The Rarity Finders

Header image from the Surfbirds Galleries is the California Ross's Gull by Donna Pomeroy

The winter of 2016/2017 has seen some remarkable vagrants in the ABA area. Perhaps, three of the most notable and newsworthy have been the Red-flanked Bluetail in Idaho (a state first) and the Common Pochard and Ross's Gull in California. Unfortunately, both the Bluetail and Gull disappeared over the same weekend in mid January; the gull killed in mid-air by a Peregrine in front of stunned observers. However, all three birds drew large numbers of admirers from across the continent during their stay.

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Ross's Gull, Pillar Point Harbor, California, January 2017

Finder Don Pendleton

On Thursday, January 12th, 2017 at 12:30pm, I was taking a birding break and was walking the wharf. I started at Deer Creek Mouth, a great place for roosting shorebirds and gulls/terns, walked the wharf area, then returned to the Deer Creek Mouth.

It was here that I noticed a small-sized gull swimming just a few feet from shore. I could see an ear spot and thought that I had a Bonaparte's Gull, which is a rather unusual gull for San Mateo County. However, it then swam to the shore and showed off those bright red legs and I started thinking that this wasn't a Bonaparte's Gull, but perhaps either a Little Gull (although the wings were too long for such) or a vagrant Red-legged Kittiwake. A nearby California Gull that was roosting on the shoreline snapped at it and the mystery gull flew into the air for a few minutes, which was when I noticed that the wings were devoid of any dark marking. The wings were an icy gray, with a white trailing edge and the underwing was not a dark charcoal (ruling out Little Gull). The tail shape was very different (frankly, the tail shape was noted but it didn't register with me as I was concentrating on the wing markings). At this time, I knew that this was something very unusual and thus contacted Donna Pomeroy as a backup and she had a camera for documenting this gull. While I was waiting for Donna to arrive, I kept my eye on the gull as it flitted to the parking lot, flying from puddle to puddle. Eventually Donna showed up and we came to the conclusion that we had a Ross's Gull, only a second state record and the phone tree started to go into play. The rest is history as the birding community started to network and a lot of folks started to show up to view this bird.

Ross's Gull sketch by Matthew Dodder. Matthew's website

The Ross's Gull stayed until Saturday January 14th at 2pm when it was unfortunately taken by a Peregrine in a mid-air strike right in front of stunned observers.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Idaho, Dec' 2016 from the Surfbirds galleries © Keith Carlson

Red-flanked Bluetail, Hells Gate State Park, Idaho, December 2016 -January 2017

Finder John Hanna

On Monday, December 26th, 2016 I had a bad head cold and felt achy all over but I decided to go try to get the Lewiston raptor run done anyway. The day started off well with Barn Owl and three Red-Tailed Hawks. However, I got caught up on a small bird though. I was first thinking of a Kinglet or a Warbler, as this bird was bouncing all around. Then I saw a blue-tail! I texted Ben Bright and asked him if he would look for warbler-like birds with a blue tail. Unfortunately, the birds that he came up with and also everything on my iBird App did not seem to match. I did not immediately think Bluebird because of the size and behavior. This bird kept jumping from the ground to the branches and I noticed it once flicking its tail rapidly 5-7 times in quick succession. Unfortunately, I missed several photos by seconds and got a blurry one. I spent the next hour and a half trying to get a photo and then I could not find the bird. I walked to the end of Hells Gate and back and then the bird reappeared and I snapped a quick photo. I was kinda delirious at this point from my head cold and forgetting to bring tissue to blow my nose. I looked quickly at the photo and decided it must be an odd lone Bluebird.

I left Hell's Gate and picked up a few more nice hawks including a Rough-legged Hawk but a mile into Volmer road I encountered large unplowed snowdrifts and was unable to continue. I was able to drive to Mann Lake and found it frozen over. The road to the south was plowed to single lane but looked sketchy for turning around if more snowdrifts were to be encountered. I went north and then hills were pretty icy and I was feeling miserable so I decided to head home and decided I would not be able to get raptor run results for December with the current road conditions.

When I got home I just sat in bed for 4 hours feeling out of it. Then I went back and looked at my last photo of the suspect bird. It did not take too long to look at Bluebird in the Stoke's guide and zero in on a different bird. RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL! I had looked at Red-flanked Bluetail on my iBird Pro App but they only have a drawing of a male so I kept passing it over. The photo of the female in Stoke's looks a lot like the bird I finally got a decent photo of!?!?

Sorry no raptor run data but a good birding day for me even while feeling miserable!

John's Flickr Albums

Red-flanked Bluetail from the Surfbirds Galleries by Terry Gray

Common Pochard, Humboldt, California from the Surfbirds galleries © Mark J. Rauzon

Common Pochard, Freshwater Lagoon, Humboldt, California, December 2016 -January 2017

Finder Jeff Allen

Freshwater Lagoon, the northernmost of 3 coastal lagoons within Humboldt Lagoons State Park, is separated from the Pacific Ocean by a narrow strip of sand upon which the north-south highway runs. Most of the 1.3 mile length of the lagoon is readily visible from this road, and a small dirt road leading to a primitive boat launching site provides easy access to the northernmost part of the lagoon.

It was from this road that on Dec. 20 I decided to check out a newly arrived, fairly large flock of Canvasbacks. When I first saw them, the birds were quite close to the shore but as I started setting up my scope they started moving off fairly quickly, so by the time I got on them I was getting mostly views of their hind ends. I started scoping from left to right, not really expecting any big surprises, mostly just enjoying their beauty, when after getting through perhaps 30 birds, a smaller, slightly darker bird popped in to view. It didn't really look dark enough to be a Redhead so I stayed on it, and then it turned its head. Whoa! The bill was shaped mostly like a Canvasback's, but the light bluish band separating the black at the tip and the base stood out like a beacon. Common Pochard! A bird that has always been on my mental list but one which I never really expected to find. After convincing myself that it was indeed a COMP, I realized that I better try to get some pics so I headed back to my vehicle to get my camera. I admit that I was so excited that I was shaking, and in my fumbling around I lost sight of the bird. Bummer. By now the flock was quite far away but they had settled down enough that most of the birds had their heads tucked in. I once again started going through the flock and after getting past perhaps 100 birds, I saw a smaller, darker bird that obligingly lifted its head and there was that bill. My shaking hadn’t really abated much, so I was unable to get a photo, but I did manage to make a call to my friend Gary Lester, who quickly got the word out to the local birding community. The rest, as they say, is history.

Common Pochard from the Surfbirds Galleries by Mark Rauzon