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Feathered vagabond makes birders’ ‘life lists’

This tropical kingbird, native to Central and South America, was photographed in White City this month by local resident Randy Young. [Photo by Randy Young]

WHITE CITY — Randy Young stood at the gateway to Denman Wildlife Area’s Hall Tract, grousing to himself that his birder buddy was an hour late.

Young spun to look at an array of birds that had swooped into the nearby willows and realized one of these things is not like the others.

One of these things doesn’t belong.

“This thing just flew up, landed in a tree,” Young says. “It just looked different.”

A little guy, with a bright yellow chest and longish beak roosting at the very top of a willow.

Young snapped a few photos of this Denman vagrant, then went home to check the Internet to identify what he saw.

Turns out the 60-year-old photographer and amateur birder from Central Point had landed the local life-list bird of a lifetime.

The tropical kingbird in Young’s picture snapped Nov. 6 is the first of this species ever chronicled in Jackson County, and publicity of this vagabond dweller of Central America set off a mini mob of regional birders flocking to Denman to life-list this wayward critter.

Young’s find was a verified first for Jackson County by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which oversees e-bird websites for birding discoveries throughout the world.

Once verified and posted, Young’s discovery of this wayward, big-bellied bird sent ornithophiles into a feathered frenzy.

“Word gets out in the birding community pretty quickly,” says Bob Hunter, a local birder who made a few pilgrimages to Denman’s Hall Tract to see the tropical kingbird.

It’s a sighting that would make one of the “lists” for which birders are famous, says Hunter, who organizes the annual Christmas Bird Count for Rogue Valley Audubon Society.

It could be on a “life list” of species seen by an individual birder in a lifetime. Or an Oregon list. Or perhaps just a Jackson County list. Or the trifecta.

“Birders,” Hunter says, “are into listing.”

Young, a 60-year-old welder and weekend shutterbug with an eye for birds, relegates his 162nd addition to the life list of bird species he’s photographed into the same category as gold prospecting in 1856 Jacksonville and Billy Joel managing to wed supermodel Christie Brinkley.

It’s just dumb luck,” Young says.

To birding purists, it’s Tyrannus melancholicus, a large tyrant flycatcher that is a member of the largest family of birds with flattened bills that prey on insects.

Tropical kingbirds mostly call parts of Central and much of South America home, but they normally venture as far north as Arizona and the Rio Grande area of Texas.

They top out at less than 8 inches long, with a forked brown tail and yellow breast. Males look enough like females that they can be hard to differentiate in the field, according to the Cornell lab.

They also emit a high-pitched twittering trill, like an elongate tree-e-e-e-e that ranges from melodic to fingernails on a chalkboard.

While it’s common to see birds from the Southern hemisphere along the Oregon Coast, just why this particular vagabond found its way to the White City industrial area is a mystery.

“There’s always a certain amount of vagrancy with birds,” Hunter says.

But even feathered vagrants seem to have an affinity for White City, with this singular tropical kingbird still sticking around despite this week’s temperatures in the low 20s and no spare puffy coat available.

When Young first discovered the bird, it was high atop some willows along a Denman path just down East Gregory Road from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office at the wildlife area.

It has since held court at Whetstone Pond adjacent to the ODFW office parking lot.

Whether the wayward bird comes to its senses and follows the winter RV crowd to Arizona remains to be seen.

“It seems to be hanging around,” Hunter says. “Hopefully, it’ll stick around for the Christmas Bird Count, so we can get a new species in it.”

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or by email at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.