A feeder spotting of a Western Meadowlark was a late addition to the Christmas Bird Count and probably the rarest bird ever seen on the annual count

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

It's likely the rarest bird ever seen on a Christmas Bird Count in Oxford.

The spotting of a Western Meadowlark – a bird more apt to be found, as the name suggests, in Western Canada and the United States – was a last-minute addition to the local results of the annual bird count.

“To find this bird was pretty neat, especially for Oxford County. It’s a real good sighting for our Christmas Bird Count,” said Richard Skevington, a longtime local birder who organizes the local count with his son each year.

Gail and Ted Donaldson first spotted the rare find near their home in Hickson in mid-December.

“We just thought ‘what is it?’ We’d never seen a bird like that before. We get a lot of birds, but not like that one,” said Gail Donaldson. “We got out our bird book out, and the closest we thought was a Meadowlark, but we weren’t sure.”

The couple called in Skevington for an expert opinion. On Christmas Day Skevington and his son Jeff, a research scientist, traipsed through the Donaldson’s yard to check out the special visitor.

“Just to look at this bird through binoculars, it was a Meadowlark, and that was as far as we could go,” Skevington said.

It’s the Eastern Meadowlark that is more likely to be found in Ontario, though still uncommon in Oxford.

“The Eastern Meadowlark is getting harder to find out here, because all their habitat has been destroyed. They’re a grassland bird, so they don’t do well with corn and soybeans,” Skevington said.

The two weren’t sure what bird, exactly, had taken up residence in the Donaldson’s yard. But thanks to a family trip to Colorado last April, where they saw Western Meadowlarks aplenty, they had an idea.

“They don’t sing this time of year, so there’s no call, no nothing (to distinguish it),” Skevington added.

They sent his photographs off to bird experts across Canada and the United States.

“The tail feathers, believe it or not, are the true indicator of the species…that was the giveaway that it was a Western Meadowlark and not an Eastern Meadowlark. And that’s what all the experts came back with,” Skevington said.

“Some of them were also talking about the streaking and the spotting on the sides, and the shape of the head, stuff like that. These are the guys that are really experts.”

It’s hard to know why the bird was so off course – Western Meadowlarks usually soak up the rays in Mexico and southern U.S. during the winter – though Skevington has a couple ideas.

“I’ve always had the supposition that these rare birds that show up, that they get caught in storms after they start their migration,” he said. “So if you get a bird that gets caught up in a storm like that, when the wind’s too strong, it (might) just come with the wind.”

The Western visitor hasn’t been spotted since the holidays, though Skevington and the Donaldsons have kept an eye out. And since this rare find was seen on the day of Christmas Bird Count, it can be included in Oxford’s results (feeder counts are added to “in the field” sightings).

“That’s what makes it so much fun doing these counts…you just go out and what you find is what you find,” Skevington said.

“If you don’t go and look, you’ll never see them.”