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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Truro

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the attached photo of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that is being seen in Truro. Were you able to get a chance to see it?

– Janet, Plymouth, MA


It went like this, Janet,

When it comes to tracking down rare birds, I’m a bit on the lazy side. There are some birders who would climb out of their own coffin if they somehow received word that an unusual bird had been spotted nearby. I’m not like that. I’m more of a “if the stars line up” kind of guy. I’ll track down a rarity if it’s a bird I really want to see (usually not a sparrow) and if I don’t have other obligations like, say, birdseed duty. In the case of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, I wanted to see it, but I had to work. Instead of birding, I spent day after day telling other birders where to find this cool bird, and I was getting annoyed. Finally, I had a day off and it was my turn to drive up to Truro and see this now famous flycatcher…in theory.

Before I talk about my birding experiences in Truro, I probably should write a bit about the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and why so many folks were excited to see it. The name of this bird describes it perfectly. It is indeed a flycatcher, spending most of its life sitting on exposed perches, watching and waiting for a passing insect, grasshopper or cricket to come into view. Once prey is spotted the bird will snatch its meal right out of the air or off the ground. The bird’s superior flying skills are aided by its crazy, ten-inch-long tail, which the bird can open and close, like a feathery pair of – you guessed it – scissors. And if that’s not enough to get your attention, it has flashy pink under parts. This truly is a bird worth checking out.

I should point out that Scissor-tailed Flycatchers aren’t rare. Within their range they are quite common. Unfortunately for us their range is fairly limited. They only breed around Texas and also in Oklahoma, where it is the state bird. Once the breeding season is over, most of the scissor-tails head to Central America, often gathering by the hundreds in spectacular pre-migratory flocks. Nevertheless, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers also have a touch of wanderlust and occasionally a bird or two will head off in a different direction, which in, this case, is Truro. Good old Truro.

The expression “the early bird gets the worm” doesn’t apply to Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Why not? Because they don’t eat worms. Duh! Therefore, we didn’t leave at the crack of dawn. Instead, we waited for the sun to warm things up and for the insects to become active. We arrived at Truro’s Old North Cemetery, the site of the flycatcher show, at 10:00AM. My many years of experience convinced me that this would be the best time to see the bird. I was wrong. Early birders had seen the flycatcher before we arrived and now it was gone. Son of &*%#! For the next few hours we shuffled around the cemetery hoping the flycatcher would reappear. It didn’t. The only bird we saw was a vulture, which isn’t very exciting, but perfectly appropriate for a cemetery. Finally, I suggested to Casey that we should try someplace else, and I knew just the spot. This turned out to be another one of my “great” ideas.

About two miles away from the cemetery is the National Seashore’s Highlands Center. The Highlands Center occupies the former site of the old North Truro Air Force Station. While this isolated property has seen better days, it happens to be a good place to find birds, including meadowlarks and Snow Buntings. Perhaps it would appeal to the flycatcher as well. After we parked, we walked through the wide-open gate and passed a sign that said, “Welcome” in big letters. We walked around the dilapidated buildings for about twenty minutes, but didn’t see any birds…or even any people. The entire property was totally devoid of life and kind of spooky. I turned to Casey and said, “It’s too close to Halloween to be in this creepy place. Let’s get out of here.” We hurried back to the entrance only to discover the gate was locked. What the heck? For some reason a Park Service worker (I assume) came along and locked the gate…with us still inside. And because this used to be a military base, a high security fence enclosed the entire property.

Now what? Half laughing and half concerned, we hiked along the fence looking for a way out, but found nothing. (Who knew the Air Force was so good at putting up fences?) We had now stopped laughing, but at least no one had brought up cannibalism…yet. Finally, near the back of the property, we discovered a low spot I thought we could crawl under. Handing Casey my binoculars, I wiggled under the fence like I was sneaking out of Mr. McGregor’s garden. Casey followed me and quickly the laughter returned. After brushing ourselves off, we trudged back to the car, walked past the Park’s dubious welcome sign, and drove back to the cemetery. We hoped there would be good news about the flycatcher. There wasn’t. I was starting to think that driving to Oklahoma to see this bird would have been easier.

I’m glad you were able to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Janet. As for me, I totally struck out. I even went back earlier the next day and still missed it. That’s just the way birding goes sometimes. I’ll have to do a better job of tracking down the next rare bird that shows up around here. In the meantime, I’m going to speak to the Park Service and explain to them what the word “welcome” means.