Monday, November 4, 2013

Finally some luck...maybe

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

The end of October was drawing to a finish. The flocks of migrating songbirds were dwindling down to almost nothing. The days of finding numbers of warblers were done; they had been replaced by Creepers, Chickadees and Kinglets. My list of birds left to see had also shrunk, leaving maybe ten regular species to hunt down this year. One of those birds had proven to be a major thorn in my side: The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers have become a regular migrant in September and October to the coast. This year however, they had shown up more sparsely than in previous years. One had spent a few days at Reifel, but I had come up empty in my attempts at seeing it by just a few hours. The pilings also hosted a couple of birds, but each time I attempted the chase, I was met with misfortune. By the end of October, the window was closing and it looked like the Sharpy would be my first official "miss".

I did, however, have one beacon of hope. A sharpy had shown up at the Esquimalt Lagoon near Victoria. It had been seen during the course of several consecutive days. I really didn't want to have to make another trip to the Island for a bird I should have seen here in Vancouver, but I didn't appear to have a choice in the matter. It was Monday and I managed to switch my shifts around to get Thursday off. I had three more days of waiting, and hoping the bird stayed put. I made a plea to the Vancouver Island birders to update their message board so I wouldn't be wasting a day on a bird that had already taken off.

Wednesday night reports came back positive that the bird had been seen. Thursday morning I boarded yet another 7am ferry for Victoria, which was becoming an all too familiar experience. Esquimalt Lagoon was a new location for me and it was rather beautiful that morning. The sun shone down on the fog gently lifting into the bright blue sky. From the parking lot, I walked the causeway between the Lagoon and the Ocean towards the center, where the bird had been hunkering down.

The area was known as the "hump", a small piece of sea grass that jutted out in a sort of semi-circular pattern. After a few minutes of scanning, the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper poked his head up from a mound of grasses. Bird 354.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper-Esquimalt Lagoon

It was a lovely Juvenile, and unlike other Sharp-tails I had seen, I managed to get great close up looks. I spent about half an hour watching him make his way back and forth along the hump. A few pipits darted in, one photo-bombed the Sandpiper, passing by so fast I didn't even realize til I was looking through my pictures.

Pipit Bomb

 It was interesting to see him poking around a bunch of Gulls, they looked massive compared to him.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

From Esquimalt, I decided to carry on towards Jordan River. Although I had yet to find anything special in my trips there, it was always worth checking for that one special rare bird I might one day come upon. I found the beach of Jordan River cloaked in fog. The resident Gull flock contained the same species I had seen before, although this time without the Heerman's Gulls, which had probably started making their way south by now.

Albert's head Lagoon

Albert's Head Lagoon
I wandered the "community forest", which is really just a scattering of vacant houses with some deciduous plantings. Passerines were few and far between with most of them being made up of Fox and Song Sparrows, although I did come into a sizable flock of Bushtit's. The only real surprise was flushing up one lone Band-tailed Pigeon.

It was about time to head back to Victoria, it was 3pm and I figured I would go visit a friend for a while before I caught the ferry home. While sitting in Victoria area traffic, I noticed an email reporting a possible Chestnut-collard Longspur at Cattle point. It had been seen at 2pm, it was only 20 minutes from where I was! I said "Sorry, Kristin", and turned off at the next street so I could figure out how to get to Cattle point from where I was. Luckily, traffic on the side streets wasn't as bad, and I was soon out of the car and rushing down from the Cattle point parking lot.

I found a few birders gathered around a fenced off section, the bird had apparently been seen inside the fencing in the grass. One of the birders was Aziza Cooper, who had originally found the bird. She said it hadn't been seen for about an hour, the compound was currently empty. I wasn't really surprised, nothing was easy at this point.

I decided I would walk around the area, in hopes the bird was still around. While I was nonchalantly strolling the grass and rocks, my phone rang, it was Russell Cannings. I answered it by saying:
"Let me guess, your calling about the Longspur?"
Russell replied with a laugh and asked if I had seen it, I explained that it was MIA for the time being, he joked that he was relieved since he had a cold and didn't feel like coming to Victoria. Just as I was going to say something else, I flushed a small bird from the ground. It landed a 5 feet away, I stared at it for a moment and said to Russell "I think I just found it, I gotta go".

Chestnut-Collared Longspur!

A voice from behind me called "Yeah dude, that's the bird".
I turned to see a familiar face, Mike Ashbee, who I had met for the first time at Gray's Harbour, and then again at the Citrine Wagtail twitch. He had re-found the Longspur and I had blindly walked right into it while on the phone.

The Longspur seemed fairly indifferent to our presence and continued mousing about in the grass, foraging. It was a definite oddball of a bird, resembling a Chestnut-Collared Longspur, in its smudgy streaked breast and gray bill, but looking through my Sibley's, it wasn't a dead on ringer. It was definitely a first winter bird as its plumage was about as fresh as could be.

Bird 355?

The group of other birders finally clued in that we were looking at the bird, and gathered round. I felt that the general consensus was that this was indeed a Chestnut, just a weird one. How lucky was I to have come to Vancouver Island to get a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and end up with A Chestnut-collared Longspur? Talk about a bonus. After a good hour of photos, I figured I should probably meet up with my friend Kristin before I had to go home.

A few hours later while on the ferry, I got some disturbing news. Some birders had seen evidence that this was not actually a Chestnut-collared Longspur, but a Smith's! Their reasoning was that they had seen it in flight, and the tail more matched Smith's, as well as its primary projection was longish, and the bill wasn't short enough. I could almost cry! It was like winning the Gold medal and then having it taken away to be replaced with a bronze instead.

Most birders would be just as pleased with a Smith's, as both are terribly rare on Vancouver Island, with only a few records each. But I had already seen a Smith's this year, and not to mention had gone through an ordeal and a half to see it. I sat in my car on the ferry, pouring over the photos I had taken, comparing them to as many images on the Internet I could find of first winter Longspurs.

I wanted to say I was sure it was a Chestnut-collared, but I had to admit, it was confusing, and I felt like whatever I said, it was going to be biased, because I wanted it to be one, and that wasn't very objective. I decided the best thing was to just hold off on saying it was 355, and just wait and see how this all played out.

It would be more of a wait than I realized, and it wasn't until 2 days later that I felt everyone had unanimously agreed it was indeed a Chestnut-collared Longspur. Man, birding can be dramatic.

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