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California and the West

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 comet.

March 04, 2001|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. Everest.

"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 unusual."

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."

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