A Rare visitor comes on wings of fate

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A bird rarely seen on the North American continent is holding court in a Fairbanks backyard, and state bird-watchers are all atwitter.

The Eurasian bullfinch, a 6-inch black and white finch with peachy chest feathers and a stubby little bill, is native to much of the world, from Europe to Japan. But once in a great while, one with bad radar or anti-social proclivities ends up in Alaska and word goes out.

Birdwatchers from as far away as New Jersey got on planes, and the people whose feeder the bird was using finally stopped answering the phone.

In 130 years, there have been fewer than two-dozen sightings of the bullfinch in North America, said Dan Gibson, bird collection manager at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. All of them have been in Alaska.

Most sightings have been off Western Alaska, on the Pribilofs, St. Lawrence Island and the outer Aleutians. The last sighting was in 1992.

The Fairbanks finch, which appears to be a female, is probably from Kamchatka, Russia, said Tim Schantz, a professional bird guide who dashed to Fairbanks twice this past week for a chance to see it.

''I flew up Tuesday, ... but I missed the bird. So I came back. Then I heard the bird was seen Wednesday. I was just sick. I went to my boss and said, 'There's this bullfinch up in Fairbanks.' He let me take the time off.

''Then the earthquake hit and I thought, 'Oh my God, this flight's not going to go.' So I canceled the ticket, rented a car and drove all night. I was there at sunrise Thursday and saw the bird.''

Fifteen people showed up at the same time, Schantz said Friday. ''The weekend is probably going to be pretty busy.''

Serious birdwatchers keep lists of the different species they have seen, and those who can afford it have been known to fly across a continent just to catch a glimpse of a new one. A few years ago, 129 people showed up to see a Siberian accentor in Anchorage.

The first recorded sighting of an Eurasian bullfinch was in 1867 in Nulato, Schantz said.

A pro like Schantz, or a serious birder like Anchorage lister Dave DeLap, has 600 and 700 names on his list. DeLap has recorded 208 species in the Anchorage Bowl alone, and 67 in his own backyard. He caught the 7:30 a.m. plane to Fairbanks Thursday, spent 19 minutes in the bullfinch's presence, and was back in Anchorage by noon.

Neither man took a picture of the finch.

With DeLap it was a question of courting bad luck. ''If I take my camera to see a rare bird, it never comes.''

For Schantz, ''It's more just having experience with the bird and learning about it.'' The Fairbanks finch, for instance, ''has real deliberate movements. This bird hasn't got the jerky movements of redpolls and pine siskins,'' two other finches.

''It is a striking bird,'' Schantz said. ''Even a non-birdwatcher would go up and say, 'Wow! That's neat.' ''

The Fairbanks finch appears to be all alone, lost like the Starship Voyager in an alien quadrant. ''It's on the wrong continent,'' said Gibson. ''But it has perfectly adequate habitat and is adapted to cold weather.''

People who have seen the bird say it seems healthy. However, it doesn't have anyone to love.

Birds can't mate across species, Gibson said. ''It probably will never reconnect with the gene pool it comes from. It will spend the rest of its life wandering around the forests of Alaska.''

The finch won't worry about mating until spring, Gibson said. ''Birds don't have to deal with that year-round like some other organisms.''

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