In the Big Photo Year for Washington in 2015 I traveled to every corner of the state and saw and photographed many great birds. I am NOT going to repeat that journey in 2016 – as a minimum saving wear and tear on the car (35K in 2015) and cutting back on gasoline expenditures which was a major expense item.
That does not mean no bird chases for 2016 – but they will be limited to new species for Washington, new photos for Washington or new ABA area life birds that are “reasonably close”. Opportunities for two of the latter arose earlier this month as a Redwing visited the Victoria area and a Siberian Accentor visited Surrey – both in British Columbia.
What follows is a short story of the chase for each, a couple of dreadful photos and some troubling reflections.
The Redwing is a small thrush native to Asia and Europe bearing some similarity to an immature American Robin. It is extremely rare in North America – a misguided “vagrant” and is considered a “mega” in the birding world.
I was not deeply into state birding when a Redwing was found by Gene Revelas near Olympia in 2004 and 2005. Nor was I aware that a Redwing was found in Victoria in 2013 and since I was doing a Washington Big Year then (not Photos) I probably would not have chased it if I had. But when a Redwing reappeared in the same Victoria neighborhood (or is that neighbourhood if in Victoria?) in late December 2015 and was continuing to be seen in January I decided to give it a try if I could find some company. Frank Caruso was happily of a similar state of mind so on January 5th we took off early heading for the Tsawwassen ferry.
Our border crossing was easy and we made the 9:00 a.m. ferry with time to spare. No good birds on the crossing which was disappointing but the Redwing was the goal. The first snag was my not making the adjustment for kilometers and miles and getting a speeding ticket within a couple of miles of our destination. Oh well not the first of those I have gotten in my birding ventures. We easily found the stakeout spot – open lot in a nice residential neighborhood – with lots of mud and THE HOLLY TREES that the bird enjoyed. I thought I had a glimpse of the bird within the first 15 minutes of arriving but it was fleeting and buried in the thickness of the hollies. Then NOTHING for the next two hours. We were joined however by an eager birder from Chicago who had flown into Seattle the day before so he could make the trek to Victoria for this lifer – I think something over 750 or 760 for him in the ABA area – American Birding Association – which is comprised of all of the U.S. and Canada except Hawaii.
It was a pretty cold miserable morning but it rained only a tiny bit. But this was not enjoyable birding – standing and hoping for a glimpse. We left our Chicago friend and headed off for a bathroom, some food and an attempt to find Skylarks in fields where they are often found that were not too far away. This would have been a lifer for Frank and the first one for me since seeing some at Friday Harbor in the 1970’s – now extirpated in Washington. No luck – so we headed back to the holly.
Paul from Chicago was still there. He said that a group of local birders had been there maybe an hour before and the bird had been seen – but not by him so he was staying the course. We watched together for maybe another hour. We saw some movement that was hopeful but could not find the bird. Then somehow Paul found it in a small opening in one of the holly bushes – still pretty hidden and obscured in branches but clearly THE REDWING. I took a few photos in the now exceptionally poor light. Could enough as ID proof but nothing more than that. We thanked Paul said our goodbyes and headed off to the ferry and a long trip back to Seattle. Yay… but it somehow was just not very satisfying – maybe the setting, the wait or the fact that it was not part of a “Big something” but certainly a bird I would not have expected to add to my own ABA list #640.
The Siberian Accentor is a small passerine bird, much like a sparrow, which breeds in northern Siberia on both sides of the Urals. It is migratory, wintering in southeast Asia. It is a rare vagrant in western Europe, and a very rare vagrant on the West Coast of the United States. Another “mega” in the ABA area. I don’t know if it has ever been seen in Washington State – certainly not by me – but one was found by George Clulow in the Surrey area of British Columbia on January 3, 2016 although I was not aware of the sighting until after our Redwing jaunt.
British Columbia and particularly Vancouver has a very good, very active and very large birder community. As word got out on this bird it was clear that it would be sought by many. In the days after its discovery, viewing it was kind of hit and miss. It was on private property – basically a large blueberry farm with some brush and a vacated house. Not the best of viewing conditions – viewing from a bordering narrow road. On the ferry ride back from the Redwing it was clear I was “coming down with something” as I spent much of the trip in uncontrollable shivers. By the next day I had a fever and was highly congested and coughing most of the time. Nonetheless, I thought I would give the bird a try and again found Frank Caruso a willing partner in crime – joining us was Ann Marie Wood – a very intrepid birder who lives nearby. I warned everyone of my ailment but would wear a mask – hey it was a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR – worth the risk.
Again we set out early. A fun moment was at the border crossing where our border guard, a young woman, was aware of the bird – maybe from others who had made the journey – although we were probably the first Americans at least that day – or from some publicity it had already raised. We got to the Hill Farm location around 8:30 a.m. and found at least 25 birders already there. This is in many ways a good thing on a chase as rule Number 1 is to look for other birders hoping that they already have found the bird and can simply point it out to you. Even if they have not, the extra sets of eyes are very helpful. Nobody had seen the target yet but several in the group had seen it in earlier days.
Birders kept arriving – all told many hundreds of thousands of dollars of optical and photography equipment with binoculars, scopes and cameras with big lenses. By the time we left some hours later I think there were probably 100 birders there – many from Washington including several I knew. It was very sunny which was nice, but that also meant it was quite cold. The bird was from Siberia after all so it would not mind, but my “cold/flu/infection” was not real happy. Basically we strung out along the road hoping for a glimpse in the brambles along a ditch on the side of the house or down the road separating the ditch from the blueberries or in the blueberries – or anywhere else it might select to be. It had been seen in previous days with a large meandering flock of Dark Eyed Juncoes so eyes were waiting for the flock to arrive. IT DID – but far down the road and there was no Accentor in its midst.
After an hour plus Ann Marie needed “a break” and there being no facilities, formal or informal, around she drove off to find some. Sure enough 10 minutes after she left the Accentor made its appearance in some blackberry brambles along the ditch near a white “barrel” or at least that was the best way to point out its location. Madness ensued as everyone sought a vantage point with a view. It was not easy as the press of birders at times had us stacked two or three deep. They were not great looks (at least for most of us) but enough to ID the bird and tick it off our lists (or “twitch” it if you were say from England). Then it disappeared. Uh-oh – Ann Marie had missed it…
While of course she was not happy to have missed the bird being the fine person she is Ann Marie was happy for Frank and me (and the others) and hoped it would return. We waited another 35 minutes or so and Ann Marie said it was ok to leave. But being the fine people (usually) that we are, Frank and I (and my dang ailment) decided to stick it out. Another 10 minutes and now it showed up on the other side of the house – first very briefly on the roof and then low on the ground. Depending on where one was there was either a decent look, a great look or no look at all. Ann Marie could not get on the bird until I got her to a scope that another Washington birder had set up and she got a great view before it flitted off again. I had a great view a couple of times – but mostly with others in the way of being able to get my camera on it so I had to settle for the terrible photo above. Certainly good for an ID but not at all showing the real subtle beauty of the bird. Oh well..
Off we went as more birders arrived. I know the bird stuck around and was seen (and also missed) up until at least January 18th. Reports included sightings from birders all over Canada and U.S. – what happens when a “mega” is found and accessible. Another bird that I never would have expected to see in North America and the second new ABA bird in less than a week now Number 641 – poor by serious birder standards, but my attention has been in Washington. I hope this year that trips to Colorado and Alaska will add some new birds but the hallowed 700 Club still seems far off.
Maybe it was my ailment, maybe the comparison to the excitement of the chases finding new birds/photos for the 2015 Washington Big Photo Year, maybe the cold weather but somehow despite finding two incredibly rare and great birds, the experiences were not satisfying … not positive. They reminded me of experiences on a trip to Peru in 2013. I had previously had wonderful birding trips to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and India among other places. And in 2014 Samantha Robinson and I had a wonderful trip to South Africa, but Peru was different.
Despite a huge list of birds seen – 409 species – Peru just was not “fun”. On that trip the main focus was on “endemics” – birds seen nowhere else in the world – a major reason many “listers” take certain trips. Often our group – at least ten of us – would be stretched out hoping for ANY view of a particular endemic bird so that we could say “Check, I saw it”. Frequently the birds would be drab, hidden in the dense foliage and darting quickly around – barely if at all in the open. Is this really “seeing” a bird? Often it did not feel like it was even though I had noted all the field marks to be sure it was Bird A rather than Bird B. Somehow these two Canadian experiences felt that way – standing around hoping for ANY view of a rare bird.
It’s down there somewhere…I hope
Oh there it is…A Cock of the Rock – not drab but not a real open view either.
Maybe I had been spoiled because in most of my birding in Washington I am either alone or with a small group of friends and there is usually time to observe the bird well – one reason I undertook the photo year in the first place as photos require better and longer views to catch the picture. Traveling with Frank and Ann Marie were the best parts of each day except for the adrenalin rush of spotting the target even if briefly. And at the Redwing it was fun to visit with Paul and in Surrey there was much socializing with new and old friends. But not satisfying in other ways. I am going to have to reflect further.