The Bird Meme: Day 1

I don't know about you, but I really found a lot of value in the last month's approach to blogging. Daily writing is almost always a good spur to creativity, and I find it even more helpful to have a prompt; it spares me the agony of deciding what to write about, and it usually keeps me heading in a single direction (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) rather than writing whatever I can get down and only seeing its ultimate direction after a few hundred words. Basically, using a meme helps me work through a lot of the distractions to which I'm often prone.

Trouble is, there aren't that many topics I want to write about for a month. Music is one of them, obviously, a topic I know from a variety of angles, some professional, and one on which I've had passionate opinions for decades. What else could I talk about at such length?

People who've heard me opining in depth on topics such as geography, the Bill of Rights, or human sexual development are already laughing at the idea that I could have trouble picking a topic, but the truth is that my knowledge is generally broader than it is deep. I know a little about a lot (and almost nothing about even more). But what do I know a lot about? Well, my academic training lies in English and education (though I took almost enough history for a minor--but UNC didn't offer minors in 1985), and the jobs I've worked have fallen almost exclusively in those realms. I've also been paid to make fast food, supervise day campers, wash dishes, serve ice cream, sell books, comics & records, play music, and supervise extracurricular activities ranging from rock climbing to soccer to theater to debate, but do I really know enough about them to sustain anyone's interest? What do people really ask me about.


It should have been obvious from the first, but the obvious has been known to elude me on occasion. There is a subject I've studied at length since my childhood, written about professionally, and spoken about on radio, on television, and in front of live audiences. I even took a sabbatical from my day job so I could go learn more about it from the experts. 

Thus, for the next 30 days, this is where I'll be telling you everything I know (and a few things on which I'm willing to make wild speculations) about birds. Like I've never done THAT before.

Day 1: The best bird you saw last year.

Glaucous Gull

I keep track of my sightings on a variety of lists: a life list, a year list (since 2004), and typically a trip list when I go to a new place. Ordinarily I will write down only the most recent sighting for that list--I didn't record every single House Sparrow I saw in 2014, for example--unless there's something especially noteworthy about a particular sighting. I don't log all the Eastern Towhees I hear in the shrubs across the street when I walk to my car in the morning, but I certainly recorded the quartet of Barred Owls that Kelly and I spotted late one night while walking the dog.

Looking back at the last 12 months' worth of listed birds, then, I'm picking through nearly 150 different species. The single largest chunk of them were logged on a late-April count I did with my friend Lee down near Williamsburg, VA, but I had also had a very profitable trip to Virginia Beach with Tom Parker a few weeks earlier. There were some gems in those lists. Williamsburg gave me my first White-crowned Sparrow in several years, one we spotted hopping around near an odd-looking sparrow that caught my eye and eventually revealed itself as a Savannah. We also had a great day for warblers, logging Yellow, Northern Parula, Prothonotary, and Yellow-throated, as well as Yellow-breasted Chat. We even got a Veery and a brief glimpse of a Red-headed Woodpecker. 

Tom and I hit the jackpot on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, parking on the first island and scanning the rocks for waterfowl and shorebirds. We saw a surprising number of Common Loons, as well as a Horned Grebe, but our two best birds were close in and easy to spot: a flock of five Brants swam just off the rocks of the island, giving me by far the best look I've ever had at the species. (My two prior views were across a huge marsh at n New Jersey and down from a 200-foot cliff in Seattle.) I also helped Tom get a lifer on the rocks: Purple Sandpiper, which I'd seen only once before, on a rocky piling off Cape May in 2011.

Heck, I was even proud of a solo ID I made over Thanksgiving. We were celebrating with a family vacation to Emerald Isle, NC, and early one morning I went out onto the beach to catch the sunrise (and any birds that might be similarly inclined to catch it.) Presented with an enormous flock of gulls standing to the east of me, I remembered the sage advice first presented to me by Tom Parker, but reiterated by experts like Kevin McGowan and Steve Kress: bird every bird. Most of them were the expected winter-plumage Laughing Gulls, but a few larger birds stood around amongst them. I'd seen Herrings and Greater Black-backs over the past few days, but I dutifully looked over the flock trying to match bills, legs, and backs to the expected species--and got something unexpected:

Just left of center you'll see the unusual suspect: a white-headed dark-backed gull with legs of a definitely yellow cast. Herrings and Greater Black-backs have pink legs, and the back on this bird was definitely too dark for a Herring anyway. This, then, was a Less Black-backed Gull, only the second I'd ever seen, and the first that wasn't on the Avon River in Bath--a definite candidate for Best Bird of the Year.

The true best of the bunch, though, was a sighting that was elevated mostly because of the target: a bird I'd never seen before. Reports of young gulls flocking with other species are a fairly regular feature of Virginia Rare Bird Alerts, but when those reports indicate that the flock is less than a mile from your house, you take notice. This one placed the flock near Brown's Island, just down the James from us, and better still, it was centered around a spot that was easily visible from RVA's newest public structure, the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge. 

The TPot, as it has inevitably come to be called, is a pedestrian bridge, so if you want to haul your spotting scope onto its span in the early hours of a frigid February morning, the only real danger you face is wind chill. It also provided an excellent view of the flock's roost: a series of ruined towers and pilings remaining from one of Richmond's numerous fallen bridges. In the clear morning light, there was really only one field mark worth looking for at this distance: a big white back.

We're so used to thinking of gulls as white birds--remember Watership Down?--that we sometimes forget that most have backs of grey or black. That was certainly clear to me as I scanned the birds squatting atop the northernmost piling, a great sheared-off chunk of brick-red stone looming a good thirty feet over the water. Most had backs of slate-grey (the Herrings) or nearly pitch (the Greater Black-backs), with a few immature birds fudging the differences between them, but before long, I was startled by the sight of a gull that was almost pure white in the morning light. In truth, a young Glaucous Gull has a pearly pale-grey back, but its contrast with its fellows was as clear as, well, black and white. The dark-tipped pink bill sealed the ID, and my life list was longer by one species--the only species I've added since my return from Seattle in the spring of 2016. 

And that's what it takes to be the best bird of the year.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 10, 2017 9:55 AM.

The Music Meme: Finale was the previous entry in this blog.

The Bird Meme: Day 2 is the next entry in this blog.

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