April 18, 2007

One Bird at a Time

One of the things I love most about birding is the thrill of encountering a species I've never seen before...a lifer. It's called a "lifer" because you now get to add it to your birding "life list," or the list of all the different species of birds you've seen and identified. People create life lists for all sorts of reasons. For some it's a competition, a race to see how quickly you can reach a certain number, or a contest to see who can spot the most species. And for those with a lot of spare time (and money) on their hands, it can even become an obsession. Kingbird Highway is a really fun book that demonstrates to what insane lengths some people will go to find "just one more." I'd recommend it for anyone, even if you're not really into birds.

It's easy to let yourself fall into the category of a competetive lister if you're not careful. I've certainly walked that line a time or two. In fact, every couple of years I try to dabble in competetive birding by participating in a Birdathon (skip to page 10), or even attempt to break a Big Day record. Even when I go all out, however, I still try not to let it get to the point where every bird I see is reduced to a simple checkmark. That's the biggest complaint most non-listers have with people who list. And, yes, there are those who travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles just so they can spend 30 seconds looking a bird long enough to justify checking it off on their list. I hope I never become one of those people.

For me, adding to my life list is more of a journaling exercise. In addition to the species, I write down where and when I first saw each one. And I do that right below the range map in my birding bible. That way, when I flip through the book my notes take me back to that moment of excitement at finding a bird and realizing that it was a species I had never seen before.

I imagine it might be difficult for non-birders to really understand, or appreciate, what this experience might be like. So to help illustrate, I have decided to share just such a moment. In fact, it is one that occured just this morning. At around 8:35am beneath the steep, red-rock cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon at Cave Springs Campground, to be precise.

Every time you spot a new lifer it's different. Sometimes you spend hours, days, or even years searching all the likely spots. Often with mixed, and rather frustrating, results. But once in a while, you get lucky.

I knew what I was looking for as soon as I got out of the car this morning (I had read that I might be able to see a certain bird there). The campground is situated next to an old apple orchard, and I was told that this particular bird likes to hang out in the apple trees. Well, after a couple minutes wandering around admiring the apple blossoms, I heard what I thought might be the bird I was looking for. So I turned and made my way into a stand of old cottonwoods and began trying to pinpoint the source of the warbly song somewhere in the high branches. Within less than a minute, I caught a glimpse of something.

It wasn't a very good glimpse. In fact, it lasted all of about eight milliseconds. But it got my heart racing with the possibility that I may just have seen something new. But I couldn't be sure, just yet. The lighting was perfect, but the bird was behind a whole bunch of branches and flew off just as I focused in on it. I thought I saw a flash of red on the breast, but it just wasn't convincing. So I kept looking, hoping that this wasn't going to turn into a "may have seen."

Less than a minute later, I spotted another one. But the angle really sucked. While it's certainly possible to identify a bird from looking only at its butt, it's not very satisfying. It would be like going to Yellowstone and seeing a puff of steam above the treetops that you're pretty sure was Old Faithful, but never actually getting to watch it erupt in all its sideways glory. (Ok, so it took me a couple years to figure out that you can't rotate a movie like you can an image once its on your computer. Just turn your head while you watch it.)

Then the bird turned its head, revealing a rather distinctive white crescent under its eye. At this point, I knew I had found what I had spent the better part of a month trying to see. If it flew away now and I never saw it again, I'd feel confident enough in the sighting to be able to justify adding it to my life list. But, knowing how beautiful this bird is, and how long I'd been waiting to see one (not just the last month...I've wanted to see one of these since I was about 9 years old), it still wasn't enough. Sure, I was thrilled that I could finally "check it off", but I needed more. Exciting? Yes. Satisfying? No.

This was a really fun bird to watch. Like most wood warblers, it never stood still. But it also spent a good deal of time fanning its tail and wing feathers as it hopped from branch to branch. Obviously, it was displaying for someone. But the whole time I watched I never saw another one. Maybe it decided it needed to keep displaying on the off chance that another bird would fly by. But I still hadn't gotten the look I was hoping for.

After about five minutes of being rather uncooperative, the Painted Redstart finally hopped out into the open.

Definitely one of the coolest birds I've ever seen. It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's like a robin and a blackbird mixed...bred for its skills in magic. I spent a good twenty minutes watching it hop around until it flew off into the orchard.

Every five or ten seconds it would pause for a moment to belt out a song or two (scroll down that page a bit to hear what a Painted Redstart song sounds like). Then it would zoom to the next branch, flair its tail and hop some more.

I also saw one of the coolest woodpeckers in North America. But I'd already seen several of them before, so it didn't end up in my big "lifer" story.

And I'm not going to tell you what it is this time. You'll have to find a bird guide and figure it out for yourself.

By the way, 7 geek-points for anyone who can identify the not-so-obscure movie references in this post.

I suppose I should get 42 geek-points for thinking I'm being clever by inserting said movie references into the post. And I definitely get 12 nerd-points for both using "said" as a preposition AND knowing what a preposition is.


Steve said...

"It's like a robin and a blackbird mixed...bred for its skills in magic." is Napoleon Dynomite - only I think it was a lion and a tiger. Then 42 is from a book (trilogy actually) which was made into a movie - The Hitchhikers Guid to the Galaxy. Though I don't know why I bother - you never gave me credit for the last post either.

P. Ollig said...

You got all the credit you needed from the mere satisfaction of knowing you earned the points.

amy said...

Gila woodpecker? This was a great post and they are awesome birds, nice work on the photos.

P. Ollig said...

Close! It's actually an Acorn Woodpecker. A couple years ago we got to see an active acorn-storage tree up near Flagstaff. We were only there for twenty minutes or so but still got to watch four of these guys coming and going, sizing up various holes and filling them with appropriately sized acorns. They're awesome!