Friday, October 19, 2007

Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear - photo courtesy of Jean Iron's Photos

The time was about 3:30, going on 4:00, on a Sunday afternoon and I had just got home from being in Leamington. My parents dropped me off at home to start packing for my trip back to Toronto and they turned around and left again. I went into the house and casually checked our messages...first message: Marianne informing me that a Northern Wheatear was spotted near Blenheim at a town called Shrewsbury! My heart sank. I new I had to leave within an hour to get to the Greyhound station in Chatham in time and that I'd be cutting it severely close to try to see the bird. Our van was also out of gas so I couldn't leave and come back. I had to wait for my parents. I quickly called Marianne back and she was on the bird, which raised my hopes a bit knowing that the bird was still around (it had been in the vicinity since noon).

I panicked. I paced. I thought of the hundreds of ways this could turn out, 90% of which ended in me not seeing the bird. So, I did what any sane birder would do, I called into work and told them I wouldn't be able to make it because I missed the Greyhound (which ended up being the case anyway) and I called the Greyhound station to confirm that my ticket was valid for Monday. Within the next hour, my parents were driving me to Shrewsbury to see a bird they had never heard of, nor particularly cared about, but it was totally worth it! When we arrived at the location described on Ontbirds (we almost missed a turn because we were looking for a church instead of a street sign), there was a span of about 5 minutes where my Mom, Dad, and I searched for the bird (I had showed them what it looked like in Sibley's so they could help me). Once again, I panicked. I had just dragged two non-birders on a 45 trek to see a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Then, around 5:30 (in the rain) I caught a glimpse of something larger and there it was; The Northern Wheatear landed on a post within a few meters of where I was standing. I alerted my parents by flailing my arms and pointing towards the bird but little did it matter. We ended up getting amazing views for over half an hour without any other people around! We saw the Wheatear feeding, flying, preening, and hopping. I studied the bird until my parents thought I was crazy (I thanked them later...profusely...for putting up with me). They did enjoy a quick trip to see Erieau Marina though and I got to show them where I went fishing off the docks for Round Goby with the Ministry of Natural Resources.

This bird was a lifer for me and I'm so glad Marianne alerted me to it or else I would have found out about it that night when I logged onto Hotmail. I was struck by how interesting it was to see a bird from an Old World group that shows resemblances to its North American counterparts, but is still entirely distinct. Its conspicuous white rump and upper tail is stunning in flight and its wash of pale gray on its back and rich brown on its breast (the bird was in nonbreeding plumage) gives it an air of stateliness, accentuated by its long legs and upright poise. I also noticed two other things. The Wheatear bobs its tail quite frequently and also dips its entire body, much like a Spotted Sandpiper (less frequently).

Definitely the highlight of the OFO weekend for me, this was my 300th bird to be added to my life list (which is kind of low considering in 2005, I had over 200 species on my May list and have traveled to Florida and the East Coast of Canada). This was probably my best bird since the Neotropic Cormorant and many thanks to the original finders who alerted the birding community. You can see photos of the bird at Jean Iron's website if you follow this link and look under latest additions. The bird was last seen Monday, October 15.

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