OUTDOORS COLUMN: January was bird-nerd amazing

Bob Kornegay

Bob Kornegay

Birding is a lot like baseball in that it can be a game of peaks and valleys. Toward the end of last December, two birding buddies and I took a one-day trip to the northeast Florida coast and experienced great success. Though we missed seeing a rare snowy owl, the great black-backed gulls, snow buntings, harlequin duck, and purple sandpiper we found made the hurried, otherwise exhaustive journey seem no more strenuous than a ride around the block.

The streak was on.

January was bird-nerd amazing. One rare avian species after another fell “victim” to my binoculars and spotting scope. Early February was no different. Two rare hummingbirds, another gull species, and one off-course Western tanager found their way onto my life list. I was fired up and highly motivated.

Then came the past two weeks, a span that brought home the legendary Buck O’Neil’s famous baseball admonition, “Don’t get too damn cocky.”

It began with a bar-tailed godwit, a European subspecies of shorebird almost unheard of in North America. Wonder of wonders, there was one in Pinellas County, Fla. What a score that would be. Easy to find, too. Dozens of birders were seeing it.

Strike one. Two and a half days and 20-plus hours of looking yielded nothing. To make matters worse, the bird was spotted again the day after I arrived back home. Alas!

Take heart, o’ dejected one! There’s a black-headed gull near Palatka. Pretty long drive and money’s tight, but, hey, it’s closer than Newfoundland. Off I go.

Mid afternoon, Welaka National Fish Hatchery. Gulls galore. All the wrong “flavors.” No big deal. The black-headed is being seen during morning hours. That very morning, in fact. By everyone in attendance. A good night’s sleep in Palatka, an early awakening, and voila! The bird would be mine.

Strike two. Another wicked curve ball.

I was loath to leave Welaka, but couldn’t spare another day. Disappointment notwithstanding, there was a nice consolation prize in Gainesville. A rare Bullock’s oriole was using a feeder in a suburban backyard and the homeowner was graciously inviting birders to drop by and take a look. How fortuitous. It was right on my way.

Strike three. Two hours of constant vigil and no bird. Mighty Casey whiffed again. No joy in Mudville.

“You’re an idiot,” said a friend. “All that money and gas you waste chasing birds. I don’t get it.”

“Maybe,” I replied. “I do feel kinda foolish sometimes. On the other hand, didn’t you fly up to Saskatchewan last season hoping to nail one of those trophy whitetails and come home empty handed?”

“Touche’,“ he conceded.

True, birding isn’t a particularly macho pastime. My best birding buddies are my mother and her nextdoor neighbor Renea. The three of us spend a great deal of time discussing such things as spring and fall migration patterns, vexing plumage patterns, and the minute differences between Carolina and Black-capped chickadees. We do spend more time and money than we probably should chasing warblers, sparrows, titmice, and buntings all over creation. We’ll never make the front cover of FIELD AND STREAM for successfully identifying a white-breasted nuthatch or yellow-headed blackbird.

On the other hand, we’re just as exhausted from a five-mile backcountry trek in search of vermilion flycatchers as is the hunter who seeks his trophy buck in a remote out-of-the-way creek swamp. We’re just as muddy as the most intrepid duck hunter and just as wet as the wettest trophy trout angler. And you’ll never convince me that catching the most elusive fish or bagging the most elusive game species is any more challenging or frustrating than identifying a sparrow or warbler that insists on staying just two or three feet out of clear binocular range.

Nerds? Oh yeah. Guilty as charged.

And as for my recent rash of birding disappointments, I’m just about over them. I’m going out this morning as soon as I get my britches on. I’m known to bird under most conceivable conditions. However, nekkid ain’t one of ‘em.