Monday, April 10, 2017

And Then There Was A White Wagtail

The fun thing about birding is that you never know what may show up at any given time.  Even somewhere that looks really crappy, such as a set of sewage ponds chained up between bordered fences.  Doug Blacklund is the one who knows how to relate.  While visiting Arizona from South Dakota and birding in Ajo, Arizona, Doug decided to bird at a few places around Ajo.  One of those places he was birding at were the Ajo Sewage Ponds.  These sewage ponds don't look like much and they aren't a pretty sight, but they do attract birds, such as migrating waterfowl, terns, and gulls.  But Doug found something much different, unexpected, and much more rare to Arizona.  On March 29th, 2017, a report came into the Arizona/New Mexico Birding Listserv from Doug, and he was reporting a White Wagtail!

A White Wagtail!  What?  Prior to this report, I had always seen Wagtails in my field guides and skim over them without paying too much attention to them.  As a hardcore birder, of course I'd look at them and look over their fieldmarks just "in case" I were to get extremely lucky in Arizona or elsewhere.  I just didn't think I'd have the chance to see one anytime soon, but then in a sudden 180 swing, I had this mega-rare bird to Arizona and code 3 ABA bird in less then two hours away from my house.  That day on March 29th, 2017, I clocked out of work at 2:30 P.M. and I was able to get to the Ajo Sewage Ponds in Pima County right at 4:46 P.M. after a quick swing home to get my birding equipment.  And I was only one of many birders present...

The only other White Wagtail in Arizona was back in 1985, at a similar pond at the Grand Canyon in October.  This first state record was present for 5 days.  And here this report came in some 31.5 years later.  There was no doubt that hundreds of birders were going to pile up and chase this 2017 White Wagtail, given the chance if the bird was going to continue being present or not.  As I pulled up to the Ajo Sewage Ponds in the town of Ajo, I could already see many birders.  Life was made somewhat easy for me when I pulled up, because most of the birders had their scopes and cameras on the bird.  The bird was distant on a pipe going over the pond, but that didn't stop birders from enjoying it.  As I walked up, Laurens Halsey let me look through his scope immediately where I got my first ever look at a White Wagtail.

At times, the White Wagtail was hard to see due to distance.  What helped see the bird better came when birders decided to park their trucks and use tailgates for others to stand on for more elevated views.  Not long after I arrived, my truck was used for the same purpose.

The White Wagtail falls under the family, Motacillidae, which includes both Wagtails and Pipits.  Wagtails fall under the genus, Motacilla.  4 Wagtail species have been found in North America, with all of them being overall vagrants to North America with the exception of the White Wagtail.  The White Wagtail isn't a common bird in North America at all, and it is an ABA Area Code 3.  It is a rare but regular breeder in small numbers in Alaska and Greenland.  It is common in Siberia and elsewhere overseas.

Wagtails are very well named and true to that name, their tail-wagging completely supports their identity.  They bob their heads up and down while walking, and they are highly adaptable in their habitat choices.  White Wagtails may be found in their range in wetlands, lake shores, ponds, rivers, agricultural areas, and of course, sewage ponds.  This Ajo, Arizona White Wagtail put on a show for birders through their scopes.  It walked on pipes over the ponds, it walked on berms a few times, it sat on a wire over the pipe, it flew up and down in pursuit of insects some, and of course, it was constantly wagging it's tail.  I, along with many other birders, enjoyed the heck out of this mega-Arizona rarity that afternoon.  Over two hours later, I finally headed home after it got dark out.  Due to the distance of the bird, I had to take digiscoped pictures through my phone.  The White Wagtail stayed three more full days after the original day when I was lucky enough to see it.  And then, it moved on.  Seeing this bird was truly spectacular for those who got to see it.  It was my first lifer of 2017, and I now have 533 species on my life list to be exact.  It was my 444th species in Arizona.  What will my next lifer be?  And when will another White Wagtail find it's place in Arizona's birding history?  Who knows...

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