I had foolishly promised we would see the Red-headed Woodpecker at the Blackwater NWR, a site where I had seen it on almost every prior visit. That is, until my last trip there just a few weeks ago when it was nowhere in sight. eBird was also reporting a sighting a month ago, but none more recently. The woodpecker was a nemesis bird for Andy. He and his wife flew down from New York to spend last week with us on the Chesapeake and seeing that bird was high on our birding agenda–the pressure was on.
We all have nemesis birds; unchecked boxes on our life lists of birds we should have seen but somehow have slipped through the cracks. As we age that list shrinks for our local patch and the surge of excitement of seeing a bird for the first time becomes less frequent. But a few birds, some of them quite common in Maryland and Florida, have avoided my detection. I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal that personal list: Snowy Owl, Puffin, all the Rails, Worm-eating Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo among others. The cuckoo hides from me despite my living among the Florida mangroves for a good part of the year.
There’s some good-natured competitive chiding between Andy and me over our unseen birds. He does not hesitate to show me his exquisite photos of Snowy Owls which frequent his patch in Upstate New York, or his Puffin shots from Iceland, while I counter with my best Red-headed Woodpecker poses. But it’s all in fun and I truly hoped for him to finally check that box at Blackwater last week. We failed.
But Blackwater never fails to impress the first timer with other features; the great vistas of tidal grasslands, lowland pine forests, and of course the soaring Bald Eagles. Near the beginning of Wildlife Drive there are numerous snags and Loblolly Pines covered with woodpecker holes. We saw Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied, and Sapsuckers, but no Red-heads. Big disappointment. Now I understand the pressure a bird guide must feel when he fails to deliver target birds to his paying customers.
Blackwater did seem less “birdy” that day. Maybe it was the unusually warm weather or perhaps the prolonged drought. Or perhaps we had just missed the songbird migration to the south and were early for the waterfowl from the north. Even so, we did see 37 species and will never feel cheated by a trip to this phenomenal refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
We detect birds by eyesight, but also by birdsong. As a novice birder I always thought this was cheating; checking a box when never spotting the singing bird, who was often identified for me by a more seasoned birder or guide. I’m still loathe to claim a life bird solely by song, but readily tick the common birds by song on my routine outings. But there remain far too many songs that I have not yet matched with a bird. It’s frustrating.
Birding by ear is an advanced skill that is slowly acquired over the years. I’m impressed with some local birders that recognize an extensive repertoire of birdsong; some can even reproduce the song by mouth, hoping to coax the bird out of seclusion for visual verification.
I’m working on my audio skills with the help of Larkwire, a helpful cell phone app of birdsong, complete with quizzes. There are even apps that can detect and identify birds in the field, similar to Shazam, the app used to identify popular human song. Among others these include Song Sleuth and ChirpOMatic. I cannot vouch for their accuracy but their names are catchy.
I’ll never forget the beautiful haunting and repetitive birdsong I heard near Mount Fuji several springs ago. Hoh…hokeyo, hoh…hokekyo. The bird was clearly close by, first to the right and then the left, but skillfully avoided my visual detection for days. Finally on the day of departure I caught a fleeting glance of the elusive source. It was a small, plain Jane bird with a gorgeous voice. On the flight home I played various songs on my laptop, finally matching bird to song. It was Uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, a secretive bird known to frustrate birders, but also a welcome harbinger of Spring.
The great consolation and inspiration for us birders is that there will always be more new birds to see and hear, right up to our dying day. More than ten thousand beckon us; I have just scratched the surface. That rush we get form a new sighting need never grow old. Even Phoebe Snetsinger, may she rest in peace, and Noah Strycker did not see them all. We may need to travel further, dig deeper for airfare, and hire more guides, but the quest will never end.