How an Enthusiastic New Photographer Made Birding History

A vibrant blue bird stands on a sandy beach, with gentle ocean waves in the background and a blurred rocky foreground.
Photographer Michael Sanchez from Vancouver, Washington, captured this photo of a blue rock thrush. It’s only the second sighting of the bird ever in North America.

41-year-old musician and school band director Michael Sanchez bought his first camera just a month ago. Last week, while trying to get nice sunrise landscape shots at Hug Point along the Oregon coast, Sanchez took photos of a small, dark-looking bird in the dim dawn light. While not initially realizing it, Sanchez had captured some of the only photos ever of a blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) in North American history.

“I’m just a beginner photographer, and I wouldn’t consider myself a birder at all,” Sanchez tells PetaPixel over the phone. “I always watch [birds] when they are out, and I even had some pet birds years ago, but never thought I’d be diving headfirst into something like this.”

The “this” Sanchez refers to is a media firestorm. After returning home to Vancouver, Washington, from his roughly two-hour trip to Hug Point — his second in as many days — Sanchez looked through his photos and realized that the little “black” bird he photographed as the Sun was eking above the horizon wasn’t black, but blue and chestnut.

“I thought, ‘Oh wait, this is not an average black little bird at all,'” Sanchez recalls looking at his RAW files in Lightroom for the first time. “The colors were very apparent to me. I thought, ‘Oh, well, this is something different, for sure.'”

A blue bird with a rusty-red breast perched on a rugged, textured rock surface, with small plants sprouting in the background.
Sanchez captured the images using his new Sony a6700 mirrorless camera and Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD lens, which offers a 27-450mm equivalent focal length on his APS-C camera.

Sanchez shared some images online, still not quite realizing what he had seen. One of his friends passed it along to a bird enthusiast they know, and everything snowballed. Sanchez’s photo has been shared by online birding communities, local news, and he says he’s even chatted with USA Today.

The budding photographer describes the past week as an “uproar” he didn’t realize he was going to start, with his images sending the birding community in the Pacific Northwest into an absolute frenzy. People are trying to see the bird for themselves.

“We live in a beautiful world. We have beautiful birds, beautiful landscapes, and so I think if this encourages people just to take a little bit of notice of what’s going on around them, and whether it’s a little bird or something else, I think that’s a great thing,” Sanchez explains.

A blue rock thrush perched on a rugged, textured rock face with small patches of green vegetation.
“After I was finished with the [waterfall], I turned around and I see this bird, and it was still in the morning before the Sun had really gotten over the rocks. So I just saw this little bird; to my eyes because of the light, it just looked like it was this little bird that was black. And I said, ‘Well, that’s a cute bird, I’m going to just take a picture of it, see if it does something cute,'” Sanchez tells PetaPixel “It was a very patient model for me. It stood on the sand there for a minute or two, and I got my settings dialed in. I was able to compose that shot, make a nice composition out of that shot, and then it flew up on the rocks for another moment or two, and then it went away. Really, I was just trying to practice using the camera on something other than the falls at that point.”
A vibrant chestnut-bellied blue bird perched on a textured rock surface, showing detailed blue and brown plumage.
A closer, cropped view of the beautiful blue rock thrush.

Sanchez’s sighting is just the second unofficial sighting ever on record in North America, with the last in 1997 not being admitted into the official record due to insufficient data.

The blue rock thrush, a species of chat, is native to Europe and Asia. In its official range, Oregon and the rest of North America are way off the map. The starling-sized male is thousands of miles from home.

Sanchez thinks his story resonates with so many people because it’s fun and positive, and it is about “some guy” who “just happened” to take one of the most remarkable bird photos in Oregon’s rich birding history.

The sighting is undergoing usual scrutiny before being accepted as an official record, although bird experts believe it will pass muster and be admitted into the record books. Sanchez is working with the Oregon Bird Records Committee to provide as much detail as possible.

Sanchez describes himself as a “graduate of YouTube University” and says he likes to get out a few times a week to take photos. “You can learn all the theory, but in practice, that’s when you really learn what works and what doesn’t,” the novice shooter says.

A blue bird with a rust-colored belly perched on a rocky slope with sparse vegetation. the bird is sharply focused against the textured, earth-toned rock background.

It was partially his thirst for knowledge and passion for improving his photography that led to his incredible sighting. He says that he was recommended to go to Hug Point because he told some fellow photographers in an online forum that he was headed to Cannon Beach to do landscape shooting, and they pointed him toward Hug Point for landscape opportunities.

A serene sunset at the beach showing three large rock formations rising from the sea against a vivid orange and blue sky, with the ocean in the foreground appearing smooth and misty.
Sanchez, who is keen to photograph any subject, shot these images at Cannon Beach, Oregon, just up the street from Hug Point. The photographer is getting more into street and portrait photography these days, too, as he just recently bought a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC DN prime for his a6700.

Silhouette of a large rock formation on a beach at sunset, with an orange and blue sky reflected on the wet sand.

“They said, ‘There are some waterfalls there,’ so I go, ‘Oh, great. I’ll show up, I’ll do a long exposure — try to get nice silky water and all that,'” Sanchez says. “The damnedest thing about it is that none of the waterfall pictures turned out, but I think I made out in the deal.”

Michael Sanchez made out in the deal and then some, capturing a once-in-a-lifetime shot of a beautiful bird far from home.

Image credits: Photos by Michael Sanchez