There are avid birders who are dedicated chasers, scanning e-Bird and other internet sites daily in hopes of finding the unexpected rarity, possibly blown into a new territory during migration, or just confused, or possibly exerting some bird independence and desire to “see the world”. There are definitive definitions for a “rarity”, but I believe this a relative term determined separately for each birder by their level of experience and individual life list. When I was a novice I remember getting excited about a “new” bird almost daily while other birders passed over the same bird with nary a glance. But as one’s life list expands and the new sightings become less frequent it’s only natural to start chasing.
Hummingbirds other than Ruby-throateds are a rarity in the East, so I was excited when e-Bird announced a Broad-billed in Freedom Park Naples, Florida, five miles from my home. The bird had been seen for several days and the alert described the exact location “just off the path, next to the restroom, on the flowering shrub”. It could have said, “just look for the numerous anxious birders standing next to the bush with binoculars and cameras at the ready”. I’m always surprised when the bird shows up, right as advertised. My only regret was the lighting and photos were not perfect, but this was a successful chase.
The Florida Scrub Jay is an endangered bird, but not necessarily a true rarity in it’s ever shrinking territory in Florida. It prefers the sandy soil and Slash Pines of the central and eastern part of the state which required some traveling for me. The Lyonia Preserve in Deltona, Volusia County near Interstate 95 is one of the best places to find this bird and I was excited to schedule a stop there on our annual spring drive home. We are “snow birds”. Even the light rain would not deter me from looking for this rarity as my spouse slept patiently in the car. Amazed again, it appeared in the pines less than a quarter mile from the trail-head. I decided to play its call on my I-phone in hopes of getting a closer photo. As I watched through the optical finder the bird took off and surprised me by landing on my head! That accounts for the photo below as I twisted the camera for the documenting shot. After the jay flew away I put the hat on the ground, thinking that was the attraction, set up the perfect shot and lighting angle, and replayed the call. The jay returned, but this time landed on my bare head. Enough of this. I don’t think anyone would believe this story if I didn’t have the hat shot. I’ve since learned that this is a common behavior for this overly friendly and endangered bird.
Chasing rarities is occasionally a “wild goose chase”. It took me several visits to the Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda before I sighted a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, another threatened bird. If you go there look for a cavity in the tall long-leafed pines and the fresh dripping sap from the woodpecker holes, making the trees look like a giant waxy candle. That’s where the birds hang out. Sorry, I didn’t get a good photo of this rarity, but submit this other shot of a non-rarity woodpecker from S. Florida.
E-bird got me and a birding companion excited again with a sighting of Fulvous Whistling Ducks and a Cinnamon Teal in a flooded field waiting for drainage and planting, about 25 miles inland from our coastal home. We had just arrived and set up our scopes along the road when a white van pulled over and a large man with more gold in his teeth than I’ve ever seen walked over to check us out. He skeptically looked at the field when I told him I was watching birds, but was truly amazed and pleased when I showed him the wading birds through the scope. I think we may have created a new birder. The only down-side of his visit was the strong odor of his after-shave that lingered on my scope the rest of the day. Note-to-self: use that product sparingly.
Right after he pulled away a Collier County Sheriff’s car pulled up and the officer strolled over to also check us out. We were relieved when he said, “don’t worry boys, I’m just on break and need to stretch.” It was his accent that was rare–the most classic Queen’s, New York speech you’ve ever heard in S. Florida. He’d had enough of New York and had moved to paradise a few years earlier. He spent 30 minutes of his break with us talking NY Giant football, election politics, but there was little birding conversation. I snuck that shot of the Northern Harrier below, between police stories.
As for the bird rarities there, we never saw the Cinnamon Teal–the photo below was taken in Arizona. What we originally thought were Fulvous Whistling Ducks turned out to be juvenile Black-bellied, which became clear once we saw the parent with the prominent orange bill. The true rarities of this trip were the two Homo sapiens visitors.
Bunche Beach on San Carlos Bay in Lee County is a historic spot, but not just for the birding. It is appropriately named for Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Price. In 1949 the Black community purchased a half acre of the beach which became the only beach available for people of color in all of S. Florida at the time. Thankfully we have come a long way since then.
We were responding to an e-Bird alert alert regarding a Greater Flamingo, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit sightings at the beach when 5 of us set out on the 50 mile drive to the north. Two of our party had recently seen and photographed these birds at Bunche Beach and were anxious for us to share their success. Chaser’s win some and lose some. I did see the Godwit with a scope, maybe a quarter mile off-shore on a sandbar, but it was not a satisfying sighting and problematic whether it should even be listed. I did however get some one of my best pictures of Semipalmated and Piping Plovers in the same frame.
As you may know the ABA has codified the relative rarity of birds into six codes starting at “Common” and ending with “Probably or Definitely Extinct”. In the spirit of this I submit these six progressive codes for the birders who pursue rarities.
Code 1: Will leave favorite TV show to run to the window to view a bird at the feeder, not previously seen in the current year.
Code 2: Will check out a “new” bird in the yard or in the neighbor’s yard if it’s easily seen over the fence, as long as its over 55 degrees and you’re not eating dinner.
Code 3: Will chase an e-Bird rarity anywhere in the county if it’s not on your life-list or previously seen in the last year.
Code 4: As above, but the territory is expanded to the entire state.
Code 5: Will leave work or home and go anywhere at anytime to chase a rarity in the lower 48 states, and try to rationalize behavior to boss or spouse later.
Code 6: Will chase a rarity anywhere on the continent as soon as you find a new job and the divorce settlement comes through.