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Avid birder makes rare sighting

Trent Bray of La Grande has identified 268 bird species in Union County since he moved here in 2001.
Trent Bray of La Grande has identified 268 bird species in Union County since he moved here in 2001.

Rusty blackbird never recorded in Union County until photographed last month by Trent Bray

La Grande birder Trent Bray did not know if the digital photos he was snapping at Red Pepper Road and Gekeler Lane in early January were turning out.

The images did more than turn out, they helped add a new page to Union County birding history.

The photos Bray shot early in the afternoon noon on Jan. 8 between La Grande and Cove included about 100 of a rusty blackbird, a species never recorded before in Union County.

Bray has submitted the best of his photos to the Oregon Bird Record Committee as part of a sighting report. The committee, recognized as the official chronicler of bird sightings in the state, will consider Bray’s submission when it meets later this year.

The sighting is significant on a local and a state level. There have only been only eight rusty blackbird sightings in the state conformed by the OBRC.

Bray suspected but was not certain if the bird he was photographing was a rusty blackbird until he got home and examined them closely on his computer screen and looked at a birding guide.

“I was 95 percent sure but I was not certain until I looked at them on the larger screen,’’ Bray said.

The photos clearly reveal the distinctive markings of the rusty blackbird, ones which distinguishes it from the similar Brewer’s blackbird, a species commonly seen in Union County.

The rusty blackbird can be distinguished from the Brewer’s blackbird by its tertial and covert feathers. These feathers are rusty tipped on many but not all rusty blackbirds. The tertials are three secondary wing feathers nearest the body and the coverts are small feathers near the shoulder.

The rusty blackbird Bray saw was frustrating at first to photograph because it flew away before he could get a good photo. Fortunately it came back twice. The third time it landed within 50-yards of Bray, allowing him to snap his best pictures.

This rusty blackbird, photographed near Red Pepper Road and Gekeler Lane on Jan. 8, is the first to be identified in Union County. TRENT BRAY / photo
This rusty blackbird, photographed near Red Pepper Road and Gekeler Lane on Jan. 8, is the first to be identified in Union County. TRENT BRAY / photo

“I am so glad it came back,’’ said Bray, who owns the Bobolink, a birding supply store.

The rusty blackbird was spotted among a group of birds that  included European starlings, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds.

Bray’s sighting is one of five reported in Oregon since last fall. Three of the sightings were made in the fall and winter of 2010. The sightings were in Eugene, Tiller (Douglas County) and Josephine County. Another was made on Jan. 15 near Joseph by Judy Meridith of Bend, Bray said.

The recent jump in rusty blackbird sightings is intriguing because the bird does not normally winter in the Northwest since it feeds primarily on insects. Availability of insects in the Northwest is minimal this winter because of the frequent cold snaps the region has experienced.

The recent relative flock of sightings likely does not mean rusty blackbird numbers are increasing in the Northwest. Bray said the jump could be a credit to the superior birding guides now available. The guides contain highly detailed illustrations which make it easier to distinguish between rusty blackbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds.

Most rusty blackbirds winter in the southeast United States and sometimes west of the Rocky Mountains. The bird migrates in the spring to central Canada, Alaska, British Columbia and New England to breed.

Rusty blackbird populations have declined significantly in North America over the past four decades. The reason is not clear but habitat loss, including diminishing wetlands, may be a key factor. The bird likes to nest on the edge of ponds and wetland complexes.

Bray’s rusty blackbird sighting was his second Union County first in four months. The birder spotted a Pacific loon at the City of La Grande’s waste water treatment lagoon in October. This represented the first time a Pacific loon has been spotted in Union County, he said.

The loon and rusty blackbird are two of the 268 bird species Bray has spotted in Union County since he moved here in 2001. This is the highest known Union County total for one person. The most species Bray has spotted in Union County in one year is 228 in 2007. Bray spotted 223 bird species in Union County in 2010.


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