Citrine Wagtail in Comox – Saturday, December 1, 2012

Update: March 24, 2013

Last confirmed sighting of the Citrine Wagtail on eBird was Thursday, March 21. However, since that time, access to the farm lane has been restricted due to active farming and the lane is gated.

Update: March 6, 2013

Checked the original farm site on Wednesday, March 6 with Viktor Davare and had a really nice look at the wagtail. It was feeding with a group of robins at the far end of the farm road (beyond where the slash piles used to be – they were burned last week) where it crosses a wide ditch. This area has been recently plowed and there is some upturned mud. Of note, we saw the bird at 3:30 pm in this location, it was seen in the same place at the same time on Monday, March 4th as well.

Update:  February 16, 2013

Unbelievably, the Citrine Wagtail is not officially done! John Reiter sent me an email that he had seen the bird on February 5 and a couple of other times since early February. Since then it’s been sighted on February 11, 15 (briefly at the original farm site), and 16 (at the alternate site at Simpson Farm).

Update: January 20, 2013

I’m thinking that the Citrine Wagtail is officially done – I’ve checked off and on both sites over the last couple of weeks with no success. The last confirmed visual sighting was January 9, 2013 by Russ Namitz. Two birders reported hearing the bird on January 13. Since then, the bird has been unreported at any of the sites in the Comox Valley. Dave Routledge did a thorough check of all the fields in the area on January 17th and found nothing.

Update: January 2, 2013

Checked the alternate site for the wagtail today, Wednesday, January 2, 2013 and came up empty. Did find the bird back at the slash piles around 1:00 pm with a couple of other birders. Details and directions to alternate site available at my blog post Where’s Wagtail? 

Update: December 20, 2012

Checked for and saw the wagtail today, Thursday, December 20 at 3:15 pm after the last two days of snow, rain and wind. That makes 36 days and counting!

Original Post: December 1, 2012

The weather this week has been horrible—high winds and torrential rain. I had checked out the BCVIBirds Yahoo Group for updates on rare and unusual sightings of birds on Vancouver Island and noticed that a slew of birders from all over the US (Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Indiana, and Washington) had tried for the citrine wagtail (Motacilla citreola) on Thursday during the storm and were unsuccessful.

The last confirmed sighting was before the weather moved in was on Tuesday, November 27. Several birders in the group wanted to know if it had been seen since, before committing to making the drive over to the Island and I thought that I’d give it a shot on Friday after work.

Flooded Field
This flooded area was where the Citrine Wagtail was regularly seen before the torrential rains on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

As luck would have it, I dipped (again). The lucky part was that I ran into a couple of birders who had spent most of Friday at the fields and had seen nothing. Before they left, Alan Schmierer, a birder from Arizona gave me his card and asked me to call if I located the bird. Their plan was to try again in the morning before heading south to Victoria. I looked for wagtail for close to an hour, wading into the water along the track and marvelling at how much it had changed with a lot of rain.

After dipping (figuratively and literally) on Friday afternoon I thought I’d give it another try on Saturday morning. I got to the field around 10:00 am and spent some time at the junction of the farm track and the line of trees with no luck. Then I waded into the water and made my way to the brush piles near the middle/end of the road.

At 10:30, the citrine wagtail flew from a hawthorn tree on the right hand side of the track to the second brush pile, waited there for a bit and then back to the hawthorn where it perched very nicely for me. Then it vanished over the hedgerow into the potato fields on the opposite side. It made a couple of other brief appearances but seemed a little spooked by the gunshots of a duck hunter in the other field and disappeared.

Looking back through the reports on the BCVIBirds Yahoo Group this is exactly where Brian Elder of Calgary had reported seeing it on Tuesday, November 27th. The difference between then and Friday was the flooded fields and road which may have deterred the Wednesday and Thursday birders from going too far down the farm track.

I was completely stoked (but not soaked—I had on my full wet weather gear on). Not only had I confirmed that the wagtail was still present, I had gotten even closer looks at it than my first visit! I immediately called Alan and Anna Schmierer, two birders from Arizona who I had met at the field yesterday – they were on their way out of town but Alan said he would turn around. Alan also called two other birders from Washington who were at the field yesterday, Bruce and Isabella, and to let them know the bird was still there.

I waited about 30 minutes for Alan and Anna and eventually they came wading through the water out to the brush pile. I hadn’t see the wagtail during that time so Alan was a little disappointed when he arrived (that and the fact that he didn’t have rubber boots and his only pair of boots and pants were completely soaked).

Flooded Field
Looking back at the farm track and fields from near the first slash pile. It’s a long walk through knee high water if you don’t have rubber boots on!

We decided to check through the hedgerow (there was a board walkway over a ditch on the right side of the road and a short path to a view point on the edge of the potato field that the duck hunters were using) and within 10 minutes located the wagtail working from the edge of the hedgerow to the muddy furrows of the potato field. Alan got some photographs, and both of them got good looks at the wagtail as it moved back and forth from the grass edge to the furrows. We stayed at the end of the path and did not enter the field.

On our way out, we could see Bruce and Isabella, two birders from Washington who had spent the day with Alan and Anna looking for the bird, making their way through the water towards us. It turned out that Bruce hadn’t checked his cell phone, but they had been out earlier in the morning with Alan and Anna before giving up. He had been driving by when he recognized our cars and realized that Alan had returned. He figured that something was up, checked his messages, and made a quick U-turn.

Alan and Anna headed back to their car to warm up and then Bruce, Isabella and I went through to the potato field and relocated the bird quite quickly once it flew. They both got awesome looks with both binoculars and a spotting scope. It was fairly close and possible to get excellent views with binoculars.

By this time (about 11:30 am) we lost the bird and decided that we had had enough of the rain and wind which seemed to be picking up. We were all pretty happy to have seen the bird and the effort and conditions made for an epic story. If it had been easier, it probably wouldn’t have felt as satisfying!

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Getting There:

From the Inland Island Highway take exit 117 onto the Comox Valley Parkway. Follow the parkway into Courtenay until you get to a T intersection (Cliffe Avenue). Turn left onto Cliffe Avenue and follow it until you reach 17th Street and the 17th Street Bridge. Turn right onto the bridge and stay in the right hand lane. Turn right onto the Dyke/Comox Road on the far side of the bridge (T intersection). On your right will be a large open paved area that is fenced. This is the old site of Field’s Sawmill. At the far end of the fenced area on the right hand side is a pump station. Park here (but don’t block access to the station)—there’s plenty of room to pull over safely.

The farm road is on the opposite side of the road. Walk along the road to the first line of trees and over the wire gate. The Citrine Wagtail had been seen regularly in the raw ground and grass edges on the other side of the tree line but since this area flooded has been located twice further in close to the second logging slash pile. When I saw it it was moving from a large hawthorn tree in the hedgerow down to the muddy potato field on the far side of the hedgerow on the right hand side of the road. A view point to this field is accessed via a set of double planks over a water filled ditch and a short path through the hedgerow. As instructed, do not enter any of the field area. There appears to be active duck hunting in that field as well.