Four Rusty Blackbirds

Late yesterday afternoon, the haunting song of a White-throated Sparrow drew me to a tangled patch of trees and privet and vines. I stopped to listen and watch for the sparrow, but then heard a different song – one that I knew I’d heard before but couldn’t identify at first. It sounded gurgling, like burbling water, with a slightly rusty, creaky quality. 

It didn’t take long to spot four birds on a branch of a small tree half-covered in vines, but the afternoon was cloudy, with the kind of murky gray light that makes it difficult to see color or details. I first saw a bird that looked brown, and then three others that were black. One of them was singing. Then I saw the flash of pale eyes, and thin, pointed bills, and the overall shape. These were four Rusty Blackbirds, one female and three males. 

Rusty Blackbirds are particularly interesting to find because their populations have declined alarmingly in the past few decades, and they are considered a species of great concern. Over the past twenty years, we’ve been lucky enough to find small numbers of Rusty Blackbirds here most winter seasons, as part of larger, mixed flocks of blackbirds (mostly Common Grackles) that have shown up almost daily. But this winter, I’ve seen very few blackbirds at all, and no large flocks. And before yesterday, no Rusty Blackbirds. So I stayed for several minutes watching through the leaves as at least one of the males continued to sing, and some of them called a dry, low, intimate chek.

This morning I had hardly dared to hope I might find them again, but was watching as I came to the same stretch of road – and I was really amazed when I heard the song again in a slightly different spot, and found three male Rusty Blackbirds perched in the bare branches of a pecan tree by the side of the road. I watched them for several minutes and then – could barely believe my luck. All three birds flew down to the ground and began to forage in the open, in very green grass and clover in a yard. They were close, and lit by clear sunlight, and this was one of the most beautiful, close-up views of Rusty Blackbirds I have ever enjoyed. The three males were very deep black overall, but still showed a pattern of rusty feathering over the back and wings, and bright pale-yellow eyes.

They walked around in the clover and did not seem at all bothered to have me nearby. I kept my distance, but they had flown down close to where I was standing, so I just stood quietly and watched. The exceptionally clear and vivid view of three Rusty Blackbirds with subtle rusty highlights rippling through their plumage, and pale, shining eyes, against the lush green clover and grass is one I will long remember.

I looked for the female that had been with them yesterday, but could not find her, and there were no other blackbirds around as well as I could hear or see, certainly no flock nearby – though maybe one not far away.

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