On Friday afternoon, October 18th, I saw a post on Tweeters that a Black Tailed Gull had been reported from Port Townsend, WA. I had seen one on the log booms in Tacoma in 2011 but did not get a photo. If I could find it and get a picture that would help with one of my goals – removing species from my ABA seen but not photographed list (there are 28 species on that list). I have been helping Cindy after her knee replacement surgery but a trip to Port Townsend seemed manageable. I planned to go on Saturday and sent emails to birding friends to see if they were interested. Then things got complicated.
Good friend Melissa Hafting texted me that a Yellow Browed Warbler had been seen in Victoria, B.C. Frankly I had no idea what a Yellow Browed Warbler was. Quick research showed it to be one of the “Leaf Warblers”, tiny Eurasian Warblers. This species had never been seen in Canada or in the Lower 48. Western Hemisphere records were limited to 2 in remote Alaska and one in Mexico. This was a Mega-rarity. But Victoria was a much more difficult and longer trip than to Port Townsend. No doubt a better bird but also more of a gamble and a much longer absence from care giving duties.
Photo of the Yellow Browed Warbler from First Sighting – Geoffrey Newell
Nobody was able to join me to go to Port Townsend, but friends were interested in Victoria. A plan came together quickly. Carl Haynie would pick up John Puschock in North Seattle and they would pick up Ann Marie Wood in Mountlake Terrace. They would drive to Vancouver and catch an early ferry on Saturday morning. There was room for one more in the car. Meanwhile Melissa was already headed to Victoria to be at Panama Flats first thing in the morning.
There are lots of reasons to cherish my relationship with Cindy. One is that she understands the often seemingly crazy parts of chasing rare birds. Another is that she is a pretty tough gal. That has meant that her post surgery recovery has been a great success and also that she could do (actually overdo) without me even for a long day. All I had to do now was get to Ann Marie’s by 4:00 a.m. Sure let’s go!!
Not a whole lot of sleep but I was there before 4:00 a.m. John and Carl were on time and we were off. Three hours later we were on the Tsawwassen Ferry to Victoria. With luck we would be looking for the bird by 8:40 a.m. Just as we were arriving at the Ferry terminal, I got a text from Melissa. She was looking at the Warbler!! It was there!! Amend the previous sentence. With luck we would be looking AT the bird by 8:40 a.m.
Birders at the Scene
I am going to skip a lot of details but what followed upon our arrival was an extended case of frustrating hide and seek. There were at least 25 birders there many of whom who had already seen the Warbler and some who had almost seen it and others who were still trying to see it. Two younger birders with truly keen eyes seemed to be constantly saying “there it is” and others were saying similar words with somewhat less regularity but the same conviction. I tried to follow the directions of all of them but just could not see the bird. Sadly this is not the first time I have found myself in a similar place as not only are my eyes not very keen but they are even worse at pulling a bird out of a detailed jumble of leaves and branches. I am wretched at “Where’s Waldo” as proof of the problem.
The bird seemed to prefer the tops of the trees, constant activity never resting, and burying itself among and behind leaves of which there were still many. The light was dreadful – gray skies, a few raindrops and the area was constantly backlit. And it covered far more territory than I would have expected. Friends Melissa and Ilya were most helpful in pointing me in the right direction, but I was not able to get a view that told me with any confidence that I had seen the target. Not sure of the eye brow or of the two wingbars, but it was certainly a very small bird that I saw. But was it the prize? And then finally I could at least make out the eye brow. And then it disappeared again. And then another peek and maybe there were two wingbars. And this continued for several peeks interspersed with those disappearing acts – never a good look but at least cumulatively finally I was certain I had seen it if not well. A picture would confirm it, but trying to get it in the viewfinder of the camera was even harder than in the view of my binoculars. But I tried…and tried and tried and tried. And after literally one hundred attempts I did get THE Yellow Browed Warbler in my viewfinder. And surprise, surprise I actually got a couple of photos and a bigger surprise, they were actually not horrible under the conditions at hand.
Yellow Browed Warbler
I continued to try for better views and photos without much success. The poor views and viewing conditions made it a less exhilarating experience than some other successful chases but in no way decreased the sheer amazement of actually seeing a bird that I never expected I would see anywhere in the world let alone in the ABA Area. More than 50 birders were there during our visit and many more were arriving as we left around 10:35. The Warbler was last seen around 10:45 a.m. and despite the presence of many birders for the remainder of the day, it was not seen again on Saturday. Was it gone? Then it was seen again in the morning on Sunday and took a midday break before returning later that afternoon. It was seen by many happy birders from all over Canada and the U.S. and even made it onto television in Vancouver. It is now Monday morning. I have friends who are trying for it today. I hope they are successful.
Remember the Black Tailed Gull that started this post. Many people searched for it on Saturday and it was not seen. I guess I made the right choice.