Kristen Lindquist: Meditations on chasing rare birds

Wed, 02/20/2013 - 10:15am

Part One

Bird guide Derek Lovitch, a friend with whom my husband and I were spending the weekend, told us excitedly, “I’ve got a lead on a Hoary Redpoll for us to see tomorrow morning!” Bird nerds that we are, we were excited. A Hoary Redpoll, a big, pale finch from the Arctic that very infrequently wanders down to the Maine coast, would be a life bird for us.

This seemed like extraordinary luck. Earlier that day, we had successfully tracked down a Golden Eagle, another unusual bird in Maine and also a lifer for us. A young Golden Eagle had been hanging out for a week or so near a dairy farm in Clinton. We drove up with our friend Ron and, in the company of other birders, eventually tracked down the eagle by following a panicked, swirling flock of thousands of crows—with the assistance of my husband’s renowned “eagle eye.” This impressive bird of prey, which is more aggressive than our relatively common resident Bald Eagle, intimidates any other bird in its neighborhood—including the Bald Eagle. Even the gulls were jumpy in the vicinity of this western raptor.

So, feeling lucky from our Golden Eagle sighting, the next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Derek and his wife Jeannette, then optimistically set out with Derek to a private home where the bird had been regularly visiting feeders. When we pulled up, the homeowners told us, “He’s been here all morning! He was just here five minutes ago!” Our gracious hosts allowed us to sprawl across their living room floor, basking in the heat of their woodstove, for what turned out to be several hours. All morning dozens of Common Redpolls flocked nearby and landed on the porch railings and feeders just a few feet away through wide windows. Woodpeckers dropped by, along with jays and doves. But not the Hoary.

I’d rarely had the opportunity for such close looks at redpolls, which are very attractive birds: puffy little finches with raspberry berets, black faces, and pert yellow bills. The males sports a pink wash down his breast. The Hoary is bigger than the Common, and paler, with less streaking. (“Hoary” means “frosty.”) Each time the flock settled in front of us, which seemed to be at half-hour intervals, three pairs of binoculars quickly scanned the birds, looking for that one that was not like the others—the big white one—but each time, no luck.

Meanwhile, in the down time between flock visitations, buoyed by the camaraderie of friends hoping to see a special bird together, our spirits remained high. We couldn’t help but enjoy watching “Nature” on our hosts’ super-sized HD TV, the meerkats and birds of paradise easily as entertaining as the wildlife outside. And our hosts were happy to share with us stories of the nature sightings they’d experienced at their beautiful home, which they’d built just a few years ago.

But eventually they had to start preparing for a Super Bowl party later that day, and we realized we were hungry for lunch. No Hoary Redpoll for us this time. We had, however, enjoyed a pleasant morning hanging out together in cheerful anticipation, and received no small consolation prize as we chowed down on some of Maine’s best pizza at the Old Goat Pub in Richmond.


Part Two

As we drove home after eating lots of pizza, I still had hopes of us seeing a life bird that day. Normally, I don’t like to spend much of my birding time chasing rarities. But while we were waiting for the redpoll that morning, several birders had been posting reports on the Maine Birding listserv of a rare Ross’s Goose being seen right here in our own backyard, at the Rockland breakwater. We thought we could get home in time to find it, which would make us feel better about having missed the redpoll by five minutes.

A Ross’s Goose is a small, pretty white goose with black wingtips, like a miniature version of the more common Snow Goose. This one was hanging out with a flock of Canada Geese, feeding at the base of the breakwater and on the Samoset golf course. We figured it would be easy enough to spot. A quick stop, and we’d have another lifer for the weekend.

Of course, we arrived just as the light was fading, and the geese had apparently flown inland to roost. We made some attempt to check open water on the Megunticook River where geese sometimes linger. But again, no luck. In birding parlance, we had experienced a disappointing “double dip,” going one for three for the weekend.


Part Three

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The next morning we got up earlier than usual and headed back to the breakwater. There, silhouetted against the rising sun, we saw the forms of dozens of geese sleeping on the water. And as we drew closer, the little white one, head still tucked under its wing, was obvious. We’d successfully chased the bird! And now I can stop chasing rarities and get back to simply birding again, visiting my favorite places to see whatever birds happen to be around without being focused on adding to my life list. Unless, of course, someone reports another Hoary Redpoll within an hour’s drive…

Speaking of Hoary Redpolls, Derek went back the next morning to try again for the bird we’d missed. He told us, with a modicum of regret, that he was sorry we couldn’t have been there; he saw (and photographed) the bird within minutes of his arrival. So much of birding is timing. And luck. And persistence—stubborn, obsessive persistence.


Kristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who works for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in her hometown of Camden.


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