Birders flock to Cloverdale for rare sighting

‘Once in a lifetime’ species lands at Surrey blueberry farm

Worth the wait: Cloverdale resident John Gordon caught sight of this Siberian accentor after a long stakeout at a local farm property on 160 Street and Colebrook Road. The rare visitor is an ocean away from its normal range.

A publicity-shy celebrity has hunkered down in a blueberry patch in Cloverdale, luring droves of birders in the hundreds from across the continent – each hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime sighting of the elusive bird, notably seen feeding in the company of dark-eyed juncos.

According to John Gordon – a birder and photographer who lives in Cloverdale – people from as far away as Connecticut, Oregon and Quesnel are flocking to see a Siberian accentor (Prunella montanella), a sparrow-sized bird that’s been flitting around a farm at 160 Street and Colebrook Road since the beginning of the year, drawing birders from both sides of the 49th parallel.

“Yesterday, Americans outnumbered Canucks,” said Gordon, who sent the Reporter his photograph of the sought-after bird, a feat he managed after spending an estimated 25 hours on a stakeout that lasted several days.

“It’s a really elusive little thing,” he said, explaining the bird might only surface from the bush for 15-20 seconds at a time, before disappearing into the brush for the rest of the day. “And it’s so tiny, you have to have lots of eyes to see it. The only reason I saw it was because of another birder.”

Birders share a spirit of cooperation when they’re a part of a twitch – the name those in the know use to describe for a gathering of birders who are looking for a rarity, such as the B.C.-bound Siberian Accentor, which has only been identified in the province a half-dozen times. The little bird is very far from its usual habitat in its native Russia – it breeds in northern Siberia on either side of the northern Ural mountains.

It has a wide range and winters in Asia – China, Korea and Japan. Outsiders might find it difficult to understand all the fuss about a fairly non descript-sounding bird, but Gordon makes a persuasive case.

“It’s a bird that many will only ever see once in a lifetime,” says Gordon, who has pursued his hobby in earnest since retiring a few years ago. He was thrilled to finally see the bird, classified as a vagrant that is extremely outside its normal range, and so were the other birders he met.

“It’s kind of strange to see grown men and grown women and young kids with binoculars hanging around their necks, almost as big as they are. It’s a great community of people coming together to have a chance to see this bird.”

It was first spotted in Surrey on Jan. 3 by George Cluclow, president of the B.C. Field Ornithologists, during the annual White Rock Christmas Bird Count. Cluclow was later able to photograph and positively identify the rare visitor on a subsequent visit, posting the sighting to the web, where news spread quickly.

 

Gordon nearly missed his chance.

By sheer coincidence, he was part of a group of about 30 birders last Wednesday when it was spotted by a fellow birder named Mike Tabak.

 

Moments before, Gordon and Tabak had been chatting about the cooperation that exists among birders.

“Five minutes later he shouts out, ‘There it is!’”

Birders have some as far away as Maryland and Connecticut on the U.S. east coast, as well as Portland, Vancouver Island, and the B.C. Interior – translating into hotel stays and gas purchases, boosting the local economy as they indulge their hobby.

A globe-trotting couple from Quesnel took a detour to Surrey on their way to the Galapagos Islands in hopes of ticking off a sighting of the rare Russian bird, Gordon said.

He says residents of the Lower Mainland are very fortunate to live in one of the best places in the world to watch birds.

He recommends Surrey’s Mud Bay and George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island in Delta.

Birders on the stakeout in Cloverdale weren’t disappointed if they were hoping to spot other species as well.

One young birder from Aldergrove posting to a birding thread online claimed to have seen 23 species during his wait for the shy Siberian accentor, from Canada geese and bald eagles to great blue herons, merlins, Northern harriers, a marsh wren, starlings, a yellow-rumped warbler, and red-winged blackbirds.

“This was the first mega rarity that we chased and successfully found,” he wrote.

“Well, my dad missed it unfortunately. Good luck if you try for this bird.”

 

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