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Birders flock to catch sight of rare visitor to capital region

A shy, easily overlooked and entirely forgettable visitor from Asia is attracting attention and raising some alarm in rural Saanich.
Redwing, or turdus iliacus.

A shy, easily overlooked and entirely forgettable visitor from Asia is attracting attention and raising some alarm in rural Saanich.

The visitor is a redwing, or turdus iliacus, a bird slightly smaller and a whole lot browner than the American robin (also a thrush) seen across North America. In fact, it looks something like an immature robin, and is brown on top and speckled brown across the breast without the orange.

“It’s like a robin that didn’t get coloured,” said Ann Nightingale, past president of the 750-member Victoria Natural History Society. “It has a few subtle marks on it, but nothing that would make most people go ‘oooh, ahhh.’ ”

Despite the redwing’s unspectacular appearance, it has attracted bird-watchers from as far away as Michigan and Minnesota. An influx of those enthusiasts is already raising the ire of some residents of the Interurban/ Wilkinson Road area, Nightingale said, where the redwing seems to have taken a very low-profile roost.

The redwing is quite common across northern Europe and Asia. But this sighting is only the second recorded in Victoria. The first was two years ago.

“It’s a pretty skulky bird,” Nightingale said. “It hardly ever comes out in the open.

“You might get to see a piece of it in the bushes. For birders, that’s enough for a check.”

Nightingale is one of a long-standing cadre of people in Greater Victoria whose hobby is watching and spotting birds. They call themselves “birders,” not bird-watchers, and enjoy their hobby using binoculars, telescopes, backyard feeders and printed checklists of species likely to show up in any particular place.

The redwing is one of three documented Asian visitors to northwest North America recently.

A fieldfare, another brownish and unspectacular Asian thrush, has appeared in Missoula, Montana, and a red-flanked bluetail has been documented in Portland, Oregon.

Nightingale said she heard of a birder from Minnesota who drove through Montana, ticked off the fieldfare, and continued on to Victoria to get a sight of the redwing before heading to Portland for the red-flanked bluetail.

Local birders, through the Victoria Natural History Society, organize an annual count of birds during the holiday season. This year’s Christmas Bird Count took place on Dec. 19.

According to Nightingale, its numbers were average at best — 141 species, one more than last year, but well below the 2004 record of 154.

The overall sightings of individuals also appear to be down. Nightingale said no numbers have been tallied, but she said some speculate the low numbers may be the result of a poor berry crop. Arbutus berries, for example, are not supplying a good crop of wild food for birds.

Low numbers haven’t diminished Nightingale’s enthusiasm for her personal annual bird tally of Vancouver Island. With one day left in 2015, she was still checking out birds, hoping to add to her year-to-date tally of 268 species for the Island.

Nightingale said she used her annual count as a fundraiser for the Rocky Point Bird Observatory. But it was also a good excuse to explore Vancouver Island.

“I’ve lived my entire life in Victoria and I’ve never been north of Campbell River before.”

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