Thursday, 17 September 2015

Say's Phoebe chase to Blenheim

This morning, local Rondeau area birder Jim Burk discovered a Say's Phoebe alongside some farm equipment in a rural area southwest of the town of Blenheim. Word got out that the bird was still there late in the morning, causing a number of birders to travel to Blenheim in hopes of seeing this scarce vagrant to Ontario.

I was working from home and after tying up some loose ends, I was on the road by early afternoon. Say's Phoebe is a very tough bird to see in Ontario. They are a western species and relatively common throughout their range, spanning from Alaska south through to Mexico, throughout the western half of the United States and Canada. As of the end of the 2014 report, the Ontario Bird Records Committee (OBRC) had 15 accepted records for Say's Phoebe, though a full two-thirds of those records were of one day wonders. This leaves five prior records of multiple staying birds with four of those birds staying for three days or less. Needless to say there are a lot of people who haven't seen Say's Phoebe in the province, myself included!

Back in 2012 I had my first crack at a Say's Phoebe when one was reported during late April at the Carden Plain. I had a choice to make as I had left that morning from Point Pelee for the Bruce Peninsula, hoping to see a Western Tanager that evening that was coming to a feeder. At the time Western Tanager was a bird I had not ever seen. I finished the final hour of that chase, successfully seeing the tanager, but the phoebe disappeared soon after. After a report a few days later I drove up to Carden to search, but struck out. In April of 2013 one was found on the Toronto Islands and reported early enough in the day for me to chase it with several others. The birder(s) on the ferry in front of us got the bird, though it was nowhere to be found once we embarked on the island. It was nice to finally see one in all of its glory after two failed attempts!

I flew through Toronto with only one minor slowdown, and by late afternoon I exited the highway near Blenheim and drove directly to the spot, minus a 2 minute "rest stop" along a rural country road. As I pulled up to the spot I could see the bird resting on the trailer filled with hanging plants, with several familiar birders watching it.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Brett Fried and Barb Charlton were on site (even Barb needed it for Ontario!), along with Jeremy Bensette, Emma Buck, Jeremy Hatt and Dwayne Murphy. The bird spent its time flycatching from the farm equipment as well as the top branches of a nearby tree, but also from low perches in the stubble and dirt of the field. One of the three original trailers that were parked in the field were remaining by the time I showed up, as the farmers had already moved the other two. The phoebe sat it the tree and on top of  the other trailers filled with drying plants and was content to resume hunting insects from the dirt where its three favorite trailers had vacated!

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Say's Phoebe can be told apart by its slightly smaller cousin, the familiar Eastern Phoebe in several ways. Most obvious is the salmon coloration, diffusing into gray on the breast. The gray back contrasts notably with the black tail on Say's Phoebe, while Eastern Phoebe is less contrasty from above. Eastern Phoebe has a dark head, while Say's has a gray head with dark, smudgy eyeline. Say's is slightly larger with a longer wingspan, but is only marginally heavier.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Most of the time that I was there the flycatcher was just a little too distant for my camera setup (300 mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter. I would have loved to have an additional 200-300 mm to work with in this situation! My best photos, while still heavily cropped, occurred when the bird sallied for insects, its chase taking it most of the way to the roadside where all the birders were lined up. After a few attempts I managed some that I was happy with.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)
Say's Phoebe is a new bird species for Rondeau checklist area, a rare event these days. Needless to say it was a great find for Jim Burk! I see one previous OBRC accepted record of a Say's Phoebe in Chatham-Kent, of a bird at Bradley's Marsh on April 18, 1964 (found by Dennis Rupert). At the time, that was the second provincial record.

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

The Say's Phoebe was a new Ontario bird for me, number 373. This is the fourth new bird I've added this year after Mottled Duck, Wilson's Plover and Little Egret. A fun bird to finally see in the province and a great way to kick off the autumn vagrant season! This weekend I am actually heading back down to Pelee after finishing some work at the office tomorrow. The forecast could be interesting with winds straight out of Texas flowing into Ontario, with the chance of unsettled weather followed by north winds. Hopefully the southwest winds will continue into Saturday morning's lakewatch!

Say's Phoebe - Blenheim, ON (September 17, 2015)

1 comment:

  1. The 1964 occurrence was actually the third record for Ontario. In my database I have the following earlier records:

    late November-early December, 1948 --- one, Haileybury, Timiskaming District
    October 2, 1961 to May 3, 1962 --- one, Nairn, Middlesex County

    And there is no guarantee that my database has all the records (yet).