Thursday, July 13, 2006

Another rara avis from the archives

This one I appreciated the rarity of from the first instant.

On a sunny morning in August, 1991, birding through the old spoils area in my neighborhood in Georgetown, South Carolina. The spoils had grown up into a thicket of brush and weeds which was an excellent migrant trap, so I visited it many mornings. At 7:30, as I passed through the dense chinaberry grove near the entrance, I spotted some big dove-looking thing on a snag not 30 feet from my head. I raised my binoculars, and was practically nose-to-nose with South Carolina's first-recorded Band-tailed Pigeon!

I studied the bird in extreme detail, recording a vivid mental image in case this proved to be the only encounter, then lept back on my bicycle to get to the phone as fast as I could pedal. This was the pre-internet, pre-cell phone era, of course. I called the statewide RBA and Robin Carter (hard-core birder who lived three hours away), dug through to find a camera and the longest lens in the house (only a piddly 135 mm), and went back to relocate the bird. Fortunately I did see it again three times that day and got adequate photos. The RBA was updated almost immediately, but only one chaser (Bobby McCutchen) managed to make it there that afternoon and see the bird. Alas, Robin coudn't get there until the next day, which evidently was too late. The pigeon never reappeared.

Years later, when the SC rare bird committee reviewed the sighting, I was a bit bummed that they rejected the record based on concerns about the bird's wild origins. Personally, I disagreed with this. The date and location fit an established pattern of eastward post-breeding vagrancy, the bird was in good plumage and not at all tame. The proximity of my first encounter was a matter of surprise, not tameness. But, of course, I made no protest. I wasn't on the review committee and I understood the "when in doubt leave it out" conservative approach they needed to take. I did my job: find and document the bird; the rest of the process falls into other hands. And, of course, the committee had accepted the species ID unequivocally, only questioning the bird's origin. I understood that some future checklist committee might well reconsider the record, note the continental-scale context, and chose to elevate it to full status.

It seems this may be exactly what happened. As part of archiving my old notes, I've been checking up on the "official" status of some of the rarest sightings. It seems Band-tailed Pigeon is now considered a full-status species in South Carolina, and my bird appears to still be the only record. I've always like these big, speedy pigeons, and I'm quite happy to have one of them be my only found-it-all-by-myself First State Record.


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