Monday, 13 January 2014

A DICK and a HOOR: The Longest, Hardest, Wettest Twitch

Back on December 5th, I received an e-mail from Port McNeill resident Jackie Hildering about a bird that she thought might be a Hooded Oriole.  It's a good thing I was sitting on a couch because the attached photo would have knocked me to the floor if I was on a chair or stool!  The extremely crisp, full-frame shot showed a healthy, vibrant male Hooded Oriole in winter plumage.  After a few days of correspondence with Jackie, it appeared like the Hooded Oriole was setting up shop in the neighbourhood along Broughton Ave.

The birders were slow to trickle in to the area to search for this exotic stray from the south.  Christopher Stephens made the run up from the Parksville area on December 17th and was rewarded not only with the Hooded Oriole but also a first-winter Harris' Sparrow.  The plot thickened on December 28th when Alex Gray made the trip up to view the oriole and miraculously pulled a Dickcissel out of a flock of House Sparrows!

I was far too busy in the beginning of December to zip up for the Hooded Oriole and I became downright antsy about the situation when the Dickcissel was added to the suite of good birds in Port McNeill while I was in Ontario for three weeks over the holidays.  I was biting my nails for a week and a half hoping that the provincial rarity duo would stick around until I returned.  Finally, as the end of my eastern swing was approaching, a plan was hatched to head up with Jeremy Kimm and Kevin Neill.

Today was the day our plan came to fruition.  I met with Jeremy K. at 6:30 a.m. and we met Kevin at the Departure Bay ferry terminal shortly after 8:00 a.m.  Our back-and-forth e-mails leading into this twitch made it evident that our target birds would be a source of lowbrow humour due to their unfortunate four-letter codes.  Yes... we were looking for a DICK and HOOR and the jokes were writing themselves.

The next four hours were the hardest part of any twitch.  We had to cover 350 km before we even had a chance of finding the sought-after vagrants.  The stretch from Nanaimo to Campbell River went by quickly, but the roads became a little dicey along higher-elevation stretches as snow flurries carpeted the highway.  Jeremy K. handled those sections nicely and we reached Port McNeill in the early afternoon, a little later than expected due to the poor weather.

The flurries seen in the higher passes were replaced by driving rain in Port McNeill.  We donned our rain gear and braved the optics-unfriendly weather.  We immediately heard House Sparrows but were momentarily distracted by the Yellow-rumped Warbler that has been frequenting the same hummingbird feeders as the Hooded Oriole.  When we tracked down the flock of House Sparrows, it was not long until a yellow-washed bird was spotted in the mix.  If I had to weight our targets, the Dickcissel held a higher priority because Kevin had already been up for the oriole and Jeremy K. had found a female Hooded Oriole in late September.  The Dickcissel was actually a lifer for Jeremy K. and a BC bird for Kevin.  The Hooded Oriole actually held a higher allure to me because I had never seen one in North America, whereas Dickcissel was only a BC bird for me.  Before we really had a chance to soak in good views of the Dickcissel, it flew off with the rest of the House Sparrows.

I headed back to watch the oriole-approved hummingbird feeders for a while and after 15 minutes I decided to walk further along Broughton Blvd. in hopes of connecting with the oriole or reconnecting with the Dickcissel.  I only managed a Eurasian Collared-Dove  for my effort and as I made my way back I saw Kevin excitedly motioning for me to come back.  The oriole was at the feeders and the Dickcissel was back where we originally spotted it.  What an amazing Patagonia Picnic Table Effect for one little neighbourhood on northern Vancouver Island in the winter!

Despite our observations being hampered by the non-stop hard rain, we had great views of both target birds.  My hands were chilled and the light was horrible, but I decided I would still do my best to photograph the Dickcissel.  The Hooded Oriole was a little too far to bother even getting a record shot, but I figured I could manage some so-so Dickcissel shots.

The yellow accents in the supercilium and malar, yellow wash down the chest, and chestnut patch on the shoulder made this Dickcissel stand out from the House Sparrows it is travelling among.

The Dickcissel above a pair of House Sparrows, for comparison.

Kevin and Jeremy K. were focusing their efforts on warming up and drying off and I was certainly ready to do the same after spending over five minutes without gloves photographing the Dickcissel.  We had a leisurely lunch at Gus' Pub, popped in for a rather fruitless scan off the Cluxewe River Estuary, and then headed back south.  I left my place at 6:15 a.m. and got back at 9:30 p.m., which made for one of the longest twitches I've ever done.  The recipe for a great twitch is good company and success finding the targets.  Needless to say, this was a great twitch!  Now I am just hoping something interesting will turn up over on the Lower Mainland so we can do it all again with Kevin in the driver's seat!

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