Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Perfect Chase

Listing, or tracking the first time you see a new bird, is a series of plateaus connected by rapid bursts of adding "lifers." At first everything is new, you're adding new birds to your life list daily, and sometimes by the score. Then the flow of new birds slows to a trickle until migration ushers in those that pass through, those that winter, or those that breed in your area and you've got another burst of new birds to add.

Then it trickles again, with periodic spikes as you visit new habitats. Then your trips range farther from home, into new bioregions, but these spikes are fewer and spaced farther apart. (This is when you start playing other listing games: year lists, county lists, yard lists, bathroom window lists . . . ).

And then there's the chase. It's not a rapid burst of dozens of birds, but a single, very-specific addition. A rare bird shows up within a reasonable distance, bringing the chance to add a new bird to your life list. And your year list, and your state list, but that's all gravy - it's the lifer you want.

Shorebirds Rock! There are three species here,
can you pick out the Curlew Sandpiper?

And, I freely admit, I got bit recently. Badly. I have been jonesing for a new bird, though I can't complain. It was just 10 months ago, in January, I added Slaty-backed Gull to my list. But it was also 10 months ago I dipped on a Ross's Gull (along with hundreds of other "chasers").

Two weeks ago a chase-worthy bird settled down within my chase-appropriate radius: a Curlew Sandpiper at Fort Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. I figured I had no chance. Gone are my days of dropping everything and bolting (witness my frigatebird non-encounter). Well, maybe not gone, hopefully just on hiatus. Regardless, this bird would likely move on before I could make the trip.

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, probably male based on the bill:
it's not as long and slender as a female would show.

For two weeks I read about this bird as it stuck around, reliably found at the same location, and for two weeks I didn't have a window to make the trip. Until this morning. I happened to be relatively nearby, closer than the Finger Lakes, anyway, so I tacked on a side trip.

It really was the perfect chase. Weather, border guards, gas prices, satellite radio; everything cooperated, including the bird. It wasn't sitting on the side of the road waiting, there wasn't a line of scopes already boring into the bird, which is good. I like the search and the satisfaction that comes with finding and identifying it unaided.

When I arrived I was the only birder in the area. Because the bird wasn't in plain view I set out to find it (armed with reports from other successful sightings, which isn't really cheating). Pretty soon another couple arrived, but they were on a severe time limitation. They were headed back to their car as I continued down the beach. When I passed the point I found a trio of non-Killdeer shorebirds. A quick check: Dunlin-like birds, that's good.

The sandpiper has been associating with two Dunlin, the two front
birds. They show a more "messy" breast with some coloring extending
onto the belly. The Curlew Sandpiper is much cleaner underneath.

A more thorough check: two were definitely Dunlin, the other . . . was not. That's very good. Overall structure not quite Dunlin-ish, bill more slender, clean upper breast, crisp face pattern with distinct and bright eyebrow; that's excellent.

This one (or "that one"?) stood a bit taller, not as slouched
as the Dunlin. Maybe it is more presidential?

I called for the couple, who came running back. I studied, they shot pictures, looked through the scope, and had to leave. That left me all alone with the birds, plenty of time to really take in the sandpiper, comparing it to the Dunlin. And time enough to gingerly sidle closer to try a few photos of my own.

Incredibly cooperative bird, slowly moving back and forth
as it foraged among the rocks. It only flew three times
but was easily relocated after each movement.

Another couple came, I was able to get them on the bird, too. That's also part of the perfect chase: sharing what you find.

Enlarge this image and you can (kind of) see the "anchor pattern"
on some of the scapular and wing coverts. Dunlin don't show this.

The birds were a bit skittish, but they always returned to the rocky beach. We were able to watch the birds in flight, spying the clean, white rump separating it from the Dunlin, and then watch them again as they foraged, preened, or just stayed still.

The first part of the search was under clouds and steady winds.
After finding the bird the weather cleared. And angels sang.

The last time they flew I watched through binoculars where they settled but didn't follow. That's the last part of the perfect chase: they leave you. I hate walking away from a bird.



deejbrown said...

What a great post! I am not a chaser but understand the temptation--how great for you to have some time "alone" to ID and enjoy this special bird, and kudos to you for "sharing!"

N8 said...

Great story. I hope one of those shows up near me one of these days.

noflickster said...

-deejbrown - Thanks! It was really nice not to be part of a horde staring at a single bird; it was nice not having it pointed out as soon as I arrived (kind of like a "drive-by lifer"). It was especially gratifying to have time to just sit and watch while it did what it does, not having too many people stalking it and affecting its behavior. And it was fuzzy-warm to help others "tick" their lifer, too!

-n8 - Thanks to you, as well, and great job with your nicely psychotic "I and the Bird" presentation. I read through your "dialogue," but now I need to go back and follow the links!

I always imagined *if* I ever saw this species it would be a) on a trip to Eurasia, b) a trip to western Alaska, or c) eventually a chase to the mid-Atlantic. I wouldn't mind seeing another one in any of those scenarios!


Larry said...

What a super post. It really conveys the feelings we birders have about our passion. Thanks for sharing this with everyone and congrats on spotting and sharing the bird!

jan m said...

How neat. I'm glad the bird stuck around till you could get there.

Sparverius said...

I am so glad you shared this and pointed out the differences between the Sandpiper and the Dunlin. That was my first question - how do you know it's not a Dunlin? I am, of course, terrible at shore birds. But things like this help me tremendously.

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