot on how to identify the species.  I'm not sure that's true in this case though - I remain just as confused about Bell's Vireos as I ever was, and the more photos I look at, the less clear it becomes.  Still, it's part of what makes birding interesting I suppose, and it certainly keeps us all humble ....


  1. Man, we suck. That is all.

    Now I want a REAL Bell's Vireo!

  2. As you know, I was with Shai, Sean Sime and Deb Allen when we saw the bird yesterday. We had brief but good looks and we were all convinced it was a Bell's and exchanged congratulations and I posted the re-sighting. Despite extensive searching over the next 4 hours, we never saw the bird again. Deb and I took photos, but the face was partially obscured in mine. When I saw your photos I was sure we were looking at different birds - until I saw Deb's photos that is. Personally I'm still not sure what this bird really is, and I think I got a better lesson in the power of pre-existing assumptions, suggestion and group-think than vireo identification. Oh well. It may not have been a rare bird but at least I did get to spend a day baking in the Staten Island sun staring at some weed-covered dead trees. - Rich