Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Chase

On November 2, a Hepatic Tanager was found in Wadena, SK.  This is a semi-tropical bird whose northernmost breeding range is the southwestern U.S.  The tanager been recorded once previously in Canada – in 1993 in Montreal.  When I saw the report, my reaction was … “hmm, interesting, could be a new team bird; where is Wadena? Oh, a 10 hour drive” and then put it out of my mind.

At the beginning of our big year, we stated that, in pursuit of our 500 species goal, we would schedule a number of trips to interesting places and would not be going out of our way to chase rare birds.  As you may know, we accomplished our goal in October and didn’t do any chasing in the process.
Had the Haida Gwaii trip not been successful, we likely would have made one more team trip.  Perhaps we would have met in Vancouver for the Tropical Kingbird.  Both Ray and I were lucky enough to see this bird while on separate non-birding trips.
Tropical Kingbird
Perhaps we would have headed to Vancouver Island for the Elegant Tern and regular wintering Ancient Murrelets.  Ray was on the island when the tern was found and saw it for himself the next day.
Elegant Tern (Mew Gull on left)
If we hadn’t done one of those trips, then we would have undoubtedly headed to Wadena for the Hepatic Tanager.  But we didn’t need to so none of us gave it much thought … except for Mike.  Mike is the keenest lister of the four of us and wanted to go see the bird.  He sent out an email on Friday asking, “Anyone interested in a trip to Wadena?”  No takers - Ray and Phil were both out of town with their wives and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home with my wife.

Saskatchewan was hit by a snowstorm on Saturday but word soon got out that the tanager was still in Wadena.  Mike wasn’t giving up and recruited fellow big lister, Hank Vanderpol.  Both Mike and Hank have seen over 750 ABA  area birds (ABA stands for American Birding Association and ABA area is Canada, St. Pierre et Miquelon, and USA except for Hawaii ) and you don`t get that big of a list without doing a lot of chasing.
On Sunday afternoon, Mike called to say that he and Hank were going and did I want to come?  Hmm, if I went along the tanager would be a new team bird and it would be a new Canada bird for me.  I had nothing planned for Monday so, in a weak moment, I said yes thinking it would be a pleasant two day trip.  Mike’s next statement was, “We’re leaving tonight!”  The prospect of an overnight drive wasn’t too appealing but I figured if Hank and Mike could handle it and they were 15 to 20 years older than me, I should be able survive the drive.

While waiting for the departure hour, I overheard my wife talking to her parents.  Based on her responses, I could imagine their questions, “He’s doing what?” and “He’s going where?”  I hope they didn’t hurt their necks as they shook their heads in disbelief!
As usual, Mike had done his homework and had spoken to the homeowners whose feeder the tanager was visiting.  They told him that the most reliable time to see the bird was in the morning.  Mike also knew that the overnight temperatures were going down to -22o C and, regarding a semi-tropical bird, it would be best to see the bird as soon as possible.     The logical plan would be to leave Sunday afternoon, find a motel in SK and then see the bird on Monday morning.  However, Mike had a family birthday dinner to attend (in his honour!) and   couldn’t leave until 9:30 p.m.

We departed Calgary at 10 p.m. and headed east to Regina.  The fastest route was through Saskatoon but that route was only a 2 lane highway, we weren’t sure of the road conditions and we didn’t know if there would be any gas stations open en route.  We took turns driving and our plan was that the front seat passenger would converse with the driver while the person in the rear slept. 
When Mike and Hank were in the front, they regaled each other with stories of previous chases while I tried unsuccessfully to nap.  During a break in their tales, I assumed Phil’s role and did some quick internet research.  “What does hepatic mean?” I asked and Mike responded that it had something to do with colour.  He was right – one of the dictionary meanings was “liver-coloured; dark reddish-brown”.

We rolled into Regina at 6 a.m. Calgary time (for the short trip, we didn’t bother changing our watches) and had a quick breakfast.  From there, it was a 215 km drive on good secondary highways to reach Wadena.   As we drove north, we tried not to speculate as to the fate of the bird in the wintry conditions.  However, with every raven flying by, I had visions of seeing a liver-coloured bird dangling from its beak. 
We found the location easily enough and introduced ourselves to John and Faye Sundholm.  This friendly and hospitable couple invited us inside to view the bird from their front window.  We were told that the bird had been there early in the morning, arriving as soon as Faye put out a tray with meal worms.  Faye then restocked the tray and, sure enough, the bird arrived on cue.
Hepatic Tanager
Whew - our overnight drive had a successful outcome!  The bird flew off after a few minutes but we were all in a good mood as the Sundholms served some coffee.  Three other birders arrived, including some friends from Calgary who had flown to Regina and rented a car.  Adding to the mix, were some non-birding friends of the Sundholms making for a houseful of people.  John and Fay were great hosts and couldn’t have been more welcoming. 

While Mike and Hank chatted with the others, I did a bit of neighbourhood birding and found some Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks and White-winged Crossbills.  We stayed about an hour but had to leave as we wanted to do most of the drive home in daylight.  As we were leaving, I saw the bird fly towards the house but it didn’t go to the feeder.  Our friends indicated that the bird did come back and great views were enjoyed by all.
We drove back via Saskatoon and had an uneventful drive.  The only birds of note on the way back were a Snowy Owl in SK and a Short-eared Owl in AB.  At the end of our 20 hour adventure, we all felt pretty good – I suspect that we would have felt quite differently had the chase been unsuccessful.

I was teasing Mike and Hank about a Cave Swallow that was reported at Iona near the Vancouver airport.  Mike wasn’t sure that the bird would be seen again and so wasn’t interested in going after it.  The swallow has been seen again so perhaps Mike and Hank are already on their way.  If not, some other bird will tempt them down the road.   So, will I do another big chase?  Never say never but I think I will politely decline participation in their next crazy adventure! 



  1. Did you say you would politely decline seeing the Citrine Wagtail?

    1. Hi Jeremy,

      Yes, I will decline any single purpose chase (e.g. fly to Comox and back in the same day) to see the Citrine Wagtail. I would dearly love to see it but the budget doesn't allow for chases at $500 a pop (by comparison, the tanager trip cost about $200 for the three of us). I have seen many Citrine Wagtails in Asia so doesn't have quite the pull of a potential lifer. However, I'm working on another trip to the island at the end of the month (in conjunction with some skiing) and am hoping the wagtail will hang around like the Vancouver area Tropical Kingbird did. Brown Pelican, Ancient Murrelet and perhaps a Yellow-billed Loon will be the other targets. -Brian-