It’s not often that one sees a once in a lifetime “life bird” like the citrine wagtail (Motacilla citreola) that showed up way back in November, 2012 alongside an unremarkable farm field road on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Found by local Comox Valley birder Dave Routledge, this second North American and first Canadian record for this species quickly generated a frenzy. Birders from all over the continent made their way to Courtenay to see this Code 5 “mega rarity” and tick it off their life lists.
In the early halcyon days of November and December, the bird was seen fairly regularly at the site where it was first seen and would often stick around for several hours before moving on. I’m fortunate in that I live about 5 minutes away from the farm field and was able to pop down to view the bird and meet some of the birders who had traveled to see the citrine wagtail.
It wasn’t always cooperative and sometimes accessing the site was difficult, especially after heavy rains in late November. Even that didn’t deter committed birders from attempting to see the bird. There was one particularly bad stretch when the road and part of the field were knee deep in water and the rains were torrential—but these conditions only added to effort needed and to the satisfaction (and I imagine the stories told back home over beer or something stronger) of actually seeing the bird.
By late January I had actually given up on ever seeing the citrine wagtail again. I had been to both the original and alternate sites several times without success and there were no reports on any of the birding list serves from January 13 forward. There were a number of brutal cold snaps in December and January which froze the ground and water solid for a couple of days, limiting the bird’s ability to forage. When days stretched to weeks it looked more and more likely that the bird was gone.
Then in mid February, I got an email from a local naturalist named John Reiter who had seen the wagtail several times in early February. Birders who had been making their way to the west coast to see the red-flanked bluetail in New Westminster and who had dipped or not attempted the wagtail in November/December had an opportunity to try again. Success seemed to be hit or miss and often it would be several days or more between sightings and views were often brief. The wagtail appeared to be moving around more and spending less time at the original location.
The bird’s behaviour has also changed over the last 116+ days, as has the foraging habitat. The large slash piles that had initially provided cover are now gone and the wagtail seems to be spending more time at the far end of the farm road where a hedgerow provides a bit of cover for hunting northern shrikes, hawks, and falcons.
In early March I finally had a chance to return to the farm site and look for bird. Viktor Davare, a fellow photographer and I walked the road and at the far end found it feeding in some muddy ruts with a flock of American robins. This weekend I got to see it again with a couple of out of town birders, including a fellow who had come all the way from Texas.
It’s hard to believe that this very rare bird (first Canadian and second North American record) is still around and doing well! Hopefully we’ll get to enjoy its presence a bit longer. It would be wonderful if it successfully migrates back to its natural breeding grounds in Asia when the time comes.