New Brunswick·Podcast

'You couldn't keep something like this a secret': birders flocked to Miramichi to see mistle thrush

Deana and Peter Gadd weren't planning on hosting more than 540 crazed birders from across North America in their Miramichi neighbourhood this winter, but when a lonely European mistle thrush showed up at their feeder, that's what happened.

Deana and Peter Gadd say hosting hundreds of birders from across North America was fun and memorable

Birders from across North America, including Alain Clavette, travelled to Miramichi this winter to see the first European mistle thrush ever recorded on this continent. (Submitted by Alain Clavette)

Listen to "Meet the mighty mistle thrush of Miramichi," the first episode of The Hook, a podcast from CBC New Brunswick. You can listen to the full episode by clicking on the CBC Podcasts page or by subscribing in iTunes.

Deana and Peter Gadd didn't plan on hosting more than 540 crazed birders from across North America in their Miramichi neighbourhood this winter, but a lonely European mistle thrush changed all that.

The speckled bird, a cousin to the American robin, turned up at their backyard feeder on Dec. 9 after a cross-Atlantic flight and sparked a rare-bird alert for the entire continent.

"We were warned early on if we really wanted people to know this bird is here," Peter Gadd said.

"Others who have more experience than us knew what could happen and what did happen but we've not regretted it. You couldn't keep something like this a secret."

Alain Clavette, an avid New Brunswick birder and CBC columnist, was among the first to arrive in Miramichi to see the mistle thrush, which is known in the birding world as a "mega-rarity."

To get there and to be able to see it right away — it was just so wonderful.- Arie Gilbert, New York birder

"We were quite excited and we were nervous," Clavette said of his two-hour drive from Memramcook after the first snow storm of the season.

He was on his way to see the bird when it was confirmed as the first ever recorded in North America.

"One thing that is almost unbearable on those rare bird alerts — it's the drive," he said, laughing. "I had white knuckles holding the wheel because the road was icy and we didn't want to speed, but we wanted to get there ASAP to see this magnificent thing."

The European mistle thrush, which feeds on insects, seeds and berries, is common in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

"Imagine a juvenile robin, but bigger, that stands up straight with a pot bell," said Clavette. "A bird that will also show, if it flies, a white underwing and ... white on the corners of the tail."

Breakfasted on berries

Peter Gadd, seen here with his wife Deana, first spotted the mistle thrush in the couple's backyard and knew immediately it was an unusual bird for Miramichi. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Peter and Deana Gadd, who are both longtime birders, welcomed more than 540 people to their neighbourhood during the three months that the mistle thrush made regular appearances.

Peter said the bird always showed up in nearby mountain ash trees for a breakfast of berries.

"Anybody who has travelled any distance has not failed to see it," Gadd said. "And that's why it's a draw too. People are willing to invest time and money to come from Colorado ... Texas, California."

Birders also came from across Canada, with visitors from as far away as British Columbia and Alberta.

Peter joked that the "unexpected event" turned out to be a mini-tourist boom for the area, with many people spending the night at local hotels. 

The mistle thrush appeared every morning in a Miramichi mountain ash tree, where it fed on mountain ash berries and fiercely protected its food source throughout the winter. (Submitted by Alain Clavette)

New Yorkers' sanity questioned

Arie Gilbert and Liz DiNapoli of New York drove through the night to see the mistle thrush just days after it made its first appearance.

"When we got to the border, the immigration officer on the Canadian side looked at us like we were completely insane," DiNapoli said.

"He was asking us what we were doing and we said, 'We're going to see a bird,' and he was like, 'Ummm, OK,' and asked us how we knew each other and the whole thing. It was very funny."

Gilbert said he was flooded with relief when, after driving for 12 hours, he turned the corner to the Gadd house and saw a crowd of people all looking in the same direction.

More than 540 birders from across North America travelled to Miramichi to see the rare mistle thrush. They signed Peter and Deana Gadd's log book. (Submitted by Alain Clavette)

"We just pulled up and hopped out of the car and then there was a fellow there from Iowa who said, 'Oh take a look through my scope.' To get there to be able to see it right away — it was just so wonderful."

A cross-Atlantic journey

Peter and Deana Gadd believe the mistle thrush may have been blown across the Atlantic Ocean by Hurricane Ophelia in mid-October.

Clavette's theory is that it flew from England with rest stops in Iceland and Greenland before landing in Miramichi.

People will stand out here on a day like today, where it's minus 15 or so, and they'll take an hour observing the  mistle  thrush, studying it, talking and seeing how it behaves.- Deana Gadd

"One thing is sure is that it was helped by some kind of weather system, and of course something's got to be wrong in the navigation system of that particular individual."

Nate Swick, host of the American Birding Association's podcast, said there are records of the mistle thrush making it as far as Iceland, but no records for Greenland, which is often a precursor that a bird can make it "just that little bit further."

"You know a lot of birds may not be able to make it over the Atlantic Ocean but thrushes can do it," Swick said. "They're strong flyers and they're big birds and the first land they see is Eastern Canada."

'It has been fun'

Deana Gadd said it was a thrill to watch their fellow-birders trade high fives when they saw the mistle thrush for the first time.

​"It has been fun," Peter said. 

The most surprising thing for Deana, however, was the amount of time birders spent watching the thrush in the midst of a Miramichi winter.

"It's not just, 'Tick it off my list and go,'" she said. "People will stand out here on a day like today, where it's minus 15 or so, and they'll take an hour observing the mistle thrush, studying it, talking and seeing how it behaves."

The Gadds spent hours this winter waiting for the sun to rise and the European mistle thrush to appear in a neighbourhood mountain ash tree. They kept the birdwatching community up to date with daily reports. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Another surprising part of hosting such a rare bird has been the number of people who followed the Gadds' daily online reports.

"People are following it quite closely," Peter said.

Anytime the couple forgot to post a sighting, they quickly received messages from concerned birders.

Peter said that when he mistakenly reported two birds, it caused panic in the online birding world.

"Someone said, 'Are there two birds? Are there two birds?' Because when you do things day after day you get into a routine and you can get a little sloppy. And I got a little sloppy and entered two birds — so I very quickly apologized and made the correction."

Birding 'rock stars'

Clavette said rare birds, like the European mistle thrush, always attract "rock stars" of the birding world. In Miramichi, the stars included Paul Sykes of Georgia.

Sykes, who has been birding since he was 10 years old, hopped a plane from Georgia as soon as he heard the mistle thrush was in Miramichi. He also made a stop in Nova Scotia to see a rare kelp gull.

"Usually it's places where most tourists don't consider going, particularly the time of year sometimes," Sykes said. "It's sort of fascinating — in a lot of cases you find a rare bird and it's like a mini-reunion with other people that have kindred spirits."

Sykes said the mistle thrush brings the total number of birds he's seen in North America to 908, the third-longest lifetime list among birders.

​"When you get to the level I am … every bird means an awful lot. All of these trips are strictly a gamble. It's the only gambling I do."

Kindness will be remembered

Members of the birding community, including Clavette, Gilbert and DiNapoli, will remember Deana bringing them hand-warmers and umbrellas and Peter scoping out the neighbourhood each day and showing birders around when they arrived.

This tiny bird caused a mini-tourist boom in Miramichi since it was the first one recorded in North America. (Alain Clavette)

"That's really a level above most hosts of rare birds, that's for sure," said Clavette.

"Hosts of rare bird alerts … they're proud of having this rare bird in their backyard, and if they are interested and they're a people person like Peter Gadd and Deana, it becomes a real velvet."

Liz DiNapoli said if she were ever lucky enough to host a North American record bird, she would try to emulate the Gadds.

"I would act just the same way that they did. Just welcome everybody that came from every corner of the continent because that's basically what's going on for them."
Peter and Deanna Gadd commissioned wood carver Jim Edsall to create this sculpture of the mistle thrush as a memento of their winter guest. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The mistle thrush hasn't been as reliable since spring arrived, but Peter Gadd said it's still being spotted from time to time.

He said the bird is ranging much wider and has found another food source, outside the mountain ash berries in the Gadds' neighbourhood.

"I'm always going to be looking," he said.

"It's probably a female. I think it's the male only that will sing, and I would have thought by now it would have. Apparently,  it will go to the treetop and sing very heartily, so I'm suspecting that this individual is a female."

Peter said his feeders are still out — and promises that if and when the mistle thrush is spotted again, he and Deana will let everyone in the birding community know.

"We're still receptive and waiting for it to come back."

Deana and Peter Gadd didn't plan on hosting more than 540 crazed birders from across North America in their backyard this winter. But a lonely European mistle thrush changed all that. Vanessa Blanch and Alain Clavette tracked down a flock of birders to tell the story behind this “mega-rarity” in the birding community. 31:31
The Hook is a CBC New Brunswick podcast that is available on the CBC Podcasts page or in iTunes. (CBC)

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: