Before this morning I knew that I had never seen a Bell’s Vireo. After this morning I was sure that I had seen one. Now I am not so sure, but think that I didn’t. Why not? Read on!

Yesterday morning Dick Veit reported a Bell’s Vireo, what would be the third in history of New York State, at Mount Loretto Unique Area on Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City. Several other birders, yours truly not among them because I had to work, managed to get there and spot the bird in the next couple of hours but then it disappeared until Mike Shanley refound it at 6:30 PM. This raised my hopes that it would stick overnight which I why I found myself getting out of my car into the darkness of predawn 6:10 AM at Mount Loretto.

Anthony Collerton was already there and we made our way out to the spot where the bird had been seen each time it had been seen, a large dead tree covered in ivy. We waited and watched, waited and watched. One by one and two by two other birders arrived, and we were quite the throng, including Dick Veit, the original finder of the bird. In the meantime I had spotted Red-eyed Vireo, two Warbling Vireos, and both an adult and a juvenile White-eyed Vireo. Then, a little before 9 AM, the bird appeared. At least, I think it was the bird. Everything is so confused now.

It looked good to everyone there or, at least, no one disputed the bird’s identity as the object of our search, an out-of-the -way Bell’s Vireo. It foraged quite quickly and though I didn’t notice any tail flicking, Anthony Collerton described the bird in a comment on the New York Birders Facebook page, as “a ‘fast-moving tail-flicker’ – [with] jizz that seemed more Bell’s than not.”

It was only when Anthony posted a link to his photos of the bird that questions started being raised. It does have some features that look startlingly like a worn juvenile White-eyed Vireo. Kevin McGowan shared the following on the New York State listserv:

Has anyone heard this bird call?  Those photos look more like a juvenile White-eyed Vireo than a Bell’s to me.  I have never seen a Bell’s Vireo with that bold a white stripe above the eye, or so much of an eyering going behind the eye.  Bell’s face always strikes me as really dull (like a Warbling Vireo) with only a thin dark line through the eye to break it up.  This guy has spectacles, a white throat, and a dark cheek, with only a hint of a dark line behind the eye in one photo and not in the others.

Shai Mitra, who was there a little bit later and saw a bird that he is sure was a Bell’s Vireo, shared the following:

I saw the bird reported at 12:45 today and feel confident that it was a Bell’s Vireo. The face pattern was quite plain, recalling Warbling Vireo or Orange-crowned Warbler; the supercilium was thin and vague; a dark transocular continued beyond the eye; and thin pale crescents were present above and below the eye. Contrary to the condition in White-eyed Vireo, the front part of the supercilium was narrow and the area directly behind the eye was dark. Furthermore, the bird appeared long-tailed and very small (even smaller bodied than White-eyed), and it lacked bright, discrete patches of yellow on the flanks (it showed a pale and ill-defined yellowish wash there). I don’t know if photos of this individual were obtained.

Dick Veit noted an immature White-eyed Vireo at this site yesterday, but we did not see that bird today (to our knowledge). Most disconcertingly, there was a House Wren present today that seemed able, to both my ear and Sean Sime’s, to reproduce a shockingly faithful version of Bell’s Vireo song (it sometimes sang more typical House Wren songs also). Perhaps this bird has received some audio-training in Bell’s Vireo vocalizations over the past two days?

I just looked at Anthony’s photos and am very puzzled. The face pattern, particularly the broad pale area between the bill and the eye, appears very different from that of the bird I just saw. On the other hand, there are aspects of these photos that seem at odds for White-eyed Vireo, too.  Without closer study (I have to go to class now), I’m just not sure of how to interpret these photos.

Dave Klauber has added the following on the state listserv:

I was one of the people who saw the vireo this morning when it first appeared around 9 AM. It was seen by a small group of us off and on for about 10-15 minutes before it disappeared. There is lots of dense shrubbery for it or any bird to disappear in. When I saw Anthony Collerton’s photos I was surprised at the prominence of the white area between the bill and the eyes. I don’t recall it looking like that when we watched it, and he was near me when the photos were taken. To my eyes the white does not look as prominent in the first 2 photos (and is more consistent with what I remember), but is striking in the 3rd and to a lesser degree the 4th photo. I’m wondering if the camera angle and lighting might have made this more striking. The field mark that stood out most in life was the lower wing bar, and at times the contrast between the gray head and upper body( especially from a rear view), which was  greenish. I don’t know if this is diagnostic or just supportive. A recording was played a few times and once the bird did come in close, seeming to respond. I also heard a vocalization once which, given Shai’s comment, was probably the House Wren. We did not hear any chip notes or calls other than what I just mentioned. I remember commenting that the bird was very plain faced and others also said the same, which again caused me some surprise when i saw Anthony’s photos. The yellow on the flanks was very faint in sunlight but more prominent in the shade, although not that strong to my eyes.

You are probably pretty sick of all of this exposition and are thinking to yourself that I should get to the pictures already. Fine! Here’s three, and the only alterations are being cropped and slightly sized down. You can click on them to make them bigger.

I will say that in person, the yellow on the flanks seemed more subdued then even the relatively bland yellow seen here. Also, the lores did not seem so wide. Finally, there really did appear to be a dark line through the eye. Granted, I spent more of the time that the bird was visible rattling off photos but I did look through the bins a bit too. Also interesting is that when the bird was first spotted only a couple of birders there actually got any kind of look at it. A question about playing tape was made by Dave Klauber (as he mentioned in his email), no one objected, and a tape of Bell’s Vireo was played. The bird responded immediately, moving closer to us in cover and then popping up onto the exposed branch. Why would a White-eyed Vireo respond so strongly to the song of a Bell’s Vireo?

I am now leaning towards this bird being a worn juvenile White-eyed Vireo, looking completely different from the other one that I saw earlier in the morning, which looked more like the one in this post. But I am not at all sure about that. Having never seen a Bell’s Vireo I feel that I am at a disadvantage in discussing this bird but I do know that it did not act or look like any White-eyed Vireo that I have ever seen. The spread-wing shot above and the shot of the back end of the bird, to me, make it look like a White-eyed Vireo based on Sibley’s illustration in his seminal field guide. The lores do not help it be a Bell’s, and the lack of that dark eye line extending through the eye is troubling. I am not sure why Kevin McGowan pointed out that the bird has a white throat as a mark against Bell’s Vireo because it seems to me that they are supposed to have a white throat.

So, is this the only bird present? Or did Shai and the folks there for the afternoon showing see something else? Dick Veit said he had three images of the bird he originally saw but I can’t find them on the Staten Island Yahoo group where they are supposed to be posted (which might just be my stupidity but if anyone can give me a link to those shots it would be appreciated).

Any thoughts on this bird would be appreciated, White-eyed, Bell’s, or, dare I say it – hybrid? See you in the comments! And sorry if any of this post seems disjointed or repetitive – I have written it after getting up early to chase the bird, putting in a full day at work, and while wrangling my two-year-old.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.