I moved to the Rockies about nine years ago, after having been "on the coast" for 25 years - the west coast. I birded a bit down there, did some salmon fishing in the summer, and travelled on the ferry to the Queen Charlottes a couple of times.
I guess I must have absorbed some knowledge of pelagics in that time. I say "guess" because it really is stored waaay back in my brain as events of this weekend proved.
Yes, folks, a pelagic bird in the Rocky Mountains.
This is how it happened (birder's point of view):
We were on our club's annual August shorebird 'jaunt' and had yet to find enough mud to interest migrating shorebirds. It's been quite rainy here this summer so all the ponds we regularly visit are high and edged with vegetation. No exposed mud; and shorebirds need mud. Our last hope was the south end of the 'Effluent Reservoir' where the nearby city stores its treated sewage for re-use as irrigation water on its hay fields (alfalfa, whatever, I really should pay more attention to plants).
Really, if you are any kind of birder, you KNOW anything to do with sewage is well-liked by many bird species, so ... it's well-liked by birders, too. The two exceptions are 1) on very hot summer days when the smell can be a bit much and 2) when the huge sprinklers are 'spraying' the fields - and your vehicle. My my, what we are willing to put up with in pursuit of our passion.
Prior to this, there had been some contention of exactly who was leading our convoy of two vehicles. The 'senior' birder of the group was a passenger in the other vehicle with some novices. They had taken the lead on the highway, but in my mind they were going too slow on the back road between ponds. I was the official field trip leader so I scooted ahead first chance I got and blamed it on 'R.' my birder friend traveling with me. There were a few rebellious residual attitudes wafting around though.
Fortunately for tempers and odors, the heat of the day was quite bearable. The mercury usually hits 34 C in mid-August, but today's morning was actually down right chilly. It's like that in the mountains - day heat disappears overnight but the thin air lets in the afternoon heat from the sun.
We'd sniffed out (pun intended) some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Westerns and the usual Spotted Sandpipers on one shore then the others wandered over a knoll to another bay. Staying behind, I got a good look at several birds bunched together - the best for size comparison - and added Baird's to my day list.
It was time to go see if the others had found anything interesting. There's always some insecurity that one might miss something! Sauntering over the knoll, I found a couple of the uncommon Napping Birders. My car-mate came striding up and said "Say, what do you think that bird is?" pointing to the water's surface behind a small lodgepole pine. There, dabbing at the surface, was a dark gray gull-like bird daintily floating about.
How my subconscious made me blurt something out:
Simultaneously I got two flashbacks of my coastal days. One was of thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls I'd seen while salmon-fishing off Race Rocks near Victoria. The flock was so extensive, yet so intent on their floating dinner, they just tippled off to the side as we eased through them at regular trolling speed. The bird in my real time was quite content to ignore us and continue feeding, just as the Bonies had and it also was delicately picking stuff off the top of the water in the same way -- imagine a huge dark Phalarope -- that's how it was feeding.
But the other flashback prompted me to quickly blurt out, half-jokingly, "That looks like a Jaeger!" These blurts of mine usually get me in more trouble than they're worth and don't help my reputation but I like a bit of rabble-rousing with my good friends, don't you?
I'd subconsciously remembered a specimen I'd seen in the Royal BC Museum pointed out by an incredulous museum technician. It was skinny, dark, and pointy-winged like all the dozens of others in the trays held in 'the stacks' but this one had been collected from Kootenay National Park - one of our most elevated parks in the Rockies. Yes, it was strange. This pointy-winged robber had somehow run up against the continental divide then died where someone found it, somewhere near Sinclair Canyon, where the two-laned highway snakes through a pass walled by solid rock hundreds of feet high. That little guy must have given up hope of ever skimming over the Pacific waves again and was now evidence of his inland meanderings.
Besides, it was the silliest thing I could think of even though I hadn't seen one since starting my 'New Life List' in 2000 (long story).
Back to real time:
In a very laid-back manner, we hummed and hawed, estimated the bird's size and eventually someone got the bright idea to go back to the vehicles for a field guide. On their way back, they quickly scanned the gulls and proposed that it was a juvenile Mew Gull. I said "But, we decided it was about 15 inches, not 21!" and I flipped back to the Jaegers, and of course, there it was ...
Long-tailed Jaeger, 16 August 2009, Cranbrook, BC, accidental. Shocked the heck out of myself that my flashbacks were right!
This is how it happened (bird's point of view):
I was paddling about enjoying quite a few tasty tidbits on this terrific sweet-smelling lake, when a bunch of those two-leggeds with weird eyes came along and started talking about me. "How rude!" I thought, but they were soon forgotten as I pondered once more how to get back to that Really Big Salty Lake where the sun sets in the water and the marks are easy. Later that same day, a single two-legged came along to 'confirm' my existence. Humph, I know who I am. I don't need any two-legged calling me names.
PS. A quick scan of the BC Yahoo groups shows there are usually a few Parasitic, Long-tailed, and /or Pomarine Jaegers in the interior per year. Sibley's shows may dots all over the place.
(Moral of the story, perhaps? Always be open to possibilities, use your mistakes and embarassment as learning opportunities!)