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RARE BIRD IN BRITISH COLUMBIA – And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

September 6, 2012

And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

A few months ago I wrote about our first out west trip in our “new” Roadtrek camper and the quest to find one of the illusive birds we had been searching for several years – the LeConte’s Thrasher. [See Feb. 6, 2012, “I’ve Got the Bird!”]

An important resource that we always have with us on our birding adventures is phone numbers or internet addresses for rare bird alerts in the states we might be traveling in. A quick call can yield a current report of unusual birds that might be in the area, complete with directions as to how to find the bird. Most birders are anxious to share information, and all we have to do is remember to make the call when we we’re in each different state. And you never know what rare bird will show up, making the trip that much more exciting and memorable.

So in 1998, as we traveled up through Northern California, following the coast towards Seattle and Vancouver, we called the rare bird alert numbers along the way. Nothing earthshaking was being reported until we got into British Columbia. If you have seen the film (or read the book), “The Big Year”, you may remember the rare bird that showed up in the little town of Gibsons, British Columbia.

When we were in Vancouver, Phil called the rare bird phone number, suddenly grabbed a pad and pencil and started writing furiously, eyes open wide. I watched curiously as he wrote down the details of what the bird looked like, and the very complex directions of where we had to go to find it, then looked at me and said, “There’s a Xantus’s Hummingbird in Gibsons!” Whoever heard of a Xantus’s Hummingbird? Not us! It wasn’t even in our bird book. And unless you have a copy of the current sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, it’s still not in most bird books! The reason is simple. This bird very rarely steps one foot out of the southern Baja Peninsula in Mexico, where it is endemic. And in the very strong El Nino weird-weather year of 1997, one of them had found her way to Gibsons, British Columbia.

And where was Gibsons? A 45-minute ferry ride northwest of Vancouver. So off we went! We grabbed a quick continental breakfast at our motel, and headed out with directions from the desk clerk about how to find the ferry to Gibsons, a town not reachable by land – even though it is not an island. The mountains come down to the sea, and there are few roads in the area to give access. (Similar to some parts of coastal Alaska.)

We drove through Vancouver on a multi-lane highway and crossed the Fraser River. This is a huge river and Vancouver is actually on a delta, with many islands and a lot of water. Several rivers travel here into the Strait of Georgia – emptying the mountains of glacier and snow melt and rain. It’s really a beautiful area, but, unfortunately, any place where people could build houses and condos up against the mountains, they did. It’s a hugely populated area.

We got to the ferry docks around 8:30 AM, and found long lines of cars, trucks, vans, semi’s, etc. Wow! Had they all found out about the bird, too? We had about an hour’s wait until departure and we were just crossing our fingers that we would get on! And who knew how long the bird would hang around? Or how many other chances we would have to see it? While waiting for the ferry, people got out of their vehicles, milled about, walked their dogs, chatted, bought the morning paper, and we munched on food from our larder, as we had not really had a proper breakfast. We ate Tillamook cheese, a blueberry scone, apples, and cherries. And a couple of cups of tea.

Finally the ferry came in – it was huge! It would hold 3 to 400 vehicles, including us. We spent the entire journey out on deck, of course, looking for birds, at the houses on islands, tall mountains coming right down to the water. It was windy and cold, but sunny and clear. In 45 minutes we landed, and followed the directions Phil had been given. Also, as requested by the rare bird alert information, he had called the owner of the house where the bird was visiting feeders, and our “appointment” was for 1:30, so we had a couple of hours to kill.

We decided we would make absolutely sure we knew where we were going, so we followed Phil’s notes: Go on a new stretch of highway to Upper Gibsons and come to an IGA mall. Turn left 3km to Gower Point Road and right to Ocean Beach. It would be on the second street on the right. Park at the fork, and walk up the paved road to the house. It was up a road from the beach. We drove back to town for a bite of lunch, then returned to the beach for a nap, a walk on the very rocky beach, gathered driftwood, read, wrote in my journal, and wondered if we would really get to see this “lost” bird.

As it got closer to time, we studied Phil’s notes of the bird’s description – “it was a female, with a bill that was black at the base with a red tip. It had a distinctly white post-ocular (behind the eye) stripe that contrasted with a dull greenish crown. Framed with black under the eye stripe, the nape and upper parts were green, and had an all rufous belly.” So we were ready. We knew where to go and we knew what the bird looked like. Now if we could only see it!

At 1:15 we walked down the road and up the 2nd Street to the house and garden. Another car with 4 birders from Victoria arrived, and we all got acquainted and seated ourselves within viewing distance of the hummingbird feeders where the bird had been seen earlier that day. We had only to wait and be alert, since the coming and going and viewing time of a hummer can be very brief! And, sure enough, in a just a few minutes there she was – the lost Xantus’s Hummingbird – right in front of us.

We learned from a handout the hostess had prepared that the bird had appeared on November 1, 1997. It was now July 18 of the following year and the bird was still there. Her daughter had first seen the bird and of course couldn’t find it in any of their bird books – so they called in the big guns – the expert birders who finally checked the Mexican field guides and came up with “female Xantus’s Hummingbird”.

It is thought that the bird got blown north during one of several bad storms off Mexico the previous Fall. And of course – then it didn’t know where to go! It was not a migrant in Mexico, so it had no imprint in its brain of a route to take back, nor an instinct to go anywhere else! Who knows what ever happened to it, but at that point it was satisfied to stay around that beautiful garden and please many visiting birders. It was reported that over a thousand birders showed up to see this bird. It was present for 310 days from November 16, 1997 through Sept 21, 1998.

So we got to look at a beautiful bird we would likely never have seen in our lives. It had certainly not been a target bird on this trip! All we had to do then was get back to the ferry and back to Vancouver, which was much easier than finding your way back to Baja!


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  1. sarah davis dean permalink

    wow, Ann. what a great article. I hope you’re going to compile all of these “reports” into a book. I think it would sell just as well as Kingbird Highway! (But, then again, I AM your biggest fan – well almost!!) xoxo, Sarah

  2. Thanks, Sarah! Keeping looking at the birds!

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