Rule Number One: Have Your Camera Ready!

Why do you take photos of birds? My reasons have changed over time but one recent special bird reminded me why I started.

Having only been a serious birdwatcher for a few years, I'm a novice. I started taking photos to help me identify the species of my subjects. For example, I found it difficult in the field to see the subtle cap of an orange-crowned warbler but on my computer monitor, with the image zoomed to 400%, the speck of burnt orange nearly lept off the screen!

Since my first forays into bird photography, I have grown to appreciate its artistic side. I aim for photos that aren't just for identification purposes. I want a clean background, a razor sharp subject, and perfect lighting. All of that was completely irrelevant on May 14, 2014 at Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area in Ontario's Prince Edward County, known to us locals as "the county".

I had arrived early for a day of birdwatching and photography. As usual, it was beautiful in the county and the area was abuzz with bird activity. Scarlet tanagers, evening grosbeaks, white-throated sparrows, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and warblers (so many warblers!) had provided ample opportunity for photographic practice. I was ready for an early lunch when I stumbled upon a few sparrows.

The sparrows were on a short gravel sideroad leading to my favourite lunch spot at Prince Edward Point, overlooking Lake Ontario. I already had a soft spot for that part of the wildlife area because of the snowy owl a friend and I had seen there in the winter. Little did I know that among the sparrows was a bird that definitely trumped a wandering white owl!

I had two camera bodies with me. One was inaccessible while driving, in the back of my vehicle connected to a long lens on a tripod. For emergency photographic purposes, I had another body attached to a shorter lens in the front passenger seat. The emergency camera was as ready to go as possible. It was turned on and the lens cap was off. This was a trick I learned on the Alaska Highway, where roadside wildlife viewing is spectacular but fleeting.

One of the sparrows vaguely resembled a junco and didn't look like the rest so I put my emergency camera into action. I took the first shot through my dingy windshield.

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

After the documentary shot, I angled my SUV and rolled down my window to get clearer images.

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Within 40 seconds, the strange bird flew across the road.

 Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Aberrant dickcissel?, Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada

Not knowing at the time if it was a rarity, I didn't try to relocate it. Plus, my peanut butter sandwiches weren't going to eat themselves.

Even as a novice birder, I knew that dark-eyed juncos have many variants so my expectation was that I would be able to identify the subspecies. When my images didn't look like any of the subspecies, I moved on to sparrows. Again, none really matched the bird in my pictures. I was stumped. I asked my dad, other local experts, and the head bander at Prince Edward Point. They were all stumped. The head bander even tried unsuccessfully to capture the bird to get a closer look! I sent the images to my brother, a lifelong birder and the executive director and senior scientist at Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. He was stumped too! What was this thing?

I posted the images to whatbird.com and asked for assistance. Lots of possibilities were suggested - a vagrant sparrow, a sparrow/junco hybrid, an aberrant dickcissel, a dickcissel hybrid. Dickcissels breed in South America so that led to lots of interesting hybrid theories. Eventually Alan Wormington reached out and posted my images to the ABA ID Frontiers mailing list. There, bird experts like David Sibley and Peter Pyle got involved. I was fascinated! Famous birders were discussing my bird!

The most intriguing aspect of the discussion occurred when a resemblance between my bird and a nearly 200-year-old lithograph was noticed. In 1834, ornithologist John James Audubon painted and described a mystery bird he called Townsend's bunting. One of the first to notice the similarities between my bird and Audubon's depiction of the Townsend's bunting was Denis Lepage, senior scientist at Bird Studies Canada. In fact, Denis was so taken by this peculiar bird that he wrote an article titled Townsend's Bunting in Ontario? for Birding magazine (a publication of the American Birding Association). Thanks Denis! The story was also covered on the back cover of BirdWatch, a magazine published by Bird Studies Canada.

Nothing like a Townsend's bunting has been seen since the 1830s. Could I possibly have seen a species not recorded since then? Alas, almost definitely not. We'll never know for sure what it was, but the general consensus is that it was an aberrant dickcissel with a number of pigment abnormalities. Any dickcissel is rare in Prince Edward County so I'm happy. However, whenever I visit Prince Edward Point, I drive on my special gravel sideroad and I remember the day that I possibly saw a species unseen by human eyes for almost 200 years!