Soon you decide that you want to see other kinds of birds, the ones that don’t come to your feeder. You notice Great Blue Herons and Osprey flying over your car as you drive down the freeway. You talk to a few people to find out where you should go to see more birds. You buy a few maps and maybe a book on where to watch wildlife in your area. You go out there on the weekend, and it’s fun but you don’t know what some of the birds you saw are. You probably buy another field guide. You learn that if you study the field guides before you go out looking for birds, and learn what is likely to occur in your area, you’re more likely to recognize what you see when you see it. You bury yourself for hours in books getting ready for the next outing. Hey, this is fun!
From here your interest in birds will snowball into an obsession, which is not a bad thing. You’ll start keeping lists of what species you have seen (I keep year lists, state lists, yard lists, life lists, lists of birds I’ve photographed, etc.). You’ll keep a journal. You’ll subscribe to the local birding listserv where you can read about the birds that others have seen, and where they’ve seen them. You will start “chasing” those birds in the hopes that the birds will still be there when you arrive. You want to see species that you haven’t seen before, and discover new places to go.
You will try to tell your friends about this wonderful new hobby, or about the new bird you saw, and they will look at you, eyes glazed over, with a look that's a cross between pity and concern (Erin...). They just don’t get it! But you, with your new-found knowledge and passion for birding, don’t care; birding makes you happy and connected with nature, and you pity your friends who don’t experience that same joy! Before you know it, you’ve replaced your cheap binoculars with a much more expensive pair, bought a spotting scope, a hundred more books, and you plan all your weekends and vacations around birding.
That brings me to “The Chase.” If you’ve stuck with birding this far, you’ve seen most of the common birds by now, and you’ve started itching to chase the uncommon and rare birds that you hear about. Rare birds include those that have very low populations, are secretive and hard to find, or those that, by an accident of nature, have somehow flown off-course and landed somewhere where they don’t normally occur. These are the birds that really get a birder’s blood pumping!
This winter has brought a good number of rarities to Virginia. We see some rarities every year, but this year, more were undoubtedly brought here by the unusually severe storms that have occurred across the country. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to “chase” some of these birds that were found and reported by other birders, and get photos in most cases. This weekend found me in Glen Allen; last weekend I made a run to South Boston; on New Year’s Eve Day I was on the Eastern Shore, chasing birds. Here are a few of the rarities I’ve been finding and chasing this fall and winter:
In late September, my friend Nancie and I were birding and photographing on the Eastern Shore. On our way home I decided to stop at Lynnhaven Inlet to see if the migrating terns were still around. They were not, but to my amazement, Nancie and I found a rare bird of our own, a female Yellow-headed Blackbird! This species is restricted to the marshes in the western half of the country in breeding season, and then migrates south in the fall to Mexico, where it winters. Somehow this little bird flew east instead of south, and stopped when she reached the end of the country, here in Virginia Beach! A handful of these blackbirds are found somewhere in Virginia almost every year, but they are very rare.
In late November a Loggerhead Shrike was found hunting in an undeveloped field in the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach. Shrikes, which were once much more common in Virginia (and everywhere else), have declined alarmingly in the past few decades. A very few remain in areas of the Piedmont and western Virginia, but this November bird was the first one to occur in Virginia Beach since 1978! Where did it come from? How did it get here? No one can know, but it remained for several weeks in the area for many birders to admire.
I already told you about the Allen’s hummingbird that is visiting a feeder in Chester, Va. this winter. The Allen’s is a resident of the Pacific Coast in California. This little wanderer is only the second Virginia record of this species ever. (Correction: I've been told that it's the third record). As of today, she is still healthy, active, and molting into her adult plumage, thanks to the dedication of the Chester family who replaces her feeders and turns on warming lights by the feeders every morning.
We all remember the severe snowstorm that dropped 14” of snow in Hampton Roads at Christmastime. Not only did it impact our entire region, it impacted the birds too. Once the main roads were passable again, reports came in of a vagrant Mountain Bluebird, a western species, on the Eastern Shore near Oyster. This, I believe, was the second ever state record of this species in Virginia, and I simply had to chase it down! So on New Year’s Eve Day, I went to the Eastern Shore, and was fortunate enough to find the bird exactly where it was reported. This individual does not sport the beautiful blue plumage of the adult males, so it is either a female or a first-year bird.
(On the way to find the Mountain Bluebird, I came across a flock of its cousins, the Eastern Bluebirds, which are common here. I was able to snap a photo of a nice male on the power lines. You can see the similarity in their shape, build, and overall “look.”)
As I started home from admiring the Mountain Bluebird, going south on Highway 600, I wondered if I would see any Woodcocks in the fields. Woodcocks might be the funniest looking bird we have here; they looks like parts of different birds were thrown together haphazardly to make a new bird. It’s in the “shorebird” family of birds, which brings to mind beaches and mudflats, but the Woodcock spends its days deep in the understory of eastern woods, coming out into the open only at night to perform its courting and mating rituals. But the snowstorm had a profound impact on the Woodcocks for several days; they were forced from their woods out to the open fields where some of the snow had melted, and where they could probe the ground for food. As I drove down the highway, I saw at least 50 of these birds in fields and in people’s front yards near the road’s edge! I never thought I would ever get a photo of the secretive Woodcock, but on this day it was easy.
Everyone knows about the common Canada Geese, ubiquitous everywhere in North America, but there are other goose species less well-known. The western states are home to the Greater White-fronted Goose, and when I lived in Oregon I saw thousands of them. But I never took a photograph of them, and now that I’m tracking the number of species I’ve photographed, I’ve regretted that I missed that one. So when two were reported in Halifax County a couple of weeks ago, I made a run to South Boston. After a few hours of frustration looking at birdless fields, they finally flew in near dusk and landed close enough that I could get a picture. By the way, they were in the company of three blue-phase Snow Geese. Snow Geese are common winterers on the Atlantic Coast, but they are very uncommon inland.
My last story is about a bird I chased and photographed yesterday in Henrico County. It’s a little finch called a White-winged Crossbill, which breeds in Canada and the far northern coniferous forests. Their mandibles (the bill) really do cross, an adaptation to the way they feed on pine cones and extract the pine nuts. In some years, when food supplies run low in the far north, they will wander down into the northern U.S. states in search of good cone crops, but they do not normally come this far south. Last week, one appeared at a birdfeeder in Glen Allen in the company of a feeding flock of small birds like chickadees and goldfinches, and it has stayed for several days. I was thrilled to see the bird and photograph it, although it was dark yesterday morning and my camera’s shutter speed was very slow with a long lens; I did a pretty good job of holding the camera still but unfortunately you can’t see the crossed mandibles in this photo because of the slow shutter speed.
There is rarely any logic behind out-of-place birds (or should I say, human logic), and although we wonder how they came to be where they are, we will never know. We can only give chase and enjoy them when they come to our neighborhood.