Living Unicorn

Birds have wings and many migrate great distances, so there is always a chance that a “rare bird” could show up far away from where it normally occurs, just like the Curlew Sandpipers that the US-based Leica Birding Team ran into at multiple birding events this spring (Biggest Week in American Birding, Ohio & Cape May Bird Observatory Spring Weekend). Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) is a small shorebird / wader species that winters primarily in Africa and breeds on the arctic tundra of Siberia. With their incredibly long wings, they are strong flyers and occur as vagrants in North America and other places during migration.

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Digiscoped with Leica Q camera through APO Televid spotting scope, Heislerville, NJ, May 21, 2016

However, while far from home, the Curlew Sandpiper is only rare in occurrence for that location. They are a common species that is easily seen in their normal range. This past weekend I had the opportunity to study a bird that IS truly rare. Unlike Curlew Sandpiper, it is a bird you couldn’t be guaranteed of seeing by going to any specific location because they aren’t supposed to exist! I was in the heart of central Ohio in the charming Amish community of Berlin, Ohio attending the “Spring Optics Fling” hosted by our local Leica dealer, Time & Optics in Millersburg, Ohio.

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During the short field trips to see local specialty species like Barn Owls & grassland breeding species like Dickcissel and Bobolink, vendors and volunteers there would get together and talk about birds of course. It was during one of these lulls in activity that one of the event hosts nonchalantly mentioned the “…hybrid Barn / Cliff Swallow that was nesting in the barn…” My eyes widened as my brain processed that statement… “Wow, what would that even look like?!?…” I’d never heard mention of a hybrid like this and of course was excited at the prospect of seeing it. Always gracious, the volunteer, Michael offered to take the short walk to show me this bird that again isn’t supposed to occur. Armed with spotting scope, binoculars and multiple cameras, I excitedly remarked, “This is like going to see a living, breathing unicorn!”

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Singing male Dickcissel – digiscoped June 3 with Leica APO Televid spotting scope, Berlin, Ohio

When we arrived at the barn, we were joined by three young boys who told us in amazing detail how the bird differs and its habits as they escorted us to its nest. “It likes to sit on that rope there”, one boy said as he pointed ahead. As promised within moments, the hybrid bird swung in and joined two typical Barn Swallows already perched on the hanging line. As a hybrid offspring of two different species, a Cliff Swallow and a Barn Swallow, the subject bird showed characteristics intermediate between the two as expected.

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Barn x Cliff Swallow hybrid at left with 2 typical Barn Swallows

The tail was forked, but unlike the Barn Swallow’s, the hybrid bird showed individual tail spikes that were both shorter and much fatter and less delicate looking. Studying further, I noted the throat color was darker and less orange, and showed a stubbier bill and a blockier head more typical of Cliff Swallow (see image below). At the bottom of the throat it showed a thin patch of deep blue-green tones often seen on Cliff Swallow but again less prominently than typical.

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Cliff Swallow digiscoped at Biggest Week 2016 with Leica T camera for comparison

Below the darker “brick red” throat the bird showed a contrasting light band of buffy orange more like the pattern shown on Cliff Swallow as well. The forehead patch was the same color as the throat like a Barn Swallow but again a shade darker (Cliff Swallows show a light creamy patch above the bill as you can see above). On Cliff Swallows the reddish cheek coloration extends all the way up to the eye-line while on Barn Swallows the dark blue face extends all the way to the lower cheek where it neatly switches from dark blue to orange. The hybrid once again was intermediate here with the line falling between the two expected locations and mottled where these two colors met.

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Upon further study we concluded this bird was likely the female of the pair, as she spent more time on the nest. Our local Amish guides confirmed this though by stating they typically see the hybrid on the nest overnight. Later, we noted a copulation attempt between her and her Barn Swallow mate, and again as expected she was indeed the lower bird.

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The nest was more typical of a Barn Swallow, but I’m not sure if that is surprising or not. I’m not too familiar with the life history and nest building habits of swallows, but in many species much of nest construction is started and carried out largely by the male birds. Anecdotally, a number of the local Holmes county Amish birders did attest in subsequent conversation spurred by these images that they have seen this hybrid combination in this area in various barns over the years and had seen these hybrid birds in Cliff Swallow type nests as well. None, could comment on past nest successes though which would be interesting as a follow up.

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While, I never got a clean/crisp image showing the bird’s dorsal side, the bird’s most obvious feature was the buffy-orange rump patch as seen in Cliff Swallow. The image above was a still taken from a video shot by myself and field guide author, Richard Crossley (his phone my scope & adapter). Like me, Richard had never seen this unique combination so both of us were most intrigued and enjoyed the opportunity to study this truly rare bird here in the heart of Ohio.

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Once again (with apologies for poor quality), you can note the bizarre combination of forked tail and pale rump patch making this bird jump out as something clearly different from the other swallows here (Cliff Swallows have squared off tails). Thanks again to all who were most hospitable in welcoming us into your community and then your barns for the wonderfully unique opportunity to enjoy this amazing creature!

Merken