Daily Bird: For Frank Mantlik, the Townsend’s Warbler was bird number 400. Nobody around has seen more.
April 21, 2020 — The number 400 was on Frank Mantlik’s mind on Friday morning as he drove to Hartford to look for a Townsend’s Warbler that had just been reported.
Four hundred birds, in particular.
Only one birder was on record as ever having seen 400 species in Connecticut. Frank’s Connecticut life list sat at 399, and he was about to become number 2.
“I am admittedly a bird lister,” Frank said yesterday over the phone from his home in Stratford, “My state list is something I kind of live for and have for many decades, so I knew I was at 399. But I never get my hopes up too much with these things, especially a warbler.”
Townsend’s Warbler’s normal range is the Rocky Mountains and west. Every state surrounding Connecticut had a record sighting, however, and even Newfoundland has had a couple of dozen. But not Connecticut.
Four hundred birds doesn’t happen in a couple of years. Frank started birding when he was 18, in 1972 (he became a member of the Connecticut Audubon Society in 1974, is on the regional Board of the Coastal Center at Milford Point, and helps maintain the nest gourds of the Purple Martin colony there).
He’s omnipresent in birding circles but he had never been to Cedar Hill Cemetery, where another birder, Paul Desjardins, had reported the Townsend’s Warbler around 9:30 a.m. Friday.
“I bumped into Matt Bell right near the entrance road, so he gave me the lowdown,” Frank said, referring to our EcoTravel sales and marketing manager. It was Matt who had pressed “send” on Connecticut Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert shortly after the first report of the Townsend’s.
“Matt said no one has gotten pictures, only brief views. We prepared to spend the rest of the day there. It has good habitat — open grassy clearings with patches of woods.”
The bird was elusive but after about an hour Russ Smiley, a Connecticut Audubon member who lives in Marlborough, found it again in a tree top. He yelled. Frank saw it and he yelled. Twenty birdwatchers, trying to keep their distance, many wearing masks, most carrying several pounds of heavy optical equipment, clambered through the graveyard like an upset flock of geese.
It was a state record sighting for everybody there. But it was number 400 only for Frank.
Oddly, rarities haven’t been all that rare, and Frank has made a dash to 400 over the last couple of years: Sooty Shearwater and Great Shearwater, 392 and 393, summer 2018. Little Egret and Black-bellied Whistling Duck, 394 and 395, August 2018. Roseate Spoonbill, 396, September 2019. Yellow Rail, May 2019, 397. Western Meadowlark, October 2019, 398. Brewer’s Sparrow, November 2019, number 399.
When the Townsend’s Warbler is officially accepted by the Connecticut Ornithological Association, the overall Connecticut list will be 446.
Alone ahead of Frank is the late Noble Proctor, at 404. Among those right behind are Frank Gallo, Greg Hanisek, and Nick Bonomo, all contributors to our Daily Bird feature, and longtime Connecticut Audubon member Tina Green. And to put Frank’s 400 in perspective, Matt Bell, no slouch when it comes to chasing birds, four decades younger and 124 birds short of Frank.
They all might reach 400, even Matt. But every time a new bird appears in the state, they all go to see it, which makes it really hard to come from behind. They’ll all keep adding to their lists. But as long as Frank Mantlik is birding, they’re going to have a hard time catching him.