The morning of Thursday, 8 December 2011 found Donna and I traveling south on the island highway in the dark, hoping to get to Beacon Hill Park at first light. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher had been seen on the previous day, and I desperately wanted to find this bird. Although I have seen plenty of them in California, and once spotted one at a rest stop along I-5 in extreme southern Oregon, I really wanted this one for my Vancouver Island, and BC lists. Although they do show up on extreme southern Vancouver Island in the fall and early winter with some regularity, they are famous for being very difficult to relocate. Thus, I had never even chased one before, because follow-up reports never made the thought of the two hour drive to Victoria sound very rewarding.
But this individual was frequenting the east edge of Beacon Hill Park at the extreme southern end of Vancouver Island. The area the bird had been seen in previously was sparsely wooded, and surrounded by urban sprawl. The bird was sure to stick in this end of the park, and finding it would be a cinch, right? Well, no actually. This little blue-gray devil is better than Houdini at disappearing into thin air. Quite a few birders over the past week had been foiled after arriving within minutes of birders still beaming from a successful tick, only to spend the remaining hours until darkness, standing around looking at the empty tops of trees. Our experience seems typical of how this bird has been behaving.
After fighting through the morning commuters pouring into the capitol district, we eventually found our way into Beacon Hill Park just as a red morning sky was dulling to a leaden gray. Although it wasn't freezing, it was cloudy and damp, and we knew that standing around in one spot for very long today was going to be unpleasant. We threw on our gear, locked everything else in the trunk (this park supports all too many window smashing junkies) and headed for the narrow rows of trees lining the cricket field. Not two minutes after arriving, a small bird with a blue-gray back shot past us. I raised my binoculars, but was already suspicious, as the tail seemed short and the flight all wrong. Sure enough, it was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. But, at least their was a bird here. So we waited. And we waited. And after 30 minutes, we moved on. That was the only bird we saw in that spot. Down closer to Cook St, there is a small playground with some brush in the back, intersected by a road which bordered a larger patch of trees and thick brush. This looked much better. It was. Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Red-breasted Nuthatches moved through the treetops. Downy Woodpeckers and Red-breasted Sapsucker hunted the tree trunks for insects. Anna's Hummingbirds sang and displayed all around. And there, at the top of the tallest oak at the south east end of the tennis courts, was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. "GOT IT!", I yelled to other birders stalking the other side of the small patch of bush. I pointed the bird out to Donna. She let out an exultant, "Yes!" I had another quick, satisfying look through the binoculars, and then I grabbed my camera from over my shoulder, raised it to my eye, focused right on this lovely little bird perfectly displaying it's trademark under tail pattern right above me, and clicked the shutter. It was gone. I let the camera drop, looked hard back into the tree tops, and it was gone. It had simply vanished. Donna was looking right at it as it flew to another branch, and then lost it in a tangle of boughs. The other birders were now frantically searching through the chick-let flocks, to no avail. And after 45 minutes, we all dispersed, to search the park some more. Because I felt so terrible about losing the bird seconds before the others got there for a look, Donna and I stuck around in the damp December gray cold, and searched for another three hours for the bird, with absolutely no luck at all. We did see quite a few more Anna's Hummingbirds, and spent some time with seven Eurasian, about 100 American Wigeons and a few odd exotic ducks mixed in amongst about 500 Mallards. And we watched the invasive Gray Squirrels cavorting in the tops of the oaks where the gnatcatcher should have been. But we never saw it again. And that photo I shot? It shows a bare oak branch, with no gnatcatcher, at all. Apparently, nobody got even a glimpse of it the rest of the day. As some had paid the impossibly high prices for a ferry ride over from the mainland, they decided to stay overnight and try again the next morning. We were relieved to hear that the folks that missed it came back and saw it on the 9th, just a short distance from where we had seen it.