Several people with binoculars and cameras at the ready huddled around a cluster of Russian olive trees at Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston on Wednesday.
They watched, whispered and waited for a small, olive-colored bird with a brush of yellow under its wing and a distinctive blue tail to make an appearance.
It soon did, and the birders lifted binoculars to their eyes and snapped photos as the bird proceeded to flit about the trees and occasionally land in the grass just 10 yards from their feet.
For dedicated bird watchers, the small bird is a huge deal. They are now among only a handful of people who have laid eyes on a red-flanked bluetail while standing on North American soil.
“This is only the second time it’s been in the Lower 48 states,” said Russ Morgan.
This is a very, very rare bird.
Oregon birder Russ Morgan
So rare that people will travel far and wide to see it. Morgan and his wife Dana Reid drove to Lewiston from La Grande, Ore., for the chance to add the bird to their life lists, the tally of avian species that birders keep.
Scott O’Donnell drove to Lewiston from his home in Troy, Ore., to see the bird. He speculated that the pretty little female soon would draw in people from much farther away.
“If it stays, people will be flying in from all over the country to see it,” said the fishing outfitter and avid birder.
I knew there was something different about the bird.
John Hanna of Lewiston, who first spotted the bird Monday
Almost on cue, Jeff Rusinow approached the group holding a pair of binoculars. He flew in from Milwaukee, Wis., solely to see the rare visitor.
“I’m a lister. I keep a life list, so I’ll get on a plane to get a new bird,” he said. “I think this bird will be my 17th new bird this year.”
The bird was first spotted Monday by John Hanna of Lewiston during a monthly trip he makes to count raptors. He didn’t immediately know what it was, but had an inkling it was special.
“I knew there was something different about the bird so when I saw it I spent a couple of hours trying to get a photo of it,” he said.
It wasn’t until he returned home and had a chance to pore over guidebooks that he realized it was a red-flanked bluetail. His posting quickly attracted the attention of local birders and then began radiating outward. On Tuesday, Hanna returned to Hells Gate and was able to meet many of the incoming birders, including one who was in the home stretch of a “big year” — birders sometimes devote a calendar year to spot as many different species as they can. Hanna said the red-flanked bluetail was the 750th species the big year devotee had tallied.
“I’m glad a lot of people have gotten to see it,” Hanna said. “It was fun just to meet a lot of interesting birders and talk with them a bit.”
Lewiston resident Keith Carlson, president of the Canyon Birders, spent much of Tuesday photographing the bird. He met people from Boise and Missoula, Mont., who dropped everything and fought through terrible winter driving conditions for the chance to add the bird to their lists.
“She is unusual,” he said. “They are normally in Siberia and other parts of Asia and winter in southeast Asia.”
Why the bird is spending time in north central Idaho is anybody’s guess.
“It’s a Siberian bird that winters in Asia and somehow took a wrong turn,” Morgan, a wildlife biologist, speculated. “It’s by far the rarest bird I’ve ever seen.”
On Wednesday, like the day before, the bird seemed to stay in a small area but often would disappear from sight for several minutes. The birders visited while waiting for it to return.
“Patience is a virtue when birding,” said Terry O’Halloran of Lewiston.
It was in one of its elusive periods when Rusinow arrived and was forced to exercise patience. When it finally reappeared, it did so fleetingly. He spotted the bird, but only briefly.
“You’ve got to get a satisfying look and I’m not there yet,” he said.
Perhaps another 20 minutes later the bird was back and this time perched prominently on a branch.
“That was a satisfying look, I saw the blue and everything,” he said. “Awesome.”
Eric Barker: firstname.lastname@example.org, (208) 848-2273, @ezebarker