Twitcher Item

Subject: Twitcher Item
From: Laurie & Leanne Knight <>
Date: Mon, 05 Mar 2001 17:53:22 +1000
Asian Wanderer's Surprise Visit Thrills Bird Watchers

Sunday, March 4, 2001 

 Asian Wanderer's Surprise Visit Thrills Bird Watchers 
    Nature: Devotees from across the U.S. converge on a Northern
 California lagoon. For them the sighting is akin to a glimpse of a

 By ERIC BAILEY, Times Staff Writer

      STINSON BEACH, Calif.--A tiny shore bird that apparently made a
 monumental wrong turn and commuted across the Pacific from its usual
 haunts in Asia is causing a stir at the north end of this funky little
beach town. 
      Bird watchers from across America are migrating to the shores of
 Bolinas Lagoon to catch a glimpse of the lone gray and white bird,
believed to be a type that has never before been known to visit the
Western Hemisphere. 
      Experts suspect that the wayward winged traveler is either the
greater  sand plover or a subspecies of the Mongolian plover, two birds
that normally winter half a world away. 
      Its freak appearance on the shores of Marin County has lured
birders from as far away as North Carolina, Arkansas and British
Columbia. More than 1,000 bird enthusiasts, alerted by word of mouth and
the Internet, have made the pilgrimage since the first sighting Jan. 29. 
      For them, it's akin to witnessing Halley's Comet or climbing Mt.
      "It's delightful," said Steve Jaggers, a retired community college
administrator who traveled from Portland, Ore., to visit family and gaze
at the plover in this community just north of San Francisco. "And it's
pretty astonishing to see something this far out of its range." 
      Skittering on the mud flats of Bolinas Lagoon, the little bird
with the dark throat band is delightfully oblivious to its celebrity
status. It dips and swoops, stepping lightly into the approaching tide
to pluck worms from the brine. 
      The pack of humans on the sidelines, armed with binoculars, scopes
and bird books, revels in every move. 
      Most experts have pegged the bird as the greater sand plover, but
the jury is still out. It might even take DNA testing and top
researchers from the Smithsonian Institution to solve this avian puzzle. 
      "We may never know," said Peter Pyle, a biologist at the Point
 Reyes Bird Observatory, a nonprofit research and conservation
 organization based in Marin County. "We're kind of scratching our heads
over how it got here." 
      Both the Mongolian and greater sand plovers spend summers in
 central Asia, then migrate south to winter along a broad swath of
shoreline from northeast Africa through Australia. 
      Experts theorize that the Bolinas bird is most likely a genetic
freak, its navigation systems thrown off kilter by a birth defect or
toxic poisoning. Lack of experience also could have played a part in its
wrong-way migration. Its plumage suggests that the bird is young,
probably about a year old. 
      For whatever reason, it ended up among the egrets and sandpipers
of Marin County. Sue Abbott and Steve Howell spotted it during a routine
field census at the lagoon for the bird observatory. 
      Dumbfounded, they alerted Pyle and other colleagues to make sure,
Howell said, that they weren't "hallucinating." 
      Right there on the shoreline, the group of scientists launched a
debate that has yet to be settled. 
      Exact measurements of the bill and leg could help, so the
biologists set traps to gently snag the bird's leg as it loped by. But
the plover proved wily, detouring around the traps. 
      A few days later, a visiting scholar from the University of
Florida waded into the muck to snag feathers that the plover dropped
while preening. 
      They have since been sent to the Smithsonian, where the
microscopic structure of the feathers is being examined by Carla Dove,
an aptly named avian expert who has done forensic work for the FBI. From
there, the feathers will go to the University of Ontario, where
scientists hope to study their DNA. 
      "I can't think of another case where DNA has been used to identify
a bird," Pyle said. "We could be on the cutting edge here. But most bird
species aren't so difficult to identify." 
      If the experts are unsure about the bird, most bird watchers are
 downright stumped. 
      Giel Witt, a Santa Rosa fire captain and avid birder, said he
couldn't have picked this bird out of the pack. 
      "I just have to go with what the big boys say," he said. "If I had
been first to spot that bird, I wouldn't have recognized it as anything
      On most days, the bird has been a creature of habit, sticking with
uncanny precision to the same arm of the lagoon, right beside a few
homes at Seadrift Estates, a gated shoreline community. 
      For birders such as Witt and Jaggers, the bird offers a vintage
 opportunity to add to their "life lists," a count of all the species
they've spotted through the years. 
      But formal certification of the bird's Western Hemisphere
appearance is far more involved. Proof of the sighting is submitted to a
panel of 10 experts on the California Bird Records Committee. If they
agree, the process moves on to the American Ornithologists Union and the
American Birding Assn. for final certification as a record. 
      Don Reinberg, for one, hopes the proof doesn't come down to the
 raw science of DNA. 
      "The fun of it is using your knowledge and diagnostics. It's
figuring it out, the bewilderment, the magic and mystery of how this
bird got here," said Reinberg, a retired trumpeter with the San
Francisco Symphony. "The DNA, the machines, they take some of the joy
out of it." 
 Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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