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Labrador birder discovers species never-before seen in Canada

Vernon Buckle of Forteau spotted a rare yellow-breasted bunting, never-before
seen in Canada, earlier this month. Buckle was named a Big Day Birding’s “Birder
of the Week” for the find. Submitted photo
Vernon Buckle of Forteau spotted a rare yellow-breasted bunting, never-before seen in Canada, earlier this month. Buckle was named a Big Day Birding’s “Birder of the Week” for the find. Submitted photo

Vernon Buckle spotted a yellow-breasted bunting in Forteau

FORTEAU, NL – It’s a rare occasion when a birdwatcher captures photographs of a species found for the first time in Canada.

That’s exactly what happened when Vernon Buckle of Forteau spotted a yellow-breasted bunting in his backyard last week.

Contacted by phone Oct. 24, Buckle said it was around supper time on Oct. 16 when he pulled into his driveway and noticed some birds enjoying the seed he’d put in his backyard.

“I can see one of my feeders from the end of my driveway,” he said. “I knew there was a flock of birds there on the ground – I go out every morning and put a cup of seed on the grass. I looked across the lawn I saw some birds, just pitched.”

The yellow-breasted bunting spotted grabbing a snack, with a dickcissel sitting behind it, captured with Vernon Buckle’s camera. Photo by Vernon Buckle

Buckle grabbed his binoculars and camera and went for a closer look.

“As I got half way across the lawn, I could see a bird with yellow on it, a dickcissel – I know the species.

“I made a few more steps and then I noticed this bird that I didn’t recognize. It had a yellow collar on its neck and a yellow breast. It was almost crouching low in the grass. I just thought it was another dickcissel,” Buckle said of his first reaction to the bird.

After zooming in further with his camera, he realized the bird had numerous differences from the dickcissel, which made him more inquisitive.

“I crawled along the ground until I got to a tree protecting the line of sight between me and the other birds. I got as close as I could, and grabbed a dozen or so photos.”

Buckle quickly forwarded the photos to some expert birder friends.

“And the rest is history,” he said, alluding to the attention his find has garnered over the past week.

Since capturing the images, Buckle has become quite popular among the birding community – in this country and beyond.

In his blog about Buckle’s find, American Birding Association editor and social media manager Nate Swick noted the yellow-breasted bunting is a widespread species, breeding across the entirety of Russia and wintering in southern China and southeast Asia.

It was once thought to be quite common but has, in just the last decade, been discovered to be under intense pressure from hunting and trapping on its wintering grounds, and is declining rapidly.

A group of birding enthusiasts run by a birder in New Brunswick – found on Facebook under “Big Day Birding” – named Buckle its Birder of the Week.

The yellow-breasting bunting is an endangered species that has been heavily hunted in China. This is the first time it has been spotted in Canada. Experts
speculate it came to Labrador across from the North Pole. Photo by Vernon Buckle

“This Chinese passerine also represents a first for eastern North America, with previous records found in western Alaska – a mind-boggling bird,” the group noted
in adding photos of Vernon and the bird to its Facebook page.

Flight path

Buckle said there are several theories about the flight path the bunting could have taken to end up in Forteau.

“It may have come through the route over the North Pole. Bruce Mactavish came up with the theory,” Buckle said of the well-known local bird expert.

Other birders agree with Mactavish, Buckle said.

Buckle said he isn’t sure if the bird can survive in North America. What he does know, however, is that it wouldn’t survive a winter in Labrador.

The last time Buckle spotted the yellow-breasted bunting was on Oct. 19. Even though the bunting has likely moved on, Vernon Buckle has described the
experience of finding it as the most exciting of his birding experience thus far. Photo by Vernon Buckle

The last time he saw the bird was supper time Oct. 19. While there had been little wind the previous four days, Buckle said, the wind did pick up that evening.

Even though the bunting has likely moved on, Buckle said spotting such a rare bird has been exciting. A birder for about four years, he said, this latest find has been
the highlight of his birding experience thus far.

“Not too many people get to add a new species to the Canadian record,” he said.

danette@nl.rogers.com

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