Archive for July, 2015

Easiest Life Bird Ever

         There are two classic tales in the world of fishing. The first is about the one that got away; the rare specimen a fisherman didn’t quite land, that managed to elude him. The second story, which may be more common, explains that you should have been here yesterday when everything was perfect, or at least much better.


            Similar stories are also common in the birding world. I’m sure you have often been told that you should have been here yesterday, or last week, or last month when there were so many warblers they were practically falling out of the trees. Or remember how last year’s migration was so much better.   Whenever serious birders gather there seems to be an intense competition as to which of them has participated in the most extreme chase while hunting down a rarity. It is common to hear a tale of a 5-6 hour pre-dawn drive in rain to look for a rare species. Or of waiting countless hours in sub-freezing temperatures for a reported bird to appear.

            The story of the chase is even more dramatic if, after overcoming incredible obstacles, the bird never appears. An epic adventure without a triumphant ending. I know of one birder from Wyoming who rushed cross-country to Nantucket Island off Rhode Island to see a Red Kite, a rare European raptor, only to arrive exact twenty minutes after the last time it was seen. These stories are the legends that build birding credibility. All serious birders can relate such tales of extraordinary adventure just to see a single bird. It almost seems that an easily found bird is not as memorable as one that requires super-human effort.

            Personally, I do not chase rare birds. At least not if it is too far away, or too inconvenient, or if I am busy organizing my sock drawer. However, if it is less than five to ten miles away and not more than a twenty minute drive, I might try.

A few years ago I learned about a rare bird, a northern wheatear, that met my criteria. It was seen at Croton Point Park a large park on the Hudson River. Wheatears breed in Greenland and the Arctic. Normally in fall they migrate across the Atlantic to Europe and then south to their wintering grounds in Africa. They are extremely rare in New York where I live. In fact, this was the first sighting reported in Westchester county in over 40 years. I had never seen one. It was nearby. I had free time. So why not?

            Checking my field guide, it did not seem like a spectacular bird, a basically nondescript sparrow-size bird. But it would be a life bird. So I went on the chase.

            The park is an easy twenty minute drive on a good road without much traffic. However, halfway into the drive a steady mist began, enough to turn the wipers on. Normally, I am a fair weather type of birder and don’t venture out in the rain. I debated turning around. But it was a not full rain and I was almost there, so I continued driving.

            Croton Point Park is a large park and I did not know the exact location within the park where the bird was seen. Peering through the wiper streaks, I wondered how I would find it, where to look. The mist was intensifying and I didn’t want to go scouting around for any length of time without a destination in mind. My plan was to look for a group of people standing around toting binoculars watching the bird and swapping stories. A rare bird attracts birders.

            As I pulled into a parking lot I scanned for eager birders but none were visible and there was only a handful of cars in the lot. Time for Plan B. I pulled into a parking spot to consider my next step. The gray sky and steady mist were not very inviting, especially since I didn’t know whether go left or right. Perhaps, the wisest choice might be to come back tomorrow when sunnier weather was forecasted.

            One last quick look around. Nothing. Then I noticed a small bird sitting atop the chain link fence ten feet directly in front of my car. It was the wheatear! Amazing. Grabbed my binoculars. Got a great look. Checked out the field marks. But only for sixty seconds before it flew off across a large stretch of water and disappeared. There was little hope of finding it again if I chased after it.

            A life bird! And I didn’t even get out of my car. I should have been excited, but I wasn’t. I should have opened the car door, stepped out, and performed the obligatory life bird dance but it was raining and I just wasn’t into it. Too easy. Only a brief glimpse. The whole outing was too short, taking less than thirty minutes. I recall thinking I was more excited when I identified my first chickadee decades ago even though this was a life bird. I don’t think I am getting jaded. Maybe there should be more to birding than just ticking off a new bird on a list. Don’t get me wrong. I did check off the wheatear – I’m not giving it back just because it was easy.

            The next day I did return to the park. The mist had lifted, the sun was peeking out, the weather was much improved and the expected clump of birders was there. And so was the bird, powerful scopes following its every movement. I didn’t get as close or get as good a view as the previous day. But I enjoyed it more. Was it sharing the joy with fellow birders? Was yesterday too easy? Is a good chase story essential to fully appreciate a new life bird?

            Now, when my birding buddies begin to spin their tales of difficult chases, I smile and tell them my story of the wheatear, my easiest life bird ever.   They are not impressed. To a true believer, a good life bird requires a good chase story. So I don’t tell them that my favorite sighting ever was the red-headed woodpecker I saw in my backyard. A life bird is a life bird, even if it is easy.

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