Saturday, May 10, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Twitchy!

The unbelievable happened! And I'm not just referring to a potential 5th state record for Sharp-tailed Sandpiper; I'm referring to the fact that this rare Eurasian vagrant, first reported Wednesday afternoon by Jason Wilder at the Rimmy Jim Tanks 185 miles northeast of Phoenix, stayed put. At this pleasant little unassuming mudflat--a run-off basin for cattle--it stayed through Wednesday. I watched and read with great anxiety and little hope as it stayed through Thursday. With double portions of stress and hope then I held vigil around the listservs and AZ Birding pages through all of Friday. When Jason Wilder, currently the favorite birder of Arizona, reported the bird still present Friday evening, that sealed the deal. Without compromising work or other important obligations, the chase was on. I left Phoenix at 2am and beat the sunrise to Rimmy Jim Tanks, where the far-flung shorebird was still foraging, as if it had all the time in the world.

Noticeably bulkier and not as twitchy as the Spotted Sandpipers, this bird stuck out even from a distance, before the scope was trained. After much waiting and wondering, it was now so straightforward, so easy, and beautiful.

When this bird does stray into the U.S., it's usually detected in the fall and is thus in its typically drab non-breeding plumage. For it to stray so far inland, into northern Arizona, is very unusual. For it to do so in May is nothing short of bizarre, and for it to stay in the same spot for at least 4 days now means that, in order for the natural universe to balance out, somewhere in New York City a whole flock of House Sparrows are deciding to migrate southeast to Tanzania.

It was exceptionally lucky for me that this bird stuck around. I was also helped with great directions from its discoverer, and constant updating on the Arizona Birding facebook page, and on that note thank you to everyone who contributed (all I really contributed were some nebulous and incorrect ID possibilities, when STSA wasn't even on my AZ radar). It's also very lucky to see this bird molting into its breeding plumage, with the rufous cap, bold chevrons, and pinkish hue on the belly all developing seemingly by the day.

I was also lucky enough to discover that this well-endowed bird is a male, tehehe.
And yowzaa! Look at how sharp that tail is!

When first seeing photos of this bird, the yellow beak and yellow legs seemed to rule out everything but Pectoral Sandpiper. Being unable to tell the size from the first shots, even a Least Sandpiper seemed, to my untrained eye, a possibility, as the beak was mostly covered in mud, looking only slightly yellow, and the breast coloration had not filled in as heavily.
Getting to study the bird, its habits, it motions, its colors and anatomy, was an enjoyable exercise in delineating its attributes from all the other shorebirds I've seen so far (an unimpressive list).

After an hour, I had to head back to Phoenix for Saturday brunch. Bird hard and brunch harder, that is a Saturday plan! This bird was certainly worth a boast and a toast. It was strange to meet up with people afterwards. I had this satisfaction, this private fulfillment in knowing that I had been up since 2am already and seen something very cool and very rare, while everyone else was still sleeping. 

Perhaps the best part is that a relaxing Saturday aside, this is only the beginning of my birding weekend, with two days down southeast starting tomorrow. 
As I was packing it up I was joined by  one more birder. We relocated the Sandpiper and she picked up her lifer too. It was a bit surprising not too have more birder traffic on a Saturday, but that's the consequence of these nerve-wracking twitches. The STSA stayed for several days already, bucking every expected trend, so why shouldn't it stay another week? On the other hand, it could leave at any second and disappear forever, and that would be a long, lonely drive back home. Luckily it wasn't this time.