Extremely Rare Blue Rock Thrush Spotted in Oregon Might Be the First Ever in the United States

Amateur photographer Michael Sanchez captured photos of the blue-and-chestnut bird on a beach—but he didn’t realize just how special the “mind-bending” encounter was, until later

Blue bird on the sand
Michael Sanchez initially thought the bird was black, but he later realized how colorful it was when he got home and started processing the photos. Michael Sanchez

This month, Michael Sanchez picked up photography as a hobby. So, on a recent Sunday morning, he packed up his new camera and headed toward Oregon’s Pacific coast to photograph a waterfall at sunrise.

While Sanchez was clicking away, he noticed a little bird hopping around on the beach. Intrigued, he pointed his lens at the winged creature and started snapping pictures. The bird didn’t seem to mind.

“I’m new to photography, so I’m just kind of taking pictures of everything,” Sanchez tells the Oregonian’s Michael Russell. “I figured, maybe I’ll catch a picture of it doing something cute. And it was a really good model for me. It sat on the sand for a minute or two while I adjusted my camera, then flew up to the rocks for a few more moments. I was just happy to shoot a bird. Turns out I got a bit more bird for my buck.”

Sanchez didn’t know it at the time, but he’d photographed an extremely rare visitor: a blue rock thrush, among the first ever seen in North America, and likely the first spotted in the United States, per USA Today’s Eric Lagatta.

Once Sanchez returned to his home in Vancouver, Washington, later that day, he started looking through all the photos he’d captured. In the pre-dawn light, he’d thought the bird was all black—but as he processed the images, the 41-year-old middle school band director realized his feathered friend was mostly bright blue with chestnut-colored breast feathers.

It was only when he posted the photos on social media that he learned just how special the encounter was. Sanchez is not a birder himself, but the birding community quickly brought him up to speed.

Blue rock thrushes live in Europe and Asia. The only other known sighting of one in North America occurred in British Columbia, Canada, in 1997, but birding experts could not determine whether that creature was a wild bird or a caged bird that had been released.

Blue bird on rock
The bird hung around on the sand for a while before hopping up onto a rock. Michael Sanchez

Sanchez photographed the thrush on April 21 at Hug Point State Recreation Site, a 43-acre park on Oregon’s coast, just south of the town of Cannon Beach. It’s roughly 100 miles west of Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

Since news of the rare sighting came out, birders have flocked to Hug Point in recent days to see if they can catch a glimpse of the blue rock thrush. But, so far, they haven’t seen it.

How did the little bird end up so far from home? Perhaps it hitched a ride on an ocean-going vessel or, maybe, flew all the way across the Pacific Ocean from Asia. It may also have been blown off course by a storm.

“Maybe this bird individually just has faulty navigation,” says Brodie Cass Talbott, vice president of the Oregon Birding Association and a senior educator with the Bird Alliance of Oregon (formerly Portland Audubon), to the Guardian’s Maanvi Singh, adding that the sighting is “just sort of mind-bending.”

Birds that are spotted far from their usual habitat, like this one, are known as “vagrants.” They pop up around the country from time to time, luring birders from far and wide. Scientists have offered many explanations for vagrancy, including geomagnetic disturbances, bad weather or a natural expansion of their typical range.

Separately, another birder spotted a blue rock thrush on the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco on April 25, a few days after Sanchez’s sighting in Oregon. If it’s the same bird, that means the little blue rock thrush traveled roughly 500 miles south in just four days. It’s also possible that two blue rock thrushes just happen to be hanging out on the West Coast at the same time.

“Both [scenarios] are so extremely unlikely that it seems hard to know which is more likely,” Cass Talbott tells USA Today.

Whatever the explanation, Sanchez is now drafting a report about his sighting for the Oregon Bird Records Committee, a group within the Oregon Birding Association that reviews and maintains records of rare birds spotted in the state. The American Birding Association Records Committee will also likely consider Sanchez’s sighting.

“I suspect there will be lengthy discussions about this bird, but my guess is that ultimately this report will be accepted,” says Nolan Clements, a member of the Oregon Bird Records Committee and a conservation scientist at Oregon State University, to KOIN’s John Ross Ferrara.

In the meantime, Sanchez seems likely to add birding to his growing list of hobbies.

“This really has opened my eyes,” he tells the Guardian. “I guess I’m a birder at this point... I think I’m in the club.”

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