Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Grail Bird

These are not Wilson's warblers.
They are goldfinches.
There are people who want to see every bird on earth. There are people who want to find the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I would like to see a Wilson's warbler.

It is a peculiar truth that what is a common bird for some is far from common for me.

In Chicago once, my husband (MH) and I were standing on the shore of Lake Michigan in a downpour made worse by one of the Windy City's patented gales. Trying to hold up my umbrella in one hand while focusing my binoculars with the other, a man in his rain slicker, shorts and sandals came bounding up and asked, "Have you seen the loon?"

We're all loons here, brother, I remember thinking. But he was looking for a common loon that had been reported, which while common on placid Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire when we visit is not so common on choppy Lake Michigan.

In Playa del Rey in California I was able to add 10 birds to my life list within 15 minutes on Ballona Creek because they were "common" to that area and not to New Jersey.

In Florida I saw two types of kites, a limpkin, a woodstork and an anhinga, plus a lot of prothonotary warblers. When one of these warblers appears in the New York area it always causes a stir among birders.

Wilson's warblers, however, are common to my area. Every year when the warblers move through Central Park there are Wilson's. Every year they are reported in New Jersey.

A prothonotary warbler I photographed
near the NY Public Library. You can't
see the big crowd this little guy drew.
One year one was reported - and photographed singing - in Bee Meadow Park in nearby Hanover. The next day I rushed out there but couldn't find anything in the area except a kid on a motorbike going round and round and pretty much killing any chance of finding anything else.

My good luck in finding a gray-cheeked thrush, a life bird for me, in another part of the park didn't sink in for quite some time because of my disappointment over that missed Wilson's.

Once I thought - maybe - I heard a Wilson's singing in a brushy area near a part of the Great Swamp wilderness area in Harding Township. MH was sure a Wilson's came to our feeder several years ago while I was at work because, he swore, it did not look like a goldfinch. Wilson's are yellow below with a green back and the males have a black cap. Neither sex have wingbars, unlike the goldfinchs.

It is likely the reason I want to see a Wilson's is just because it is such a common bird. It is a point of pride.

I doubt I'll ever see an ivory-billed woodpecker, if one is still around in that Arkansas swamp where it was allegedly found. I doubt I'll ever see any of the Siberian birds that get blown across the Bering Strait to Alaska. There are thousands of species of birds around the world that don't come anywhere near North America, much less New Jersey. I can accept this. But the Wilson's is another matter.

MH has never seen a redheaded woodpecker, but it doesn't bother him. He's more laid back about birding than I would be in his position.

This is not a redheaded woodpecker.
It is a pileated woodpecker.
You may think you've seen a redheaded woodpecker but chances are it was the more common redbellied woodpecker (whose red only goes down the back of the head) or the pileated (whose red is on the crest) . The redheaded woodpecker has an entirely red head, white breast and belly and a back that is solid black and white.

It is a striking bird. The first time I saw one was after a report that it was in a tree along the driveway to the old Great Swamp visitor center - practically in my backyard. I had to go. I almost missed it, too, but for the kindness of another birder who practically walked me to the tree where the woodpecker was preening for another birder's camera.

Several times we've tried seeing a redheaded woodpecker. For MH's own good, of course.

But we keep missing it, at Great Swamp where there's usually one every year; at Lord Stirling Park, which is Somerset County's part of the Swamp; and even at the New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman center, where one was at the feeders for several days the other month. When we got there a crowd in the driveway was watching the distant trees.  Something moved and I pointed it out to MH. Then I realized it had a solid black back...a pileated.

A good bird, but not THE bird.

MH calls these wild bird chases my hunt for the Grail Bird, which was the title of a book about the hunt for that ivory-billed woodpecker mentioned before. We always want what we haven't had, and in my case not seeing a "common" bird others have seen as regular as clockwork sticks in my craw. It reflects badly on my abilities as a birder, even as others tell me I'm pretty good at it.

It is a fine line between enjoying a day in the field and obsession, and I walk it every day.

But spring is nearly upon us, and with it will come birds heading north. Maybe this will be the year I see the Wilson's warbler.

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