Wednesday, September 03, 2008

An Accidental Tern

On the last day of the three-day weekend, we finally got to go birding. We originally intended to go to Morongo Valley but the 120 mile drive in hot weather with no guarantee of a lifer made me cancel that plan. Instead we went to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine which was half the distance to Morongo, and where there was the possibility of seeing a Solitary Sandpiper. Which, of course, would be a lifer for us.

Whenever we leave the house early (before 7 am) to go birding, we almost always make it a point to stop by a McDonalds for breakfast. This has become more or less a ritual for us. After being misled by our GPS which directed us to a non-existent McDs at Michelson St (which was about a couple of blocks from SJWS), we finally found another one about two miles away.

After breakfast we decided to visit the San Diego Creek behind the Irvine Civic Center where a Solitary Sandpiper has also been found. The place was quite birdy: a Great Blue Heron, both kinds of Egrets (Snowy and Great) and a White-faced Ibis were there. But no Solitary Sandpiper. Interestingly, there were Lesser Yellowlegs and Spotted Sandpipers in the creek. If by some miracle these two species would mate, the result would look exactly like a Solitary Sandpiper - yellow legs, dark brown back and a disposition for bobbing.

At around 8:30 we proceeded to SJWS where the ponds yielded nothing unusual. Generally, sandpipers are tiny shorebirds that look alike particularly in their non-breeding plumage - as they were this time of year. So much so that they are collectively known as "peeps". In hopes of locating our sought after Solitary Sandpiper, I had to scan flocks of these constantly moving birds and try to look at each one to detect the telltale sign that would differentiate the Solitary from the Westerns and the Leasts.

A handful of birders came and went, each one asking the question of the day: "Did you see the Solitary Sandpiper?" And each time the reply was in the negative. At least some of us were lucky enough to see the Sora Rail, a very secretive and skulking bird, come out in the open. At around half past eleven our hopes of ever seeing our target bird were dwindling fast.

Just as we were about to leave, there was a bird that joined the group of barn swallows hawking for insects above Pond C. It was behaving like a swallow but it was almost twice as big. A tern! But unlike the usual terns that sometimes visit SJWS, this one had dark wings and a dark underside. I know I've seen this kind before....until it finally dawned on me..this was a Black Tern! Certainly unusual in this part of California. Soon other birders were alerted to its presence.

Of course, Cynthia always has a better shot. Did I mention that she is real good at photographing BIFs (Birds in Flight)?

The Black Tern, though not a lifer, certainly made up for the disappointment of not seeing the Solitary Sandpiper. Not just for us, but for the other birders as well.

No comments: