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MEGA–Red-flanked Bluetail in California!

Red-flanked Bluetail, San Clemente Island, CA, 6 December 2011. Photograph by Justyn Stahl.
Red-flanked Bluetail, San Clemente Island, CA, 6 December 2011. Photograph by Justyn Stahl.

On 6 December, birders working on San Clemente Island off southern California found and photographed a Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus), only the second ever found in North America outside of Alaska! The Red-flanked Bluetail is an Old World species that breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. In North America it is a rare vagrant mainly in spring to western Alaska, especially the Aleutians, but in recent years there also have been a few fall records for the Pribilofs and St. Lawrence Island. The only other record outside Alaska was of a juvenile male banded on Southeast Farallon Island, California, 1 November 1989. In the last 20 years Red-flanked Bluetail has expanded its breeding range westward, and records are increasing across Europe and especially in the UK. Read on to enjoy these birders’ exciting account of the discovery and subsequent chase–in their words. Get a little taste of California birding at its best, and vicariously ‘tick’ this true Siberian MEGA-rarity!

From the finder: Jethro Runco

December 6th, 2011 started off just like every other morning I’ve spent in my first month here on San Clemente Island. A team of researchers, employees of the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS), contracted through the US Navy, was getting ready for another day in the field. We are here on San Clemente Island as part of a multifaceted recovery effort for the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi), a federally endangered endemic subspecies, and a long-term monitoring project for the federally threatened and endemic San Clemente Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli clementeae). We spend 10 days on-island, and then take 4 days off. Today, in particular, I was headed out with my coworker, Loni Silver, to survey Wallrock Canyon for shrikes. We arrived at the site about 8:00 AM and began our survey, identifying individual shrikes by unique color band combinations on their legs. The day seemed like any other day, until…

Around 2:30 PM, as we were walking back out of the canyon, picking our way through the extremely dense prickly pear cactus, we dropped down into a smaller drainage and a small bird flew in front of us, arcing to our right and dropping behind a small mound of rocks. We both saw the bird. I looked at Loni and said, “What was that? It looked like a really small bluebird!?” I scrambled over the rock mound for a better look because this bird wasn’t…well…it was ODD! I got on the bird quickly and said “Holy #$&@!! What the heck IS that??”! I jumped back over the rock pile and rumaged through my pack trying to find my camera, the whole time telling Loni, “I don’t know what this bird is!” Loni was dumbfounded too. Our excitement growing rapidly, my mind was a blur of all the species it might be. This little bird had characteristics of so many other birds: the blue tail was reminiscent of a bluebird; the eye-ring was that of a Nashville Warbler; the orange-yellowish sides of the bird were like those on a young American Redstart; the shape of the bird was like that of a small thrush or Bluethroat; the bird flicked its tail downward like a Gray Flycatcher; and it had a white throat that didn’t fit anything! IT JUST DIDN’T ADD UP!! Then Siberian Rubythroat popped into my head. Maybe?!? I had no idea what one of those really looked like, but the females do have white throats, don’t they? It was the closest thing I could think of. It was at that point when we both started to freak out!

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally laid hands on my camera–a small point-and-shoot type, but that’s all I got! I figured we’d better get pictures or no one would believe us (and we needed them to help ID the thing)! We took off and quickly refound the bird foraging along the canyon wall, completely oblivious to our presence (a good thing for us!). At first we just took in the bird, trying to mentally gather all the plumage details and foraging behavior. STILL having no idea what the bird was, I got the camera into action. The bird was very cooperative, allowing us to get within 10-15 feet. I was using one barrel of my binoculars to see through while the other had my camera pressed up to it in “digi-binocular” fashion. I figured if I could see the bird with one eyepiece, the other had to be on the bird, too. I took at least a 100 pictures knowing most would not turn out well, but hoping, HOPING, a few would.

RFBL2

Red-flanked Bluetail “digi-binned” by Jethro Runco. Note the buffy tipped greater coverts, indicating a first-winter bird.

The bird was small, about the size of an Ovenbird, but with the posture of a thrush. A bold, solid, and pale eye-ring was obvious. This bird had a habit of pumping its tail and flicking its wings somewhat similar to a kinglet. The yellowish sides of the breast, contrasted with the cinnamon edged wings. And then there was the blue tail and rump! And that striking white throat! We followed the bird for roughly 30 minutes – 30 minutes of sheer pleasure; minds racing and hearts pumping! Knowing this bird was not a normally occurring species in North America, Loni and I were ecstatic! We tried reaching other crew members on our radio seven or eight times, but had no luck. Of all times to be in a dead zone… Well, knowing others would love to see this bird, we reluctantly left the bird and headed back to the office.

Upon arrival at the Natural Resources Office, Justyn Stahl, the Shrike Project manager, was standing in the doorway brushing his teeth….

From Justyn Stahl:

At about 3:00 PM yesterday, 6 December 2011, my crew was returning from the field. I was standing in the door of the office to greet them, brushing my teeth (a late afternoon habit). Jethro Runco and Loni Silver walked in, and Jethro, who had a HUGE grin on his face, said, “You need to look at some pictures.” In the month he’s been here on San Clemente Island, Jethro has already seen 4 different Scott’s Orioles, which is 4 more than I’ve seen in the nearly 4 years of working out here. He’s clearly a magnet for rare birds, so needless to say I was intrigued. “What is it?” I asked. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s a lifer!” As he pulled out the SD card from his point-and-shoot, my mind started spinning. “Can you at least give me a family?” I mumbled with a mouth full of toothpaste. “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m thinking…” he said, pulling up the photos on the computer, “…Siberian Rubythroat?” At this point, I looked at the very small image on the screen, digi-scoped or digi-binned, and saw a small brown bird, bluish tail, buff flanks, facing straight away. “Isn’t that just a Lazuli Bunting?” I inquired, as he flipped to the next photo and zoomed in. The bird in profile showed an orange flank, a white eye ring, and most notably, a bright white and clearly defined throat. … “HOLY #$%& DUDE! THAT’S A *%$#@&^ BLUETAIL!!!” I spit the toothpaste out in the sink outside the office, threw my toothbrush on the counter and ran to my room to grab my copy of Birds of East Asia, vaguely recalling seeing this bird during a trip to Thailand. I raced back into the office, and showed Jethro what he’d just found: a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL, much more rare than a Siberian Rubythroat. “We tried to radio you guys for a while, but I think we were in a dead zone,” he said. “CAN YOU TAKE ME BACK THERE RIGHT NOW?!” I exclaimed.

And off we went, grabbing Shannon Ehlers on the way (Sage Sparrow project manager, sitting impatiently at 599 ABA). Taking care not to speed, but using every allowable mile per hour, we headed down island, thinking we had about 90 minutes of good daylight left. Who knows how long it would take to find it again, if we could find it all. “This bird had better not be cached when we get there,” I joked, nervously. Loggerhead Shrikes display a rather unique behavior of caching prey (including small birds) on forked branches, spines, barbed wire, etc. The first record of Painted Bunting for San Clemente Island was of a dead, cached bird, and one could hypothesize that a vagrant is more prone to be depredated. The area in which the Bluetail was found is an active shrike site, and Jethro said that there had been a shrike in the area, but the biggest threat was a bullying Yellow-rumped Warbler (believe it or not!). We raced across the plateau, crossing several rocky drainages and trying to avoid as much cactus as possible. “Here’s where it was when we left it,” he said, describing the scene from a few hours ago. “Okay, let’s split up,” and I moved up the shallow canyon, walking the bottom, while Jethro took the rim, and Shannon headed in the opposite direction.

Standing water from recent rains, lots of lichen covered boulders, and tall grass lining the puddles – it seemed like a good enough place for a Siberian vagrant. But after about 20 minutes, all we could produce were two Orange-crowned Warblers. I could hear a Yellow-rumped Warbler chipping, so I moved back down canyon towards it, thinking maybe this warbler was with the Bluetail. At that moment, facing into the sun, I saw a small bird appear on a rock in the bottom of the canyon. It was facing straight away from me, and in really awful light it was a strain to make out the details. It flitted its wings and tail. “Guys… I think I might have it…”, but wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a Rock Wren or a warbler. Then it turned its head, and I could see the white throat. Still, is this just a Myrtle? Terrible lighting! … Moving around it trying to get it in better light, “DUDE! IT’S RIGHT THERE! SHANNNON!!! HEY SHANNON!!! JETHRO! IT’S RIGHT THERE MAN!” Jethro got on the bird, and then went to get Shannon, who had moved out of earshot. Fortunately, the bird proved to be rather cooperative, going about its afternoon foraging, ignoring us for the most part. Shannon arrived and we all got knock-out views of her 600th species. The beautiful blue rump and tail, the cinnamon wings, the reddish flanks… Look at that throat! I crept towards it, continuing to take photos. The bird was “quite confiding” as described in the species account we read, but generally perched facing away, only occasionally giving profile views, and rarely facing me. When it perched on a prickly pear cactus, I had to think, “Has this bird even seen a cactus before?” As the sun set and the light faded, we hiked back out to the truck, delirious.

RFBL3

This represents just the second Lower-48 record for Red-flanked Bluetail (ABA Code 4). The only other previous record was of a bird banded on Southeast Farallon Island on 1 November 1989 (which has not been entered into eBird!). This is the third Old World species recorded on San Clemente Island, following a Bluethroat (14–18 September 2008), and a Stonechat (20–21 October 1995). It’s been an amazing fall. Who knows what will be next!