The Say's Phoebe is a fairly common bird, one that is not particularly striking or dramatically different from other phoebe species. But it is one that has had Alabama birders atwitter in recent weeks after one was sighted in Southeastern Autauga County on private property not far from Henry Lock and Dam.
So why the fuss? While the Say's Phoebe is common in the west from Alaska to Mexico, it is decidedly uncommon in Alabama.
So when Montgomery ace birder Larry Gardella posted a photo and information on the bird online, I decided to try to find it -- despite the fact that it was the day when an ice storm was scheduled to hit Central Alabama at any minute.
As soon as I arrived at the site, I saw two birds in the distance across a farm pond that could be phoebes. Through my binoculars, both looked like possibilities. And they behaved like phoebes -- sitting on snags in or near the pond, flitting off to hunt insects, then returning to the same perch or a similar one nearby.
But I could not be sure, because I had made a rookie mistake. In my haste to rush out to beat the weather, I had forgotten my spotting scope. What was hard to identify even with 10-power binoculars might have been easy with a 60-power scope, but with mine 40 miles away in Montgomery all I could do was hope the birds flew close enough for a better view.
Just as I was about to give up, a white pickup pulled up, the driver rolled down his window and asked, "Looking for the Say's?" It was Barry Fleming of Auburn, whom I knew only by his reputation as an excellent birder. And Barry did remember to bring a scope.
With it, we were able to make out the Say's orangish buff belly and black tail. The belly color was best seen when the bird flew, or just as it would alight. The other bird was an Eastern Phoebe, which was handy for comparison. (I have yet to get a decent photo of the Say's Phoebe, but I am posting one of my photos of an Eastern Phoebe.)
It was great meeting Barry, even though it's hard to get acquainted when you're standing outside in weather that is 32 degrees, windy and drizzling rain. I owe him a big thank you for sharing his scope, and one to Larry Gardella for posting about it.
I went back again the following day to try for a decent photo, but again the light was terrible. But at least it wasn't raining. And the Say's was more elusive this time.
While I was scanning the lake from my car, birders Eric Soehren, John Trent and Ashley Peters from the Conservation Department arrived also in search of the Say's. No luck for a while, so I drove down to Henry Lock and Dam for a check of what was there (gulls, cormorants and a Northern Harrier -- see photo) and I think John and Ashley left, too. Then Eric spotted it, contacted John by phone and chased me down, but by the time we got back it was gone again. But another half hour scanning the lake with binoculars and scopes finally produced results.
Again, the longer black tail and orangish buff belly was clear in the scopes. It was a life bird for Ashley (as it was for me) and a first in Alabama bird for John and Eric.
So how unusual is a Say's Phoebe in Alabama? E-bird shows only five locations and a dozen or so sightings in Alabama for the Say's Phoebe since 2009, and nothing prior to that.
One of the great things about birding is the serendipity of meeting other birders while you're in the field. I have met Eric before, but Barry, John and Ashley were new acquaintances. Such chance encounters in the field with both old friends and new acquaintances are a happy byproduct of birding and one of the many things that make it a rewarding hobby.
Another uncommon bird in Alabama (although much more common that a Say's Phoebe) is the Ross's Goose, a much smaller goose than a Canada Goose but one that is sometimes seen in their company. The Ross's Goose breeds on the tundra of Northern Canada.
Facebook was alive with postings in recent days about a Ross's Goose in Birmingham's Avondale Park, but the Montgomery area had its own Ross's Goose -- at The Waters in Pike Road. (See photos.) The Ross's Goose is often seen around Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama, but often in the company of large groups of Snow Geese, which are similar in appearance. The difficulty is picking out a Ross's Goose from the Snows.
But at Avondale Park and The Waters, the almost all-white Ross's stood out among the Canada Geese.
-- An update on the Berry College, Ga., Eagle Cams. I just watched the eagles trade out nesting duty and was able to clearly see two eggs. See it at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society will hold its winter meeting at the Guntersville State Park Lodge Jan. 27-29. Field trips will visit Guntersville State Park, the Guntersville waterfront, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and the Guntersville Dam area. The Friday workshop leader and Saturday night keynote speaker will be Marshall Iliff, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird project leader. Details at: http://www.aosbirds.org/documents/WinterMeeting2017.pdf
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including a field trip to James D. Martin Wildlife Park in Gadsden on Saturday, Feb. 4, from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. The Wildlife Park, behind the Gadsden Mall, is a stop on the Appalachian Highlands section of the Alabama Birding Trail.
In addition, the society's Audubon Teaches Nature programs are ongoing at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Birds of Prey: Masters of the Skies on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are showings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.
For details, go to: www.alapark.com/Lakepoint-Fins-Feathers-Flowers