It was the day before Christmas, and all through the cozy Lone Pine home the relatives were retelling family stories that Mark had heard before. It was time to go birding. He asked his mom if he could go to the park and she said fine, if he’d take his cousin. Off they went in the cool, crisp, afternoon air to the park and Edwards Field just west of the park. He was looking forward to seeing birds that were not the same as those at home in Lemore, in the San Joaquin Valley. Little did he know!
It didn’t take long before he heard a vocalization that he recognized as a kingbird. But in winter?! He ran to where he thought it was and again it called, “Shredded wheat!” He couldn’t believe his eyes – a Thick-billed Kingbird! This Mexican species summers in southern Arizona where Mark had seen them & migrates south, not north! Kingbirds eat large flying insects and there aren’t any/many in Lone Pine in December.
Now what? Mark had been birding for only a few years but his mentors had taught him well. He knew exactly what he had to do to turn this spectacular sighting into a scientific record. While he watched the bird he wrote a description and, because he is an artist, drew pictures. His books were back home so he didn’t commit the unethical sin of looking at the bird in the book while writing a description. He wrote what he saw, not what he knew was there based on his Arizona experiences. He described the habitat, time, call, his experience with the bird, sized it to a common bird (American Robin), a detailed description of head, bill, body, wings, & tail, and behavior.
Now what? Get the word out! He ran to the nearest pay phone, looked up our number (he remembered our names from the American Birds reports), and called us. We arrived just as daylight became a memory but he showed us where the bird had been. After talking with Mark, reading his notes and admiring his sketches we were convinced that, impossible though it seemed, he had indeed seen a Thick-billed Kingbird. It obviously had settled for the night so we told him we’d be back at dawn the next morning. We called Andrew & Leah Kirk and made arrangements to meet the next morning. We searched and searched and no bird. Poor Mark had to leave & return to Lemore and was disappointed that no one else had seen it. He knew that even though his documentation was good that it might have a rough ride through the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) if no one could confirm the sighting of a 16 year old with only a few years experience. Especially of a bird thousands of miles from where it winters. The more qualified people that agree to the bird’s identity the better the chance of upgrading a sighting to a scientific record. It wasn’t until almost noon before the first “Shredded wheat” jinked our chains and Tom found it immediately in a tall tree, the same tree in which Mark had found it!
Now what? Photographic documentation often proves the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words so photograph we did. Vary your exposure and snap anytime the bird changes its posture. A head bent away preening a tail feather just might provide the only picture of a critical mark of which the observer is unaware. These are not supposed to be prize winning portraits but instead are documentary evidence. A tape recording of the bird’s vocalization is also extremely valuable. We played a commercial tape very low in one ear and heard the bird’s call in the other. An identical match!
Now what? Many members of the CBRC were waiting for a second phone call telling them that yes, it was a Thick-billed Kingbird, and yes, it was still there, before they would jump in their cars to see this totally unexpected and totally unexplained sighting. So jump they did, one from San Diego, and the next day we scoured Edwards Field for the entire day. No bird! We drove all over town looking for it. No bird! Oh, the agony! We knew that with the photographs and additional substantiating documentation Mark Stacy would receive credit from the CBRC for the first Inyo County record of a Thick-billed Kingbird but it sure would be helpful if some members of the CBRC saw it with their own eyes. While they didn’t see it that day, they did return later and enjoyed its company for a day.
Now what? Take all the notes and write a full description (form available on request). Start with size (compare to a common species, e.g. sparrow, robin, crow) and shape (slender like a cuckoo, plump like a quail) of the bird and, very importantly, size and shape of the bill; color of non-feathered parts, e.g. legs, bill, eyes; patterns and colors on head, back, underparts, wings & tail. It is critical to cover the characteristics that convinced you this is the rare bird not the more common look-alike bird. Never rely on one characteristic to separate them. Now is the time to use your bird books to do the research on your rare bird. Include which books you used and how they helped or hurt your identification. If you find information that conflicts with what you saw, state it. The kingbird showed the tertials of an immature and the crown stripe of an adult male. One of the committee members said that his book is wrong and since he published they have found a few young males that get their crowns earlier than most. If you took pictures or made tapes include this in your written description and enclose copies. It is important that you know a rare bird can be a common bird at a different time of year. Tundra Swans are common November to February but if you see one in June you’d better document it as though it was the first Pterodactyl seen in millions of years! Send the “package” to us. We review it and may ask for more information. Then it is sent to the secretary of the CBRC. The reviewing process can take a couple of years but if sixteen year old Mark Stacy can follow this procedure and have a very rare bird accepted by the CBRC, you can too!Tags: crow, kingbird, robin, sparrow, swan