Common Grackle  holy guacamole!

In April 2013, I was involved in a study on the feeding behaviour of birds in onion fields in Flevoland. The first five days of the month were remarkably cold for the time of year. Apart from a relatively warm period in the beginning of March, when thousands of Common Cranes Grus grus migrated northward, the winter seemed endless. Therefore, it came as no surprise that I encountered only very few birds. During the first weekend of April, however, things finally started to change. On Saturday, I enjoyed gripping views of a female Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo with two chicks in a quarry near Winterswijk, as well as of displaying Black Dryocopus martius and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendropicos medius and a Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris in nearby forests. Sunday started foggy but eventually turned into a beautiful day. Although a walk through the dunes near Bloemendaal produced low numbers of migrants, it felt like something big was about to happen.

The next morning, Monday 8 April, as I was on my way to Flevoland, I decided to visit the famous migration watchpoint Kamperhoek near Swifterbant in that same province. Since this was my first visit, I did not really know what to expect. While driving on the A6, I saw hundreds of Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, heading in the same direction as I was. Nervously, I speeded up a little. Around 08:15 I parked my car on the Ketelmeerdijk. As I got out of the car I was greeted by an unpleasantly cold wind from the east and immediately it felt like winter again. This explained why the four birdwatchers that were already present, were sheltering behind their vehicles. I briefly said hi and sat down next to Ton Lakeman. Next to him sat Mervyn Roos, Thijs Knol and Guido Berger, all regular visitors of Kamperhoek.

It did not take long to realise that many birds were on the move. In the next 45 minutes we counted for example around 1500 Common Starlings, 500 Common Wood Pigeons Columba palumbus, 300 Greater White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons, 100 Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis, 80 Common Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, two Western Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus and a Western Great Egret Ardea alba. A Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica was still a year tick for me.

The combination of cold wind and numerous birds meant that not much talking was done. We were all focused on one thing: counting. I was very much impressed by the hundreds of Common Wood Pigeons that were flying overhead against the wind across the lake. By the end of the day their numbers would pass 12 000 – a record for this location. I was also impressed by Mervyn's superb eyesight. He repeatedly found and identified birds that were still miles away. One of the species he picked up easily was Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. Most of the 27 individuals that we saw between 09:00 and 10:45 followed the same route, crossing the dike c 500 m south-east of where we sat. In strong light and at long range, obviously, there was not much detail to rely on.

Because I was intrigued by this 
channel of Mistle Thrushes I regularly scanned the area. At 10:49 I noticed a strange bird taking the same route. It seemed slightly bigger than a Mistle Thrush, for a moment making me wonder if it could be a Whites Thrush Zoothera aurea. I said something like: What kind of large thrush is that? Immediately, I grabbed my camera and took three photographs. Ton also saw the bird, but the others were still counting starlings and pigeons. It all went fast and as the bird disappeared over the lake, I presumed its identity would always remain a mystery. The images on the display of my camera showed a dark bird with a funny tail and a strong bill. At that point, however, Mervyn got his eyes on the bird and shouted out loud. Miraculously, it had returned to the dike and was now coming closer. Seconds later it flew straight over our heads. In much better light I had a good look at it. It now reminded me of a Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula, a species I had seen in the United States. I heard Mervyn fire a few shots with his camera; the best sound I could imagine at this moment! The others were also looking up and watching this extraordinary bird. Adrenaline was pumping. Again, it changed its path and flew to the north-east. Gradually it became a small dot up in the sky, just like so many other migrants.

The bird left us confused. Although I suspected that it could have been a Common Grackle, I was far from sure about this identification. A few other species from other continents were also mentioned. What we did know was that this was no European species. Our hope was that the photographs would allow identification at a later point. We were just not prepared for a Common Grackle yet!

It was a weird sensation, having just picked out this amazing bird from a stream of common migrants and then trying to remember what it looked like. Every detail could be relevant. At the same time Common Wood Pigeons and Common Starlings were flying by in even higher numbers than before. They literally forced us to start counting again. Also a Black Stork Ciconia nigra and a Red Kite Milvus milvus drew our attention. Around noon things slowed down a bit and I decided to leave. I just needed to go home and check every field guide in my bookcase for this one bird...

After studying the photographs it became clear that the bird indeed was a Common Grackle – a North American species new for the Western Palearctic region (a report from Denmark in the spring of 1970 was not accepted). Size and proportions, pale eye, strong bill and wedge-shaped tail all pointed at Common Grackle, while the strong contrast between glossy blue head and neck and glossy brown body was typical of the migratory subspecies Q q versicolor. Age and sex could not be determined with certainty; females are slightly smaller than males and show less gloss (Slaterus 2014). Although the occurrence of Common Grackle in Europe had been predicted – for example in an article about potential Nearctic vagrants by Robbins (1980) – the Kamperhoek bird came as a surprise to everyone.

Common Grackle migrating Kamperhoek vagrant Netherlands

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Published 14 August 2018