Thursday, May 13, 2010

Red-throated Pipit Chase

May 11:

I awoke sick and woozy this morning, lying on my camping-mat in Ilya Povalyaev's South Surrey home. I suppose waking up at 4:30am to bird all day then driving through the night to the coast is not the best way to nurse a progressing soar throat. BUT THERE WERE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS AT STAKE! We left the house at 5:50am and headed to Ladner where we met Larry Cowan and Kevin Neill who would be our pipit-chasing companions for the day. Larry kindly offered his vehicle for the carpool and we were off to the ferries to catch the 7am sailing... only to find out from the cheery ticket-booth operator that we would in fact be on the "9 o'clock sailing." Disaster! We were already nervous enough about the prospects of coming all this way for a bird that might not be there, and now we had to sit through several more hours in ferry terminal purgatory... praying for a miracle. We passed the time by working on our "terminal lists"-- the usual GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS and ROCK PIGEONS floated around the buildings, while SURF SCOTERS and COMMON LOONS floated offshore; a fly-over AMERICAN GOLDFINCH gave us some relative excitement, and this obliging VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW allowed Ilya to test out the close-focus on his bins:
At some point during the wait, Roger Foxall called to inform us that the pipit was still there. Definitely an encouraging sign but of course this only added to the torture.

Finally we were able to board the ferry and get under way... fingers and toes crossed! Bird-wise the ferry crossing was fairly slow compared to the previous week. The 8,000 or so BONAPARTE'S GULLS were replaced by 3, and our Rhino count was reduced to 2. There were a good number of PACIFIC LOONS passing by, and the highlight of Active Pass was a group of ~50 PIGEON GUILLEMOTS.

Once on land we raced to Island View Rd and were relieved to see three vehicles nearby with some birders nearby in a field with scopes trained on something. But when we approached, local birder Jeremy Gatten informed us that the bird hadn't been seen for several hours and that only 20ish out of the 100 American Pipits were left in the field near the reservoir. OH NO! Was missing the ferry the final dagger! Had I driven all the way down to the coast and ferried across the Strait of Georgia for nothing? (Well perhaps not nothing, I knew I could see some cool things like Purple Martin and Whimbrel perhaps but STILL! you know what I mean) Our hunting group, now totaling 7 1/2 able-bodied birders (I was a bit out of it at this point) continued to scour the field where the pipit HAD been. After about 20 minutes Jeremy suggested we split into several groups to check all the other fields in the area for larger groups of pipits. I ended up with Jeremy and we headed over to Lochside Drive where the bird had originally been discovered by Mike Bentley. Soon after our arrival we did discover a medium-sized group of pipits but try-as-we-might, no birds with red throats. Viewing wasn't necissarily ideal though, the problem with these pipits is that they seem to enjoy feeding in fields with a grass height of exactly 1 pipit-length. AND, if there are any depressions or hills in the landscape, it appears that spending long periods of time completely obscured by these geographical features is quite preferable.

It was a pleasure to re-meet Michael McGrenere who was passing by on his road-bike. Apparently he was with me and others at the Tumbler Ridge BCFO when I saw my lifer MOURNING, CONNECTICUT, CAPE MAY, and CANADA WARBLERS along Brassey Creek. That was indeed a fantastic field-trip led by Mark Phinney back in my high-school days! Anyways, Mike stopped in and helped us search for the pipit for a bit even though he had already seen it. After a while he headed off to check some other fields and we resumed our vigil... still no rare pipit but I got to see and hear my first "North American" SKY LARK flight-songs! Then we noticed Mike M peddling hard back towards us, could he possibly have seen the bird? He pulled up and announced that there was a GOLDEN-PLOVER of some sort in an adjacent field. Not a mega-rarity of course but a nice novelty for all three of us since the majority of golden-plovers pass through the inner coast in fall as juveniles or as adults in basic plumage. We tracked down the bird and checked it out in the scope as it darted from grass tuft- to tuft. No obvious white-flanks so American right? Well apparently not, later on Michael returned got some photographs revealing several very Pacific Golden-Plover characteristics. (You can follow the ID discussion on the VI Birds email group) So a nice humbling experience in hindsight!

Anyways back to the main event: The other pipit-team came by to announce that they had not seen a single pipit in any other fields so they joined us and soon we discovered that there were indeed around 80 pipits nearby... perhaps the red-throat was amongst them? As I mentioned before, scanning the flock was not an easy task. At any one point only 5 or 6 seemed to be visible, then once you got onto something potentially interesting the entire flock would take off and land in another field. On top of this I was starting to feel very light-headed and my nose just wouldn't stop running... but knowing that we needed as many eyes open as possible I tried my best to stay upright (choosing to cope by constantly complaining of course). Then all of a sudden, after hours of staring at weeds through my broken scope, Ilya exclaimed, "I've got it, I've got THE BIRD!" I abandoned my scope in the middle of the road and sprinted over to the rest of the groups where eyes were now being trained on the RED-THROATED PIPIT, eventually we all got good looks at the bird (or so I thought) and it was now time for the celebration shot!

[For this photo I asked everyone to give me their celebration poses-- in my elation and sudden burst of energy, I did not realize that Larry Cowan, the leader of our expedition had not yet seen the pipit! Ironically, he is the only one giving the THUMPS UP. I suppose is scope-case is masking an expression of sarcasm and deep frustration... now that's loyalty to the Big Year Blog!!! But don't worry readers, Larry got a great look at the pipit a few minutes later and finally the rest of the group could celebrate including Ilya who re-spotted it (good thing he didn't do this immediately after finding it!):

With a bit of time to kill before the next ferry, Jeremy G kindly offered to take us to Saanichton Spit where he had seen 3 whimbrels the day before. A quick check of a couple of the good spots finally revealed a single WHIMBREL on the outer side of the spit-- another great year bird!

Too bad the Canucks lost that night...

A HUGE THANK YOU to all the Island folks who stuck around to help us see the pipit even though they already had! I invite you all to come up and visit the Okanagan any time!


  1. E x c e l l e n t ! Congratulations; wish I'd been able to go. Never seen on in North America.
    PS: Feeling better, I hope.

  2. Yep, today it's just a few sniffles n' coughs. Time to get back to hardcore birding!