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October 25, 2021

Rare bird a surprise visitor to Santa Cruz County

SANTA CRUZ—A rare winged visitor has landed in Santa Cruz County. A small white wagtail, which typically breeds in Alaska and Asia, including Eastern Russia, has somehow gotten blown off course or is on an exploratory mission to this county, including the San Lorenzo River mouth at Main Beach in Santa Cruz.

About three weeks ago area birders started reporting the black and white bird, slightly smaller than a robin, sifting through the shores of Corcoran Lagoon in Live Oak at 21st Avenue. 

Groups of birders, equipped with spotting scopes and binoculars, bird books, notepads and even folding chairs, gathered at the lagoon’s edge and then at the San Lorenzo River mouth in hopes of catching a glimpse or a getting photograph of the bird.

“Wagtails are extremely rare anywhere in the U.S.,” said local birder Clay Kemph, one of the founders of the Monterey Bay Birding Festival. “There have probably been less than five of any species of Wagtail anywhere in Santa Cruz County that have ever been seen. This particular bird has been very cooperative and hundreds of people have seen it now, which is great.” 

The Audubon Society on its website said the bird “enters North America only as a scarce and local summer resident of western Alaska.”

The white wagtail is a small passerine bird in the family Motacillidae, which also includes pipits and longclaws. Besides its striking black and white plumage, another sure giveaway for recognizing the bird is in its name, wagtail: It commonly wags its 6-7 inch thin tail up and down (not back and forth, like a dog).

“For some reason, there have been more wagtails than ever before in the state this year, with something like seven birds reported,” Kemph said. “Typically, what happens is these Asiatic vagrants get lost, often while flying the Asian Peninsula. They can get disorientated—maybe a storm blew them off course—while they’re trying to fly south for winter.”

Kemph compared birding to treasure hunting.

“Anybody can spot a rare bird,” he said. “Anytime I go out birding I tell myself that I’m happy to just be able to be out in nature and to enjoy a walk, a river or the sea. But once in a while you come upon a rarity, which is certainly a treasure.”

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