Perfect Birding

Birding is, as most birders can attest, a highly variable experience. Moments of success are accompanied by moments of frustration, and excitement rides shotgun with drudgery on just about every outing. But every once in a while, a birder gets a glimpse of something pure and lovely--something perfect. Today, I got that glimpse.

It began yesterday, when two of my bird-minded WFS colleagues, Peter Aleksiewicz and Wallace Hornady, told me about some recent sightings. Pete was hosting a quartet of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at his home feeder, a development which filled him with no small amount of glee, and Wallace had come across a flock of Bobolinks, a life bird for him, while walking around the lake on our campus. Both of these are birds I see only rarely--in fact, I had come across Bobolinks exactly twice in my life when I got Wallace's email--so I made plans to get out and look for them at the earliest opportunity.

That opportunity was made more opportune during my lunch hour, when I discovered that I had a package at the post office. When I broke it open at 12:15, I was delighted to discover that it was a purchase I had made with the second half of my book advance: a brand-new pair of binoculars. For the last decade, I've relied on my Steiner Firebirds, a gift from my dad, and one that has served me well; with their UV-and-glare-resistant red lenses, the Steiners have given me reliable viewing in conditions ranging from desert to seacoast to forest, rain or shine. The only drawback is their power; at 8x30, they magnify images only eight times, and the 30mm lenses are relatively small, letting in less light than most high-end optics do, and thus providing a slightly inferior image. They're still great binoculars, mind you, and I love them, but as my eyes have gotten older and weaker, I reasoned it was time to upgrade to something with more magnification and more light.

Using Ken Rosenberg's heartfelt recommendation from Living Bird as my guide, I had therefore ordered a pair of Vanguard Endeavor ED 10.5x45 optics, and I was even able to find them for less than the $399 list price. Now they were in my hands at last. Attaching the straps, I took them out for a quick lunchtime field test near the school's barns, getting good long-range looks at a female Northern Flicker, a vocal Eastern Meadowlark, and a couple of nimble young Tree Swallows giving their new flight feathers a workout. Yes, I felt sure, these binocs could do the job--but I'd have to wait until class was done to give them a real shakedown.

Once the bell rang, I drove quickly around to Pete's house and parked on the dirt road out front. Sure enough, along with the healthy population of American Goldfinches, the feeder bore one large brown bird with an oversized pale bill: the female RBG. I thought for a minute about hanging around to catch a glimpse of the male--certainly a more colorful sight--but decided I should get myself out of my work clothes and into something more suitable for a muddy pasture before I hit the lakeshore.

A little after 4:00, I pulled my car up behind the strip of trees that separates our cornfields from the lake, slung the Vanguards over my neck, and followed the path down to the waterside. Off to my right was a lone student, idly casting his fishing line, and a single Canada Goose patrolled the center of the lake. I headed counterclockwise, toward one of the as-yet-unoccupied Wood Duck houses. The lake is only three years old, and has been stocked with fish for less time than that, so its ecology is still somewhat in flux, but Woodies have definitely made occasional appearances, and I have confidence that they'll be breeding there soon. What suddenly caught my eye, however, was another bird altogether, one that walked rapidly up the bent trunk of a sapling arching into the water: a  Green Heron, the numerous white streaks on its neck displaying its youth. It was close enough that I needed no magnification, but through the Vanguards every detail was crystal-clear, from the chestnut neck to the glossy green back to the gnarled orange legs.

As I circled the lake, the heron chose to light in a nearby tree, along with a companion, and another Canada curled protectively around what I can only assume were its eggs down near the shoreline. Red-winged Blackbirds were sailing in and out of the tall grass beyond the fenceline, occupying posts from time to time in order to show off their brilliant epaulets and warble their rattling calls. With the added magnification I was even able to see a few birds on the far side of the lake: an Eastern Meadowlark, its brilliant yellow chest glowing in the sun, and a small shorebird of indeterminate species. Turkey Vultures soared in the overcast sky, and the far end of the lake was overflown by springtime's usual mixture of Common Grackles and European Starlings; all in all, a beautiful day to be outdoors, let alone with a new set of optics, but not quite perfect. Not yet.

Approaching the lake's feeder streams, I noticed another little shorebird by the waterside. All I could really see was a brownish back and whitish underside, and I didn't see any of the telltales shown by the Spotted Sandpiper, one of which I'd seen a few days ago on the Rapidan River. There was no sign of orange on its long bill, no smudge of white on the shoulder, no thrush-like spots on the breast, and certainly no teetering of the tail end. Not big enough for a yellowlegs, not tiny enough for a peep, it just sat there, waiting for me to get close enough to justify a panic, at which point it launched itself into the air and took a stiff-winged flight to the lake's far side. A second bird joined it, showing off white on the tail, and the two landed on the shore close to a meadowlark, providing an extraordinarily helpful size comparison, but even with my new 10.5x magnification, I knew I'd have to get closer if I hoped for an identification.

The far end of the lake yielded some beautiful birds, though: a male Cardinal glowed against the deep green of a cedar, and a Song Sparrow hopped up another cedar's trunk until it revealed itself on a high branch and launched into its titular song. Turning back toward the lake, I was just in time to see a slim dark bird fly into the treetops over the stream, and I immediately cursed my position: the bird was almost directly between me and the haze-shrouded sun, which meant I was likely to get a look at its silhouette and not much else... but wait a minute. I had new lenses. 45-millimeter lenses, providing fifty percent more light than I was used to. I might actually be able to see some field marks, even if the treetop was totally backlit. I turned the focus wheel, a sensitive device that I had already started to love, and there was the bird, its chestnut breast and shoulders contrasted against the black head and wings: an Orchard Oriole, only my second of the year. Perfection? No, not yet.

I reached the far end and began working my way down the shore, but now that I knew there were likely to be at least two shorebirds to see, I stopped and spent a few minutes flipping through the sandpiper section of my Sibley guide. These two were certainly giving away few clues, but I took what I could from Sibley, stowed the book in my pack, and scanned the water's edge. Sure enough, there was one of the birds--and now I finally had a field mark: a white eye-ring. Within seconds it was in the air, giving a loud "PWEET!" and wobbling over the surface, but doing so provided me a second field mark: a tail with white streaks radiating from a central black band. I couldn't be sure yet, but that looked to me like the back end of a Solitary Sandpiper.

I still wasn't sure, though. I've seen Spotted Sandpipers a number of times, yes, but when they're not in full breeding plumage, they're not all that different from the birds I'd just seen. Except maybe for the tail. What the heck did the tail look like, though? I continued down the trail beside the water, trying to remember, but for the life of me I couldn't recall anything about the Spotted's tail.

It was at that point that a brownish sandpiper sailed up from the water's edge and headed for the far shore. Its wobbly flight was odd, but not the same kind of odd as the previous birds' had been. And its tail was completely brown. The bird I needed to see for comparison's sake had, almost immediately, been presented for my viewing. And when a second bird flew up, sailed down the waterline, and turned its bill enough to show its orange color in the sun, I knew: these two were Spotted Sandpipers. The first two were Solitaries.

Things were nearing perfection, but there was still the lingering matter of the Bobolinks. I had seen no sign of them--not one of the blackbirds that had sailed by had shown the merest hint of a buttery yellow nape, nor had any white rumps or shoulder patches appeared. The distinctive call of the Bobolink was also absent, and it was one I knew I could recognize, thanks to my Spring Field Ornithology course at Cornell; there we were trained to detect Bobolinks by listening for the telltale blips and tweets of R2-D2.

I hadn't heard any such robotic twittering as I crossed the earthen dam that forms the lake, but I was at least able to see a few Barn Swallows sailing gracefully overhead. A few of them had even settled to face me from the electrical wires that run past the far end of the dam, but their acrobatic flight always makes it hard to pay much attention to them when they're not airborne. As I approached the dam's end, however, I caught a faint blip-tweet-beep sound at the edge of hearing--Bobolink? Not that I could see, despite a thorough scan of the tall grass beyond the power lines. Nor did the sound repeat itself as I approached. There was simply no sign of them. Sighing, I turned my new lenses back to the only birds in sight--the swallows on the wire. And it was then that I finally realized they weren't swallows. They were facing away from me. What I'd assumed to be the Barn Swallow's ruddy throat was actually the back of the bird's head. It was the yellow nape of a male Bobolink.

Perfection? Damn near. It is rare and wonderful to be told that an unusual bird was seen in a particular area and actually manage to find it for yourself. Nowadays birders can rely on the internet for rare bird alerts, but even when they come, there is no guarantee at all that they will help you see the bird you're after. Today, however, had given me that experience twice. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak had appeared as promised, and now I had my Bobolinks. Moreover, I'd gotten a wonderful look at two first-of-the-year Green Herons, not to mention a variety of other interesting species. There was only one more thing to check on.

As Jack Connor wrote in The Complete Birder, "Warblers and hawks can be exasperating; shorebirds can be ego-crushing." Sandpipers as a group are often similar enough that a birder may not be entirely sure which ones he has seen. This is the case for me, certainly; I was certain of a few species on my life list: the Spotted, Purple, Upland, Least, and White-rumped Sandpiper were all birds I knew I'd seen, but I couldn't say for sure what I suspected until I opened the file and ran a search for "solitary" on my life list. Only then, with no hits, could I say what I'd hoped to say: the Solitary Sandpiper was a new life bird.

So: told by friends to search for two birds, I'd found them both. I'd gotten a first-of-the-year bird. I'd viewed birds of brilliant color and fascinating habits. I'd tested my optics for distance viewing and for observation in difficult light. And when I'd needed a comparison to nail down an identification, I'd gotten the exact bird I needed to show the necessary contrast. All within six hours of first looking through my new binoculars.

Is that truly a perfect birding experience? Maybe. Maybe not.

But if it's not, I'm damn sure not going to ASK for perfection.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 7, 2014 7:59 PM.

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