A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.
You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?
Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?
If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?
For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.
Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.
All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.
Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.
I don’t like gambling.
Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.
The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.
Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.
Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.
I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.
I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.
Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.
Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.
The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.
Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.
I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.
For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.
It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.
Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.
I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.
Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?
The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.
A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.
I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.
The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.
His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.