Friday, February 8, 2008

Flashback Friday: Right Here, Right Now

Whether it's finding the usual suspects at local hots spots or discovering a vagrant outside its expected range, birding is all about timing. Being at the right place at that right time can be immensely rewarding, leading to a 20-plus warbler day, a dozen gull species at one location, or a singular vagrant, whether it's a one-day wonder or a "continuing" individual. There is one such alignment of time, place, rarity, and me that stands out in my mind more than any other.

Dateline: 02 January 1997, Cape May County, NJ
After spending Christmas and New Years with my family in upstate NY I was on my usual trip to visit a few college friends in D.C. before heading back to grad school in Arkansas. As a full-fledged birder, and being full of vim and vigor (assuming "vim" means a thirst for knowledge and "vigor" means increasing the life list) I took advantage of every traveling moment during these trips to bird somewhere, especially in locations that harbored species that don't regularly occur in Arkansas.

The famous Cape May lighthouse overlooks
one of the many ponds I visited that day.

My stop on this trip was specifically chosen. I needed, er, wanted, a Eurasian Wigeon for my life list. Because my parents, casual birders at best, had seen one, my non-birding sister had seen one, my parent's dog had seen one, I figured I should catch up. And it should be easy, there was a Eurasian Wigeon reliably and easily seen in Cape May, NJ. With a little planning I arrived late morning in Cape May.

My target bird for the trip: the elusive (to me, anyway)
Eurasian Wigeon. You will be mine. Oh, yes, you will be mine.

Image © J.M.Garg

Then the chase began. Turns out, easy, lengthy, and luxurious views of this bird was not going to be as straight forward as I thought. All the birders I encountered had seen it, and I heard a familiar refrain for the next hour. "Oh, we were just looking at it on the other pond, over there." When I got to that pond, "Oh, it just flew with a small flock of American Wigeon, headed that way," the direction I had just come from. And back at the first pond, "Yeah, it just landed over . . . oh, there they all go again . . . . "

The closest I got to the Eurasian was the Yankee
counterpart, the American Wigeon. Close, but no cigar.

Then I caught a lucky break. An hour later I still hadn't found the bird, nor had anyone else. Why, I hear you ask, was that lucky? Because I headed to the Cape May Bird Observatory's headquarters (the old one on Lake Road, not the new one out towards Goshen). The volunteer told me, "Yeah, the wigeon was just here this morning, but I haven't heard anything recently. But I assume you're be interested in the lapwing."

I responded, "Well, that depends. What's a lapwing?"

In this case it turned out to be a Northern Lapwing, a European version of a Killdeer with a pointy mohawk-like hairdo. Typically found in Europe and Asia, one had been found right off of Rte. 47 near the town of Goshen. But I tenaciously stayed my course and kept focused on my target bird for another hour. I never saw it.

A Northern Lapwing, irregular visitor to the
New World, and a very chase-worthy bird.
Image © Marek Szczepanek

My map showed Goshen right on my path heading out of southern Jersey. Since I had some vague idea of where to look, I decided I'd stop and have a look. What the heck, I'd be passing the right place, and apparently I'd come at the right time.

Again, I thought it would be easier (damn those expectations!). I assumed I'd drive along the rural road, scan the fields, and stop when I saw a line of people with scopes exchanging high fives. I never came across a group of birders, so when I thought I was in the right area I pulled on the shoulder and got out to take a brief look for a bird I had now seen once in my National Geographic (2nd edition) field guide. After walking up and back for maybe 10 minutes, all the while under the careful gaze of some land owners who acted more like they were some militia group and that I was a government representative sent to collect their taxes, I started collapsing my tripod back at the car.

I had just slammed the trunk when another car screeched to a halt 5o yards ahead of me. The door opened, we both stared at each other, then the newcomer flashed his binoculars, signaling a brother in arms. I never got his name, but we headed back down the road together, scanning both sides, while he issued a vitriolic diatribe against whomever had left the bird. "You gotta stay on birds like this! Someone should be watching until it goes to roost, and someone should be back before dawn to follow it when it leaves! Man, I can't believe this."

Two more cars arrived, then a couple more, soon we were an even dozen fanning out. Within minutes, "Got it!"

We all hustled to the east side of the road, eagerly unfolding our tripods, trying to determine the direction of the scope that held the bird. Now it was easy to find, a decent-sized bird continually moving in a pasture of close-cropped grass, that spiked headdress prominently displayed. My interaction didn't last as long as I wished. A few minutes after the re-finding, the bird wandered over a small rise to the back of the pasture, out of view. After a few more minutes I realized how low the light was, and I was supposed to be in D.C. for dinner. Hopefully someone was watching where the bird went to roost and that it would be watched in the morning (according to archived Rare Bird Alerts, it was, at least until January fourth).

Yeah, it's all about the timing. And expecting the unexpected. You'd think I'd learn something about expectations somewhere along the line.

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