Rare avian visitor draws birders to Stone Mountain Park

The varied thrush is a large, handsome songbird that lives in quiet Pacific Northwest forests with towering conifers and wet understories of ferns, shrubs and mosses. Its contrasting black-and-orange plumage and eerie, penetrating song make it a distinctive bird of those forests, according to experts.

So, why has a varied thrush been hanging out in Georgia during the past few weeks — in a campground in Stone Mountain Park?

Birders are not sure, but they’ve been flocking to the park in recent days to catch a glimpse of the rare avian visitor as it flits among trees or searches for food on the ground. As far as birders can determine, only two previous sightings of varied thrushes — in the 1980s — have been reported in Georgia.

For many of us, the varied thrush would be a “lifer” — a species that we have seen and positively identified for the first time. Seeing it means we can add it to our “life list,” a list of all the bird species that we’ve seen and identified with certainty during our lifetime.

Georgia birders’ chat lines have been buzzing with sightings of the varied thrush and where to find it at Stone Mountain, but a little luck may be needed to get a glimpse of it. Some folks report standing around for hours in the bitter cold, waiting for it to appear at the location. Others say they’ve seen it within a few minutes after arriving.

“I arrived at 4 p.m. … but did not see it until 4:40 p.m.,” said birder Jeff Sewell of DeKalb County. “I watched it for 20 minutes until my fingers could no longer operate the focus wheel on my binoculars due to the wind and cold.”

Why are some birds found so far from home? There may be several reasons: blown off course by storms; inexperience (especially in young birds); genetic abnormalities; hitchhiking on a car or camper; and plain wanderlust — some birds, like humans, just like to travel far and wide.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be full Monday — the Bony Moon, as the Cherokee peoples called this month's full moon, since February's heavy snows made hunting difficult and people were down to gnawing bones to survive. All of the visible planets are rising in the east right now: Mercury, low in the sky just before sunrise; Venus, brightly shining, about two hours before sunrise; Mars, about midnight; Jupiter (near the moon Tuesday night), a few hours after dark; Saturn, just after midnight.