The Tale of the Citrine Wagtail – Terry Thormin
On November 14th a local couple found a wagtail in a farmer’s field in Courtenay. The bird was first reported as a possible first winter Yellow Wagtail, but then, based on a second observation two days later, it was reported as a possible first winter White Wagtail. Any wagtail in this area would be a very good bird and either Yellow or White would likely bring birders in from the Victoria and Vancouver and perhaps from even farther afield.
There was a problem though, the bird was on private property. The local birding community scrambled to get permission, but the farm road where the bird was seen went right between two different farmer’s fields and we did not know which one owned the road. Fortunately one of the most active birders in the area was able to track down the correct farmer and gain permission for birders to go down the road. However, the bird was frequenting the wet fields on the other farmer’s property, and we did not have permission to go on his property. So very quickly the word was put out that anyone who wanted to go looking for the bird must stay on the road.
It was a good thing that this step was taken because of what transpired next. The same day that permission was obtained from the farmer, two birders from Victoria went in to see the bird and managed to get photographs. Based on the photographs the bird was now identified as Citrine Wagtail.
Citrine Wagtail is much rarer than either Yellow or White Wagtail. In fact this is only the second record for this species in North America and the first for Canada. The previous record is of a bird that turned up in Starkville Mississippi for two days in 1992. And now here we had a bird that had already been around at least three days and was looking like it would stay even longer.
Citrine Wagtail’s normal breeding range is in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it migrates to India and east to Burma in the winter. To get to North America it had to cross much of northern Asia just to get to the Bering sea, and then cross the Bering Sea and go down the west coast through Alaska to British Columbia.
Now the rush was on, and birders began coming from farther afield. By now, eight days later, hundreds of birders have come in from as far away as Alberta, and perhaps further and with the first weekend since the bird was positively identified coming up I would expect that things are going to get really crazy. So far everyone has been very respectful and has stayed on the road. The bird has also been very cooperative and I doubt that anyone has missed the bird. There are times when it is quite far away, but with spotting scopes the birders are still getting good looks. At other times it disappears behind the taller grass and cannot be seen for a few minutes, but eventually it comes out again.
The bird appears to be picking insects off the surface of the water. At times it will also fly up into the air and then drop down again, apparently hawking for insects. It will also from time to time fly into the nearby bushes and stay for a while before flying down again to feed.
For the serious photographers the bird can be more frustrating as most of the time the bird is just too far away to get good photos. It takes a lot of time and patience if you are going to get decent photos of the bird, and so far everyone has taken that approach. Every once in a while the bird will come in closer, feeding in shallow water fairly close to the road. A big lens and a good DSLR helps a lot, although I have also seen photos taken by digiscoping that were quite good. For those who do not know this is a technique where a compact digital camera is used with a spotting scope to take photos.
I have heard some real horror stories about the behavior of birders who were bent on getting a look at a rare bird and breaking all the rules to do so, thus spoiling it for everyone else. There are even stories of fights breaking out to prevent the fanatical birder from doing these things. So far in this case everyone has been very respectful, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future as more birders come from further afield.
The local birding community is now sitting on pins and needles as the behavior of the visiting birders could have a serious impact on our access to private property in the future. We can only hope that it is a positive impact as this will not only determine how welcome we will be on private property in the valley, but also how likely we are to advertise rarities in the future.
Since first writing this post I have been able to get much better photos and so I have removed the originals and replaced them with four new photos. As well birders have started arriving from across the continent. California is well represented and I have talked with people who have flown in from as far away as Texas. The bird is still doing well although there is a local Merlin and a Northern Shrike that are both harrasing the bird.