November 14 was just another work day for contractor Jody Wells when he swung by Summit Park Reservoir on a break between stops.
The Brentwood Bay local, who has been a passionate birder for several years, was looking for a trio of redhead ducks that were spotted in the area.
“I decided I would take a bit of time and run up and have a look,” Wells said in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
“I spotted the three redheads, and there was another duck that I perceived as a redhead, and I could see it was feeding really actively, with some ring-necked ducks. Every time it came up it was only for a couple of seconds at most.”
He couldn’t get a good look at the duck because it kept diving underwater repeatedly, but he managed to grab some shots of it by poking his camera through the chain-link fence.
Wells says he normally waits to get home to upload his photos to his computer, but during another break he took a peek at the high-resolution photos on his camera.
What he saw gave him a shock.
“I just had a moment of ‘oh my, is that really what I see on the back of my camera?'”
Wells had just photographed a common pochard, a species of duck whose name belies its extreme rarity in North America.
Common pochards have never been spotted in British Columbia, and two previous sightings in Quebec were dismissed as it could not be determined if the duck was captive or not. This means Wells’ discovery marks the first wild sighting in all of Canada.
Melissa Hafting, a Vancouver-based birder who runs the British Columbia Field Ornithologists Association’s Young Birder Program and the blog BC Rare Bird Alert, says word has been sent to the BC Bird Records Committee to verify the find.
“I see no reason they would reject this record,” Hafting told Victoria Buzz. “It doesn’t seem to look captive, it doesn’t come to people.”
She says common pochards have been found in the Aleutian Islands, not too far from their native Siberia, but appearances in North America are far less common.
This is all thrilling news to Wells, who says he ordinarily just looks for local species on the Island.
“I would say five years ago, before I became really intentional, sorting out the different species, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now,” he said.
“Now I know that it’s notable, and that’s fun. It’s fun that a lot of people have gotten to see it.”
The find is even attracting international attention from the birding community, but with COVID-19 restrictions many are unable to pay a visit to the Island to catch a glimpse of the common pochard.
Hafting says it isn’t all bad news with the pandemic, though. She says she has seen a large uptick in interest in birding from locals around the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island, and the hobby itself is a COVID-friendly way to be active.
“Normally, birding in COVID is quite easy, you can bird alone, with your family,” said Hafting.
“It’s easy to space out on dikes, on trails. Now people are birding like crazy just to keep mentally well.”
Wells agrees. The birder says getting out into nature and looking at wildlife from a safe distance is a great de-stresser and a way to challenge your mind.
He also says that his passionate hobby is one he shared with his parents, and especially his mother, who passed away in February.
“Both my mom and dad very much encouraged me in birdwatching and wildlife appreciation,” said Wells.
“It was wonderful to share all of the finds that we had back and forth.”
His parents, a pair of small-town Saskatchewanians, occasionally visited Wells for the odd trip to Mt. Tolmie. His mother used the same model camera as Wells does to photograph wildlife.
Wells says she was ecstatic after spotting a white-faced ibis, a rare bird that now decorates her headstone.
He says she would have been thrilled to hear about his historic sighting.
“Dad and I talk almost daily on the phone and our sightings of birds and other wildlife are often the topic of conversation,” Wells said.
“He has plans to get going and learn Mom’s camera in the coming months. She was really happy to have found those birds, and she would be even more happy about this.”