Jenafor Azure was out for a drive with her husband in Churchill, Man., over the weekend when she spotted some unusual wildlife.
June in Churchill presents excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities for bird watchers at the height of migration season. Droves of ecotourists head up north at this time of year to do just that.
But one thing most Churchill tourists will never see — certainly something Azure never expected to see — is a slender, prehistoric-looking bird commonly found in the Eurasian boreal forests of Russia and Asia that can grow to be over four feet tall.
"I've never seen anything like it. It's a really magnificent bird," Azure said Sunday after the sighting. "At first I thought the zoo had lost a bird or something!"
What Azure said she spotted, and what many people in Churchill have since ventured out in search of, was a Eurasian crane.
Christian Artuso with Bird Studies Canada said that while the crane species has made rare appearances on the West and East Coasts of North America before, Azure's photos represent the first known sighting of the species in Manitoba history, and one of only a few across Canada.
"The photos are very convincing," said Artuso, adding he's confirmed the sighting with his colleagues Bonni Chartier, a wildlife tour operator in Churchill who has seen the bird first-hand, and Daniel Gibson, a biologist at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
"Their provenance often gets discussed, actually. There's some possibility of birds that have escaped captivity as well, but a bird that shows up in a place like Churchill is not likely to have come from captivity."
The bird in Azure's photo has been chumming around with a group of sandhill cranes in the Granary Ponds near the Churchill River since at least Saturday. The fact that she picked the bird out of a crowd of sandhills is impressive, Artuso said.
"You could easily overlook that bird in a large flock of sandhill cranes," he said.
Sandhill cranes and Eurasian cranes have a similar shape, but the species have different coloured plumage that sets them apart. Both have splotches of bright red on their heads, but where the sandhill is an overall duskier colour, the Eurasian has whitish feathers and a black collar running up the front of its neck.
The species was first sighted in North America in 1957. A few Eurasian cranes have been spotted along the East and West Coasts since then. They've also appeared in Quebec. At least one was seen in British Columbia and three in Alberta, Artuso said.
Who knows how it got here
There may be no single explanation for how or why the bird is here in Manitoba. It could go down as just another funny one-off migratory mystery. But Artuso is studying the bird's plumage in Azure's photos hoping to find clues that could explain roughly where in Russia or Asia the bird came from.
"It might be possible to comment on the origin based on subspecies. There are some subtle differences between birds in different parts of their range. That kind of subspecific variation might give you a hint as to whether it's from the east or the west."
There are subspecies of sandhill cranes found in Russia and Asia, and the two species often share the same marsh habitats. It could be that this lone Eurasian crane buddied up with sandhill cranes in a place like Siberia before the entire group flew over to North America, Artuso said.
While the odds of this particular bird landing in Manitoba are really low, Churchill has a reputation as a rare-bird magnet.
"Birds do get blown off course and end up in strange places," said Artuso, adding the list of species seen in Churchill over the years is quite impressive.
Sage Thrasher and Rock Wren are a couple birds that have no business being in Churchill. The same goes for Yellow-bellied loon and Ruff. And yet, they've all been found there in recent years.
Winnipeg has had its fair share of oddities, too. Last year a rare species from the southern U.S., the Mississippi kite, set up shop with its partner just off Wellington Crescent and drew loads of binocular-toting birders out to the area trying to sneak a glimpse. Artuso said at least one of them is back again this year.
Back up in Churchill, Artuso said locals are keeping their eyes on the strange bird. No one knows if it will stick around. Either way, the sighting is one for the books.