“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

State Record Bird Sighting

On June 3, 2010 Sara Ress Wittenberg sighted a White Wagtail in Ruby Valley Nevada. It was the first ever sighting of a White Wagtail in Nevada and a rare sighting of the bird in the lower 48.

White Wagtail picture taken June 3, 2010 in Ruby Valley, NV
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear and—best of all—warm. Ruby Valley had experienced an exceptionally long and cold winter. It had in fact snowed just three days earlier, a scant frosting that covered the towering peaks of the Ruby Mountains with a thin veil of white, the last gasp of a bitter winter.

In Ruby Valley, surrounded by the towering 11,000 feet Ruby Mountains on the west and the Maverick Mountains on the east, the waterfowl were just starting to hatch their young. The first of the year’s Canada goslings and Mallard ducklings paddled through the expansive bulrush marshes of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Sandhill Crane parents kept a close eye on their downy covered young.

Ruby Lake NWR is a 37,000 acre refuge that lies about two hours south of the town of Elko, the most remote national wildlife refuge in the lower 48. Its patchwork of marshland and open water boasts the largest population of Canvasback ducks west of the Mississippi River (excepting Alaska) and a myriad of other species—Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, almost every duck species endemic to the United States. The marshes are surrounded by sagebrush and willow thickets that attract coyotes, mink, beaver, pronghorn, and mule deer.

It is also a birder’s paradise. Two hundred twenty five species have been reported on the refuge. That was before June 3rd. We had been birding in the far reaches of the refuge all week, and a fruitful week it was. We had spotted hundreds of birds and 85 species including Burrowing Owls, Short-eared Owls, Golden Eagles and White-faced Ibis. Sara Ress Wittenberg, my daughter and the wife of the assistant refuge manager, was our guide. An accomplished birder, she could spot birds way before the rest of us and we had enjoyed a good week of birding and wildlife watching.

We were taking a break from birding on Thursday and touring Gallagher State Fish Hatchery, located just south of the refuge headquarters. We were listening to our tour guide explain the workings of the hatchery when Wittenberg noticed a small black-and-white bird hopping in the gravel near the hatchery garage. I took a look – “Snow Bunting?” I proposed. “I don’t think so” she said. But we refocused on our tour guide for the moment, trying to appear much more interested in the fish and what he had to say than this intriguing bird that neither of us had ever seen before, whatever it was.

We finished the tour, thanked our guide and retreated back to Wittenberg’s house for lunch. But the bird was still nagging at us and Wittenberg pulled out her Sibley guide. She thumbed through it. “Oh my gosh,” she said, “I think we saw something unbelievable.”

“Don’t tell me.” I said, “Let me see if we agree.”

I paged quickly through her Sibley, passing quickly over the bunting (too small). What else is black and white? Magpie? Too big. Wagtail? Nah, not in Nevada. But I looked at the illustration in the guide. Same markings, right color, size and shape. That was it.

“Wagtail!” I said, “It was a Wagtail!”

“I think so too. We have to go back.”

We were upset with ourselves, first for dismissing the bird and going ahead with the tour and also for not having our binoculars and guide with us. They had been our constant companions all week but for the tour we left them behind. To make matters worse, my wife always toted her camera along, and we had not even considered having her snap a quick photograph of the bird!

We jumped in the car and tore back down the road to the hatchery. We glassed the gravel lots and split up to search around the buildings. No luck. How could this be? We were sure we had spied a very rare bird but if we couldn’t get a better look we couldn’t be sure. A combination of anguish and frustration set in. How could we be so stupid? We should have gone with our initial impressions and quit the tour and pursued the bird. Now it was gone.

"Over here!”

I ran around the corner of the hatchery building and there it was, blending almost perfectly in with the gravel, not 30 feet from Wittenberg. As she was glassing it, I raised my binoculars and did the same. It was a White Wagtail - matched the illustration perfectly.

“We have to get a picture,” she said. “No one will believe it.”

And we did. Many, in fact, good shots that confirmed the ID.

Wittenberg reported the sighting on the internet the same day and it was accepted, a first state sighting. Word spread quickly over the internet and birders were on their way to Ruby Valley the next day, some from as far as Las Vegas, seven hours away. Unfortunately, the bird was never spotted in the area again.

It was an exciting and fun experience. As Wittenberg said “I always read about people seeing rarities and thought ‘Who are those people?’ I figured they were all pro birders, no way someone like me could ever report a sighting.”

And we learned lessons from the experience. First, don’t doubt your sighting. If you think it’s something rare, it probably is. If it isn’t, you still have the momentary thrill of thinking it is and doing the detective work to verify or dismiss your tentative ID.

Second, verify the ID. Use your guides, and most importantly (especially for a rare bird), get a picture – crucial in validating the sighting for records. I am convinced that had Wittenberg not had a clear photograph, her sighting would have been doubted, and certainly not accepted as a state record. Like the vast majority of birders, she is not a recognized “regular” of accomplished birders within the birding community and her report would have undoubtedly been viewed with skepticism.

Third, don’t doubt your birding skills. No matter how impossible it seems that the bird you are looking at could be whatever unusual species you think it is, keep an open mind. If we had dismissed this sighting as my initial thought, a Snow Bunting, the most likely similar black-and-white bird in the area, we would have never correctly identified it. Think outside the box and consider all possibilities.

Finally, keep your binoculars with you all the time. We had ours with us all week, except for this one hour interval! Lesson learned!

(This article, originally titled "Who Are Those People? appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest)

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