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Stray scissor-tail wings it; Birders flock to Orange Airport for rare sighting.

Byline: George Barnes

ORANGE - Excited birders with spotting scopes and cameras in tow gathered at Orange Airport this week to catch a glimpse of a bird rarely seen in this area.

A scissor-tailed flycatcher was discovered at the airport early Wednesday morning by local bird expert Jeffrey S. Johnstone of Athol. Since then, it has been attracting flocks of birders.

It is not the first time a scissor-tailed flycatcher has been seen in Massachusetts, but it is rare enough that it has birders from all over New England excited about the discovery. Birders suspect the flycatcher lost its way migrating from Texas or Oklahoma to its winter home in Florida.

Mr. Johnstone said he normally visits the airport five or seven times each week, especially in the fall and spring, to look for birds.

Wednesday he was looking around and noticed what he first thought to be a mockingbird, but when it turned its head sideways he saw its facial pattern and realized he had something special. The species is named for its extremely long, forked tail.

Mr. Johnstone contacted other birding enthusiasts in the area. From there, the word went out to

birding Web sites and attracted people from farther afield, including experts from Harvard and Cornell universities. Among those who stopped by the airport were Jeremiah Trimble, curatorial associate for the Ornithology Museum at Harvard University, and Marshall Illiff, project leader for Cornell University's e-Bird Internet initiative.

October has been a good month for the two experts. They and Matt Garvey discovered a brown-chested martin at a Cumberland Farms in Middleboro. The South American martin has only been seen in Massachusetts once before, and the sighting may be only the sixth in the country.

Others visitors to Orange Airport included Galen Frank-Bishop and Jamie Bishop of Plainfield, Chris Capist of Chicopee, and Chris Petrak of Newfane, Vt.

Mr. Petrak, who writes a birding column for the Brattleboro Reformer in Brattleboro, Vt., and operates a Web site,, had been planning to visit Lake Champlain yesterday but decided to check out the flycatcher in Orange instead.

Mr. Johnstone, 59, who leads bird walks for the Athol Bird and Nature Club, said he has seen scissor-tailed flycatchers four times in Massachusetts, and he has seen many during visits to Texas. Robert B. Coyle, 80, founder of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, has been birding much of his life and has only seen four in New England.

"It's a rare sight," Mr. Coyle said. "They normally aren't seen here more than once every five or so years."

Mr. Coyle visited the airport Wednesday after learning about Mr. Johnstone's discovery. He was among about 50 birders there that day.

Mr. Johnstone said this is the best time of year for unusual discoveries because migrating birds can lose their way. He said the scissor-tailed flycatcher is a juvenile and may be migrating for the first time.

"It was probably hatched in May or June," he said. "He was definitely 90 degrees off course."

Mr. Johnstone said he had been uncertain if the bird would still be around yesterday, because Wednesday night was warm and that might have induced it to migrate. But the bird was still at the airport yesterday and was putting on another show for birders, flying around catching insects and occasionally landing on power lines, fences and telephone poles long enough to give people a good look at it. Airplanes taking off disturbed it somewhat, but it never strayed far from the airport's control building.

Should the bird delay too long, Mr. Johnstone said, it could lose the urge to migrate and eventually die from lack of food or warmth.


CUTLINE: (PHOTO) The scissor-tailed flycatcher seen Thursday at Orange Airport, far north of its normal range. (CHART, MAP) Scissor-tailed flycatcher

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 23, 2009
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