Monday, October 4, 2010

Nemesis Birds

Every serious birder has them. The ones that got away. Feathered ghosts that just seem to slip through your fingers (binoculars?) when you try to grasp them. You drive 5 hours on a moments notice, only to find out your quarry has eluded you by mere moments. A friend swears he knows a place where you can't fail to see one, and in doing so, ensures that you will strike out.

I'm talking about those most desired birds that you just can't seem to find. I've got some rare ones and some more common ones that have just fallen through the cracks. I've haven't really tried many good spots for Jaegers, so they don't really count, though one of these days I'd like to see one, but Thayer's Gull, on the other hand, is a true nemesis. It's not that Thayer's Gull is a very striking bird. It's just the opposite; even experts have trouble telling them apart from Herring Gulls, of which I've seen thousands. It's that, despite many hours of study and fruitless search, I've never seen one. Or more accurately, I've never identified one. I even had a chance in Washington, when a friend offered to try to point one out, but I was more concerned with the Black-tailed Gull in the flock, an asian mega-rarity, figuring I could find the relatively common Thayer's Gulls at my leisure. One of these days....

Two more western birds that will forever haunt me until I see them are Rock Sandpiper and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. Rock Sandpiper was almost a given on my 11 day long, 1,000+ mile roadtrip from the Olympic Peninsula to Ventura, CA. After all, with hundreds of miles of rocky coastline for them to inhabit, how could I miss them. At the first few prospective spots, I didn't worry, I just figured I'd see them at the next stop. After about 10 tries, including some stops just to scan rocky coastlines for shorebirds, I was getting desperate. There was one last hope, a slightly out of range bird spotted in Santa Cruz. I couldn't get exact directions to the bird, though, so I didn't have high hopes, and since it was a few days away, I just forgot about it. Until I happened to be driving by Santa Cruz and decided to stop and watch the sunset from the first beach I could find. Which I did, and ended up seeing the fabled "green flash" as the last ray of sun disappears into the Pacific. At which time I realized where I was, and frantically started searching the rocks for suspicious looking sandpipers. No Rock Sandpipers, but I did manage to see my Life Wandering Tattler, so I guess it wasn't a total wash.

Black-capped Gnatchaters are another story. When planning my epic SE Arizona roadtrip, they weren't really high on my list of must-see birds. They look almost exactly like Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, with only slight variations in bill size, tail and voice. Only the breeding males have the namesake black caps, and they don't necessarily have those the time of year I was going to be there. On top of which, they're quite rare, only breeding in a few locations in Arizona. So I figured I'd leave them be in favor of easier quarry. Until I ran into another traveling birder who offered to show me around some of the best birding spots, and helped me identify some of the harder Arizonan specialties. Turns out, one of his target birds for the trip was Black-capped Gnatcatcher. We'd heard of a few spots they'd been seen, and I'd planned on visiting those spots anyway, so I figured it was a win-win situation, after all, 2 sets of eyes are better than one. First try, we produced about a dozen Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and 0 black-caps. Next try, we upped it to about 2 dozen blue-gray and still 0 black-caps. Oh well, they are quite rare, so maybe we were just in the wrong spot. We made plans to try again tomorrow, and went back to more leisurely birding. That night we learned that 2 black-caps had been reported at the exact location we scoured, less than an hour after we were there. The next day, we spent 3 hours strafing a large patch of mesquite they were known to breed in, and at which they had been reported just the day before, with no luck. We saw dozens of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a few Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, but no Black-capped Gnatcatchers. At which point we concluded that Black-capped Gnatcatchers didn't exist, and all other birders claiming to see them were just in on the practical joke.

My current nemesis is the Connecticut Warbler. A shy, uncommon warbler of dense bogs, fall migration is just about the only time you can hope to see one in the Northeast. So it's become my goal this fall to hunt one down. So far, no luck, and time isn't on my side. Maybe next year, my elusive quarry. That's what makes birding so enticing, the constant thrill of the hunt.