Code 5

I picked up DICK at 7AM. We were going to attempt to add a very rare bird to our life lists. Our destination was parking lot C at the Yolo Byway Wildlife Area near Davis.

What drives a rational being to wake up at six on a Saturday morning and drive two hours just to see a rather drab sandpiper? This bird was not endangered or threatened, it is common on it’s home range, which happens to be in Eastern Europe to Central Asia. As Rare Birds of North America points out, “Every species is rare somewhere”. This bird is so rare in North America that the American Birding Association (ABA) rates it a Code 5.

Here is how the ABA defines the code:

Code 5: Accidental.

Species that are recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three records in the past 30 years.

Now that’s rare, extremely  rare. This bird was only the 3rd sighting in the state of California. And only the twelveth record in the United States, the majority have been in the Aleutians and the Pribilofs in Alaska.

In all the excitement I forgot to mention our quarry: marsh sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis).

We arrived at parking lot C at 8:30 and there were already about 50 birders looking into the pond  for the marsh sandpiper. I scanned the waders in front of me, afraid to ask if it had been seen. Perhaps it had flown and we where out of luck. A birder mentioned that the bird had been seen earlier but was now foraging out of sight behind some reeds off to our left.

I threaded my way through the many tripod legs to get a better look into the reeds. A birder called, “Rail!”and I looked off to the right, only to miss the Virginia rail disappearing into the rushes. I returned my attention to the reeds and their hidden gem.

Through the reeds I saw a flash of white, something that seemed out of place. The phantasm methodically worked its way to the right and came into view. “There it is!” I said in unison with a birder standing at my elbow. All binos, cameras and scopes turns towards the reeds. In my mind I ticked off the boxes: a bright white belly (Check), dark needle-like bill (Check),  greenish-yellow legs (Check), a wader that looked like nothing I had seen before (Check). At 8:42 I got United States Lifebird No. 501! We all enjoyed great views in perfect morning light as the Tringa foraged in the shallows, picking bugs off the surface of the water.

At 8:45 the show came to an end, all the waders, including the shining, white gem, took to the air and we where able to observe the bird in flight as it tailed a groups of dowitchers. All watchers willed the bird to circle back and return to the waters in front of us. Our bird had flown. . . well not exactly. The sandpaper was refound near lot D but on the following day, it was seen one more time and then the marsh sandpiper was gone.

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