The Bird Meme: Day 27

Day 27: The most surprising sighting of a bird

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Some entries for this meme are real puzzlers. Some are not. This would be one of the latter.

It's not that I haven't had plenty of surprises when birding. Finding a Canada Goose nesting in a hollow tree? Surprising. Spotting my first Chuck Will's Widow perched about a foot off the ground three feet from a boardwalk in Corkscrew Swamp? Unexpected. Encountering an American Woodcock on the ground outside the downtown Richmond SPCA? Unusual.

But when it comes to the most surprising sighting, I'm going to have to go with one that ticks off all the boxes on the checklist:

1. Preparation: if I'm outside with a pair of binoculars, I'm not necessarily counting on a good bird, but I'm clearly out there looking for a bird of some kind. A truly surprising sighting would therefore have to come in a situation where I'm neither seeking birds nor equipped to spot them at any distance.

2. Location: after I've been birding in an area for a while, I have a tendency to assume that any bird I see will be a local. It doesn't take long; after I'd been in Seattle for a few days, I was ready to assume any gull I spotted was a Glaucous-winged, and in the majority of cases, I was right; I was similarly inclined to assume any big black bird was an American Raven after spending only a day or two in the Four Corners region. In short, if a bird's going to shock me, it's going to have to appear in a place outside its usual range.

3. Probability: a surprise bird has to be a matter of long odds in every way. The bird has to be in an unlikely place and an unlikely time, sure, but the bird is not the only element to consider here; we must also consider the birder. If I'm in a place I frequent, only the bird has to do anything unusual, but if I'm passing through an area I rarely go, the improbability of the bird's presence is multiplied by the improbability of my own. It's not just a flying arrow hitting a stationary target, but an arrow hitting another arrow in midair.

And sure enough, my Most Surprising Sighting qualifies in all these ways. I saw the bird when I wasn't birding, or even remotely prepared to bird; I was driving home from helping a friend move, with neither optics nor a field guide to help me see or identify anything I saw, and my mind was on the fact that Kelly and I would be celebrating our 14th anniversary that night. The bird was nearly a thousand miles outside its usual range, having decided to spend the summer nesting with its partner in a habitat far away from home, and I had seen no rare bird alerts that might have notified me about its presence. And finally, I was taking a road I had never taken before, curious about whether it might save me a few minutes returning from my friend's new place; the bird never returned to that nesting place after summer's end, and I'm not sure I ever drove that road again, turning our meeting into a singular event indeed.

I can also report that the silhouette of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is equally singular. Though I had never seen one in the flesh, I knew exactly how it was shaped, thanks to many years of flipping through Peterson, and when I spotted that shape on a barbed-wire fence along Virgina Route 647 just north of the Rapidan River between Unionville and Orange, I had no doubt about the bird's identity. What I had significant doubt about was whether I had hallucinated it or not. The cloud of dust I kicked up from hard braking on the dirt road threatened to obscure the flycatcher entirely, but fortunately it hung around long enough for me to see it again, confirm the silhouette, take note of the pearly-grey body, and spot the salmon-pink wing linings when it took off to fly to the nest it had built on a nearby pylon. Against all odds, and all logic, I was celebrating my anniversary with a life bird from the Great Plains.

I finally spotted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in its native habitat almost exactly eleven years later, when my father and I were spending a night in Emporia, Kansas, on the way to Denver. It was still a beautiful bird, and a treat to list once more, but there's no question that Sighting #2 did not--could not--live up to Sighting #1. Of all the improbable moments I have enjoyed since I took up birding, that July afternoon ranks as the most improbable, and one of the most delightful.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 18, 2017 4:40 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 26 was the previous entry in this blog.

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