Hi all! The word "rarity" intimidated me when I was 14. I thought surely if it was casual or accidental, I would NEVER see it, or it would be highly unlikely. Well now after chasing an accidental, I know now that casuals and accidentals are just as obtainable as any common bird. Rare bird reports happen every day here in Maricopa. Most are locally and county rare, but sometimes, like before I was a birder (back when I used the term "birdwatching" and couldn't tell you which was a Greater Scaup or a Lesser Scaup) something unbelievable shows up. Like the BAIKAL TEAL at Gilbert Water Ranch (yeah, the same place with the Northern Parula) in 2010!!! My rarity that I chased wasn't an Asiatic, or a South American, rather, it's a bird that's very common in the Lower 48, but very rare in Alaska. I hope that doesn't drive you away from this post, because seeing this bird against an Alaskan backdrop is something truly unforgettable!
The story started on August 13th, when Mom and I had a bird walk planned at Reflections Lake. As mentioned in my first TIMELINE post, at Reflections Lake I either turn up with nothing, or lots of somethings! When we arrived, we were greeted by Cole Talbot, the trip leader, and many other birders. We introduced ourselves and all that, and within a few minutes of walking, Cole stopped us to point out a singing NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH. PERFECT, I thought! The Northern Waterthrush is uncommon to common throughout central Alaska and southward across the state. It was also, at the time, a potential lifer for Jared. I really wanted to see it, so I volunteered to flush it out into the open (a birder's got to do what a birder's got to do). When I ventured into the dense Alder thickets, many birds burst over my head, including some robins, sparrows, warblers, and the Waterthrush! Yippy! I was so glad to have gotten that common warbler off my plate and onto my Life List! Eventually, the group came to a halt when I spotted a peculiar looking bird. After observing it for a few, I was extremely excited to see that I was looking at an OSPREY! I had longed to see that bird all summer, and finally, I got killer views. Cole Talbot even showed me it through his scope. Now, it looked more majestic than before. I had always wanted to see one so much because of their absolutely spectacular diving display! I love the way they extend their legs all the way out and bend and curve their wings in such a graceful and fluent way! Ospreys are SO AWESOME!!!! In Alaska, they also have a different status. Like many iconic Lower 48 birds, their range only goes into the warmest parts of the state, but even then they migrate south early and are rare to uncommon. Also like many lower 48 birds, they look so much better against the Alaskan Backdrop. Other notable birds of the trip were; WILSON'S and MYRTLE WARBLERS, a BELTED KINGFISHER, and a MERLIN at the end. Part 2 of the walk was going to the library so that Cole could show us how to use ebird. I had heard of the site, but had never used it until December of that year. Cole was showing us his ebird Life List, when a special bird caught my eye. "Where did you see the Pied-billed Grebe?" I asked. Cole relied that he saw it just a COUPLE OF DAYS ago at Jim Lake in Palmer. Palmer is where I live, I thought! I couldn't stop telling Mom how amazing it was that a Pied-billed Grebe was right here in Palmer. "Mom, we HAVE to chase that bird!" We decided that Dad and I would the following day. Shortly after church, Dad, my brother Ken, and I set off for a Pied-billed Adventure! When we driving through the rugged, wooded terrain of Maud RD (road to Jim Lake) I spotted a brown and white streaked bird flying low and in distinctive accipiter profile very quickly before disappearing. "I just saw a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, it's a new bird!" About 15 minutes later, we arrived at Mud Lake (because we thought it was Jim Lake at first). There I spotted a pair of very distant PACIFIC LOONS, and a pair of very close SPOTTED SANDPIPERS. After that, we found out we were at the wrong lake. Jim Lake was just a minute or 2 away. Jim Lake had about 50 COMMON GOLDENEYES, and too many Red-necked Grebes. Jim Lake is very interesting, it's had the uncommon Northern Saw-Whet Owl, a very rare WESTERN SCREECH-OWL, a local population of HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHERS, a common species in central Alaska, but very rare for that region, and also a local breeding population of Pacific Song Sparrows, which in Alaska, are never found more than a few miles from the ocean! When my Dad discovered a good viewing point, I saw a bird way out on the lake through my binos that really looked like the grebe. I was not going to put it on my Life List though, not until I had great views of it, nothing less! About 25 minutes later, 2 women arrived with a huge scope. They saw that our stand point was good, so they walked over to us. After some moments of silence, one of them asked if we saw the Pied-billed. I directed my finger to where I saw the mystery bird. Quickly, she got to work setting up the colossal scope. Then, she said those few words that were music to my ears; "Ope, I see the grebe!" I got excited, she handed the scope view to me, and just then, it had already dove. I handed her the scope view, and once again, she saw it. once again, she allowed for me to look through the scope, but this time, I was incredibly happy to see the PIED-BILLED GREBE in such magnified view!!!! YES! YES! YES! And, it was actually the same compact chicken-billed mystery bird that I saw earlier, because it was in the EXACT same spot! So the mystery bird was the grebe all along! My brother Ken also saw the bird through the scope. So did Dad. Many High-fives went all around, and we celebrated. Apparently, a Pied-billed Grebe had not been seen in the county in over half a century! WOW, more than 50 years! That's a code 5, or ACCIDENTAL status bird! Unfortunately, the bird was WAY to far out for photographs, but a few people, had gotten photographic evidence by canoeing across the lake. Among them was Lynn Barber. She was doing an Alaska Big Year at the time, and her adventures inspired me to bird more aggressively, and start prioritizing birds I'd never seen before. The Lady that showed me the grebe, also said it was stuck here for another 2 weeks because it was missing most primaries (indeed, the last report was on Sept. 5th, 2016), whew, if I knew that earlier, then I wouldn't had been so stressed about not seeing it because I thought it might fly off before I got a chance at seeing it. What a relief! I thanked Dad for taking me, thanked the lady for scope views and confirmation because of it, and most importantly, thanked God for sending powerful winds to blow this beautiful bird to my hometown of Palmer. Just as I said at the beginning of the post, seeing a PIED-BILLED GREBE against the magnificent Alaskan backdrop, and on a beautiful large lake, is truly, an unforgettable sight! 4 lifers in 1 weekend, what a birding success! I'm Jared Conaway, and stay tuned for my next TIMELINE post!