Host of Rare Red-Flanked Bluetail Shares Her Story


eBird has a feature called “Rare Bird Alerts” where a subscription grants an individual access to the list of rare bird sightings in a given region. Usually these sightings number between 1 and 4. You could thus imagine my surprise when I checked my email one day during lunch and read one species with a whopping 32 recorded sightings. Then to discover that this female red-flanked bluetail – a diminutive, sparrow-sized Old World flycatcher with a brown back, blue tail, orange sides, white bib, and gray front, usually found from Afghanistan to Japan – had found its way into a local bird photographer’s backyard, roughly ten minutes from Lakeside campus.

The bluetail has long since left since it was last spotted on March 29 – according to eBird – but its host, Ms. Nancy Morrison, was happy to talk about her experience and herself.

Ms. Morrison is a bird photographer that lives in Lake Forest Park. She originally got into birding after finding out about it through a course on the natural world through the Mountaineers – an alpine outdoor recreation, education, and conservation 501 nonprofit organization – and learned how to identify birds by their calls. She thinks back on the experience: “That hooked me, somehow.” The bird that she cites to have particularly caught her interest was the common yellowthroat. She explains, “I’m also an amateur musician and it resonated with me.” Ms. Morrison has been in the hobby for around ten years and shoots with a Sony A1 mirrorless camera, with her favorite method being via kayak in places such as the Sammamish River slough (she also noticed a killdeer nest on Lakeside cCrew’s boathouse property when it was closed. She says “they should be hatching any day now”). Her favorite bird is the green heron because “they are so secretive that you feel so special when you see one,” and her favorite place to go birding is Elkhorn Slough, just north of Monterey, CA.

 Ms. Morrison originally came to Washington in 1990 to do a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology. She was born and raised in Boston, but decided she needed to move to Seattle when she heard a presentation at a national Public Health conference about curbside recycling. The presentation was given by Seattle Public Utilities. This was a radical idea in the 1980’s, and Ms. Morrison decided that she needed to move to a city that cared so much about the environment.  Once her three year postdoctoral fellowship was up, she decided to stay in Seattle rather than pursue her career in pharmacology. She took up landscaping and found she enjoyed it very much, partly because it put her in a prime position to educate her clients about the need for organic maintenance of their lawns and gardens. “I think one reason the [red-flanked bluetail] chose my yard is because it was maintained organically.”

And now we come to the bluetail itself. On March 17, Ms. Morrison spotted an odd bird in her backyard. Seeing as she didn’t recognize it, she took a “crappy photo through the window, forty yards away, raining” and posted it to a local birding group’s Facebook page. “It’s okay to admit you don’t know something,” she said, a statement vindicated when she asked for help identifying the bird, as she described how “one person said ‘that looks like a red-flanked bluetail.’ I just laughed, like yeah right.” To get confirmation, she posted the question again to Tweeters, a birding chatroom run by the University of Washington, and “within five minutes I had: ‘you have a red-flanked bluetail.’” She advocates for this willingness to consult others with birding, especially when self-describing as more of a bird photographer than a pure birder. “It was purely because I was willing to admit I did not know what this bird was and I needed help, but it never occurred to me it was something super rare. If I had known I would have tried to get a better photo!”

The way I found out about this bird was through eBird, a bird reporting app maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (likely because it’s the only organization with the funding to afford it). Ms. Morrison does not use eBird regularly and refrains from rare bird-chasing, citing the stress it could cause the bird. However, she made sure to submit a checklist each day confirming that the bluetail was seen that day to let people know it was still around, “[her] way of informing the community.” Apparently most did the same, as the attention she wrought was near-immediate. “When the word was out, people Googled my address, which really freaked me out. The next morning there were people in front of my house.” Perhaps the oddest part of the experience was that nobody asked to be let into her backyard. Instead, “they went into neighbors’ yards and tried to get a look in over my fence.” 

‘The more I learn about birds, the more I’m enamored by what’s out there. With our changing climate and environment I think it’s more important to know what’s out there and what we’re losing.’

She did get a few esteemed guests: Ryan Merrill, a well-known local birding figure and one of the topmost eBirders in Washington, contacted her immediately and showed up the night it was found, eventually observing the bird the following morning. When people started going into neighboring yards, though “we didn’t see it for two days … and I didn’t know that it was living in my yard, I thought it was just passing through.” She and other top-level birders thought that the bluetail would stay since they had observed it multiple times the first day. This two-day absence was thus troubling, especially given the backlog of dedicated birders that wanted to see it, including local birding icon Connie Sidles, who waited this two-day period despite severe arthritis making it impossible to move around to try to find it.

As such, to protect the bird, neighbors’ privacy, and visitors’ patience, she talked to her neighbors to prevent people from accessing their backyards. Lo and behold, “within an hour the bluetail came back to my backyard,” and Ms. Sidles finally could see it the next day. 

After a few more days, Ms. Morrison realized the bluetail would prefer to perch on a stick poking out of the ground underneath a forsythia bush – a stick coincidentally placed to cover a decomposing pile of corn based cat litter. As luck would have it, this particular stick had “really good viewing from my side yard. If it had hung out around the right side of my yard … I would never have seen it and there was no way I could’ve had viewing.” Having brought a camera myself, this particular stick was a lifesaver. As such, she set up a makeshift fence to prevent people from intruding on the bluetail’s personal space and a system to swap out people who had seen the bird with those that did not. 

There were some hiccups to be had: in the beginning, people kept parking in front of neighbors, so she put up signage, and then had to go out when people ignored said signage. She was practically full-time working for “traffic management and people management.” She had one elderly man who refused to give up his spot, tripod and all – Ms. Morrison says she had to lightly scold him (to the thanks of the other visitors). However, the grand majority of people were greatly respectful, and none violated the “no fly zone,” as Ms. Morrison put it. Bird Club member Landi J. ‘23 describes how, on a Bird Club excursion to see the bluetail, “once we arrived at Nancy Morrison’s lovely backyard there were already a few people watching … Iit was a fantastic experience getting to share space with such a rare bird for this area,” aided by the bird’s own prettiness: “the bluetail was absolutely beautiful,” says Landi. I have been part of rare bird congregations before, first to see the snowy owl in Queen Anne and another time to photograph an American Bittern, and the camaraderie and generousness of the people to allow me, a bumbling high schooler, in on the best vantage points always blows me away.

It was in this time that she got some of her most interesting guests, among the “hundreds of people [coming] in to see the bird.” In addition to Ryan Merill and Connie Sidles, many people flew in from all around the country or drove in from as far away as Michigan. Two visitors were on a “Big Year,” a year-long marathon to record as many unique bird sightings as possible. “They were from Tennessee and were in Kansas … When they got word of this sighting, they dropped everything in Kansas and drove overnight to get to my house. They were at my house at 7:30, by 7:45 they had seen the bird and were off,” Ms. Morrison remembers. Some were ornithology professors from Ohio, and another was a University of Washington professor who wrote an entire book about the birds of Puerto Rico. 

Her most notable guest was a man with terminal end stage ALS, toting a ventilator and wheelchair. Ms. Morrison recalled how he “was in my yard for two days … and on the third day he finally saw it. His dying wish was to see this bird.” And so many people, like him, were “so thrilled” to see the bird, and Ms. Morrison cited how “all these people sent me photographs, and there were all these gifts, and people were so appreciative of being able to see this [bird] and that just made me really happy.”

As for why the bird was here? Nobody knows. Ms. Morrison’s backyard in particular was conducive for a bluetail residency – shrubbery, shadowed area, lots of insects and hiding places, no chemical treatment, no artificial food placement due to personal ethics on bird baiting – but why it was in a Seattle-area suburb is anyone’s guess. “Some people say storms, some people say they’re explorers … but you’d think there would at least be a pair.” And where it’s gone remains a mystery. “I hope she flew off to Siberia to meet her friends but there’s just no way to know.”

This red-flanked bluetail may be a sign of an increasing trend of vagrant birds, shifted off course from their usual meanderings either due to climate change, or in search of other environments in seeking refuge from climate change. Even beyond this climate-based migration, they face a plethora of problems: uncontrolled outdoor cat populations kill 2.4 billion birds per year, window collisions kill 1 billion, and assorted others kill hundreds of millions more. Ms. Morrison shares, “the more I learn about birds, the more I’m enamored by what’s out there. With our changing climate and environment I think it’s more important to know what’s out there and what we’re losing.” It is thus important that birding has seen a rise in recent years: “It’s such a wonderful way to learn about your environment. It’s almost magical to find out who’s out there, who’s occupying this space with you, how they’re filling that space,” and in doing so learning to love the animals with whom we share the earth. 


What is the opposite of a bird, and do you hate it?

I can’t think of a single animal that I hate. They’re all [important] everything down to the even fire ants … Every animal, everything has a role on this earth. And even yellow jackets, I don’t like yellow jackets, but they play a role. And we have to allow everything to do its job, because if we try to play God and try to you know, say, “Oh, I don’t like yellow jackets, I’m gonna kill them off,” that’s a really important part of the ecosystem that you’re mucking up just because you don’t like getting stung. So there’s no such thing as hating an animal. They all have a role. 

Though I don’t like fire ants, and I don’t like yellow jackets.


One person said that you are excellent and also that she liked your bird feeder.

Aww, sweet.


So what is one negative stereotype about birding? 

That it’s very elitist … This is a long segue, but it’s often thought to be just wealthy white people who are doing this. Do you remember in 2020, two years ago, there was an incident in Central Park with a black birder? Yeah. At that time, I was a member of a Facebook group called Western Washington Birders, and people tried to post things about this, the issues that black workers are facing, and they wouldn’t allow any posts in that group. They kicked anyone out, who posted about the issues of black birders, and I quit that Facebook group because of this, that they weren’t willing to address these issues that we as privileged white birders can walk around with our binoculars and not be suspect, but if you’re black, God forbid. And so I quit that Facebook group because they were so unkind about the issues that other people face that we as privileged people don’t have to worry about.


If you had to bring a bird back from extinction, which one would you choose? And any thoughts about bringing back extinct species through genetic engineering?

That’s so funny, because when I said “yes, I’d like to see your questions,” I had no idea what someone in high school would be interested in and this is the kind of thing that’s like, “Oh, no. I haven’t even thought about a Jurassic Park kind of thing.”

You know, evolution is so amazing. I read a book by Richard Fortey … he’s a British paleontologist. I read this book called [Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth]. I thought as a biology major in college that I knew a lot about evolution, but his book was such an eye opener because I had no idea that something like 90% of all species that have evolved on Earth have died off, that it’s just a few this sort of made the cut, but it’s been so circuitous, because birds are not descended from dinosaurs as everyone thought it was a side branch. And it just it gets really complicated. 

I mean, I would love to have seen like pterodactyls or something like that, [it would be] very cool to see a pterodactyl fly, but they’re not the ancestors to birth … And it was only recently that it was either through Audubon Society or Washington Ornithological Society that they had a lecture on the evolution of birds versus dinosaurs and their separate branches. They’re closely related. And there’s no questioning when you see the babies like a great blue heron baby is so dinosaur-like. 

I think a pterodactyl would be very cool to see.

(Interviewer’s note: while birds are not dinosaurs in the traditional sense, taxonomically speaking they are very close to theropods and so count. For example, eagles are more closely related to T-rexes than stegosauruses are, evolutionarily and temporally).


Do you have any opinions on like bird feathers as souvenirs or for cultural purposes?

I personally don’t collect bird feathers. My understanding is that for many reasons, we just leave them in place. For cultural reasons I have no problem. If there’s a legitimate reason for anyone to collect a feather be it scientific purposes or cultural I think that’s okay. But for a random person to say, “oh, a pretty feather and to bring it home,” – I can’t condone that.

I had merlins nesting in my yard two years ago, and I found a Merlin feather in my yard, and I brought it inside. And like a week later, the merlin nest was attacked by crows and killed the babies. And I felt so guilty that it’s because I brought the feather inside. I mean, I felt like I cursed it. So that is the last time I’ve ever collected a bird feather.


Thoughts on birds with inappropriate names?

Okay, there’s more and more coming up because we’re understanding more about the people … The Townsend’s warbler apparently is named after someone who was very unethical. He was out digging up Native American graves, to measure head sizes, and he was exhuming all the bodies without permission. So then [scientists realized] they have to rename the Townsend’s warbler because person who was named after it was not a good person. But that being said, even the the red flanked blue tail wasn’t red, it was yellow. These people that name the birds are colorblind or something. I was reading just the other day that said that the most inappropriately named bird was something like the red throated something and it had no red on the throat, it was the head or something. People really mess up sometimes. There’s actually many examples: ring necked duck does not have a ring around his neck.


So what is your favorite or least favorite bird predator?

Again, it’s all part of the ecosystem. I can’t say I have a least favorite because it’s not fun to watch, but it’s all part of that cycle that those animals have to eat too. 

I was photographing pied billed Grebe chicks, which were just so unbelievably cute. There were like four chicks swimming around, and a green heron flew in and perched right near these little chicks swimming around. And there were four men photographing it and myself, and what the mama pied billed Grebe did was she swam over to where the green heron was and popped up right next to him and flushed him and got him out. But after it left, the guy said to me, “were you going to cry if the green heron ate a chick?” You know, just as I was the only girl there. I said, “well, I would have photographed it first, and I probably would have been a little sad watching it,” but again, we can’t change nature. Everyone needs to eat.


What are your favorite bird eggs?

I don’t normally see bird eggs, because, first of all, I don’t want to get that close to a nest to look into. One time I got to photograph a hummingbird nest, but the chicks just hatched that day. I didn’t get to see the eggs, so I cannot say that I have a favorite egg because I don’t normally see them.


Do you eat poultry? And what are your thoughts on the ethics of it?

I only eat organically raised chicken. Yes, I do eat poultry. I’m a meat eater, but only organically raised.


What is your favorite bird joke or pun?

Oh, that one? I don’t know if I have any. 

(Interviewer’s note: Ms. Morrison’s favorite joke, shared via email, is “Why did the turkey cross the road?: To prove he wasn’t chicken.”)


I was wondering if you’re involved with bird conservation or if there’s anything you know about it?

Since I’m a waterbird person, this secretive bird organization [Wetland Secretive Bird Monitoring], I go out every year and do surveys for them. 

… I’m starting to get more involved. 


Do you have a birdwatching bucket list or a dream like place you’d like to go for birdwatching?

A place I want to go back to that really surprised me is in Utah. I always think of Utah as being so desert-like, but there’s a place in northwestern Utah called Bear River Migratory Bird [Refuge]. There’s all this water there so it’s clearly a stopover place and a breeding area. I was completely blown away by how many birds were there and [how it was] really accessible because it’s one of those drive thru, auto-tour things. I was so impressed by the number of birds we found there. We were there in August, which is not really a time I think of many birds but we saw so much stuff there that I want to go back during different seasons and see.

I’m really worried about the, the western grebes in particular. Since I shoot from a kayak, the Western greed is one of my favorite species to follow. They tend to breed in lakes that are also irrigation lakes, and now with the warming climate, the lakes are drawn down so fast that their nests are failing. I would like to find someplace where the nests are successful that’s not an irrigation like, and I’m thinking that this Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, maybe someplace that I can actually see western grebes and Clark’s grebes that have successful death. Yeah. really discouraging.

And even going to Utah I worry about, you know, Utah in the summer. But I really want to see some of these birds … I drive an electric car, because I’m so concerned about the environment. And I bought this car because it’s my little mobile home. Flying to Florida was the last time I’ll ever be on an airplane. I mean, you’re young, you don’t have to make this declaration, but I’m in my mid 60s and I’m going to drive my electric car everywhere and now on. So when I go to places like Bear River migratory bird refuge, I’ll just camp out nearby. It’s really convenient for doing all this birding.


If you can have a pet bird, which would it be?

Wow. Probably a hummingbird. They would be so cool to have around the house. 

People actually do that there been people that kept humming birds as pets. I wouldn’t do it, but I think the concept is cool, I’d just have flowers around the house that they could feed on.


Do you have a default equipment set or an outfit for birding?

The short answer is no, but I’m shooting from a kayak a lot. A friend of mine, a fellow kayaker down in California, just taught me recently about [something] that you can pull up … to cover most of your face, so that you’re less likely to scare the birds that I’m going to start incorporating that to my photography … it’s a neck warmer kind of thing, but you can pull it up so that it covers your face and it disturbs the birds less. It was just this year that I first learned this thing exists. And so some of the people had it that that viewed the blue tail – the guys who were on their Big Year, they were using this – and it’s just a way to make yourself look less human and less scary so I’m going to try to start incorporating this. I wish I knew the name of it! 

… It’s a really practical idea to just break up lines … and if you have the camera in front of your face and this thing up, they don’t see any human face. People swear by it, that it’s less disturbing to the birds. Other than that, I just try to … cover my skin because [I’m] outside all the time and worry about skin cancer and getting sunburned all the time, so I always have long sleeves and long pants. You guys at your age probably don’t think about these things but it’s at your age when you’re most susceptible to getting a burn and then getting skin cancer later. 

I grew up sailing, and I got some whoppers of burns when I was a kid, and guaranteed I’m a candidate for skin cancer because of those horrible burns I got in my teens and early 20s so I try to protect my skin as well.


If you could say one thing to interest people in birding, what would you say?

It’s such a wonderful way to learn about your environment. It’s almost magical to find out who’s out there, who’s occupying this space with you, and how they’re how they’re filling that space … To me [it] is just an amazing way to find out, learn more about the natural world around us. And I just love being outside anyway.


Do you have any final comments or questions you’d like to add?

I’m really impressed that you guys … are learning about these issues in school, and that you took the time to come meet with me. I am very pleased that you asked me to do this interview.

One of the things that was so much fun for me was seeing all the young birders coming into my yard: to get a passion about something that early in life is so great.