By Mary Thurwachter
If you noticed an onslaught of visitors to the Lantana Nature Preserve in late April, there was good reason. A rare bird was spotted there. As the word spread, the park, wedged between The Carlisle assisted living facility on East Ocean Avenue and the Intracoastal Waterway, attracted birders from all over the region.
The bird, a red-legged thrush, was first photographed there early on the morning of April 25 by an Arizona bird-watcher who didn’t immediately recognize the species. He left the preserve for a park in Fort Lauderdale where he met two other birders. They identified the thrush, which had been spotted only once before in North America.
By 1 p.m. an alert went out via messaging and on eBird — an online database of observations — and bird-watchers flocked to the coastal habitat in hopes of seeing the bird for themselves.
The red-legged thrush is a blue-gray bird with a bright orange-red eye ring and red legs. Its appearance in Palm Beach County marks only the second time the species has been seen in the United States. The previous sighting was in Brevard County on May 31, 2010.
Among the first on the scene after the alert went out were Doreen LePage, a birder since the mid-1960s, and Mary Dunning, who took up the hobby a year and a half ago. Both are members of Audubon Everglades, the Palm Beach County chapter of the National Audubon Society.
Dunning, who lives in Wellington and works in Boynton Beach, went to view the thrush during her lunch break.
“I always have my binoculars with me,” she said. “I went again after work and saw the bird again, but by the next day it had flown away.”
LePage, of Boynton Beach, arrived, camera and binoculars in hand, soon after Dunning. “I was excited,” she said. “I had checked my list of bird observations to find this was truly a new U.S. bird for me. The red-legged thrush was listed as an ABA Rare Code 5 bird with only one other sighting in the U.S.”
American Birding Association codes range from 1 to 6, with 6 meaning the bird is probably extinct. Code 5 birds are recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or have fewer than three records in the past 30 years.
LePage said the area had experienced easterly winds for several days, which sometimes push Caribbean vagrant birds into South Florida.
“Interestingly, the Bahama mockingbird had been found in this same park several days prior and was still present in the parking lot area,” LePage said of a species that is a Code 4 — not recorded annually in the area but with at least six total records, including three or more in the past 30 years.
She saw the thrush resting in the leaf litter under an 8-foot palm tree. She said she took many photographs as the crowd grew. “Folks were parking at the shopping center across the street and anywhere they could park,” she said.
“The resting bird soon got up and began foraging for insects in the leaves,” LePage said. “It appeared to be very comfortable with the respectful onlookers watching its every move.”
As she was leaving, she saw a Bahama mockingbird perched and singing in a fruiting bush on the side of the parking lot. “How cool … an ABA Rare Code 4 and 5 bird from the Caribbean within 30 feet of each other for my eBird list,” she remembered thinking.
LePage and Dunning said the Lantana Nature Preserve is a magnet for rare and migrating birds. Other rarities to visit the preserve recently included a white-crowned pigeon and a Key West quail-dove.
Those who live near the Lantana Nature Preserve noticed all the commotion.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of people with cameras there lately,” said Ilona Balfour, who visits the park frequently and is a member of the Friends of the Lantana Nature Preserve. She said she hoped the birds would be able to steer clear of some stray cats hanging out there recently.
Longtime bird lover Richard Schlosberg, who lived on Hypoluxo Island until about a year ago and now lives in Connecticut, said he had been visiting the area on the day the rare bird was found.
“When I saw a hubbub — a police car and several people walking determinedly with news-station-size still camera lenses, I followed a few people to the Lantana Nature Preserve,” he said. “They mentioned a rare bird and were very enthusiastic. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to add the rare thrush to my life-list, nor even reconnoiter the usual inhabitants” such as yellow-crowned night herons.