Schmoozing, Systematics, Surviving and a Sandpiper
The same Smew visiting California last winter that frenzified birders may have reappeared this January 2008. That is the news on the internet. A Smew would be a nice feather in my cap, if I wore one, and if the bird was accessible. I prefer a brimmed hat and the bird is laying low on a private pond about two hours SE of Sacramento. No birders allowed. Notwithstanding six hours of driving, the inaccessible Smew might as well be paddling around in the Valley of Shmoon. That is Al Capp’s home of the delectably tasty, lovable and mostly white schmoo. The owner of the pond had allowed only a couple of people to confirm the identification of the off course white duck but that was it, and why not. It is his property. I can just imagine birders schmoozing for a look and the property owner rightfully having visions of trampled ground and gridlock in an otherwise peaceful and private country corner.
What luck that the property owner’s exact address was not posted for all to see. It wouldn’t be the first time that the web caused a black eye to people who don’t want to go public and be teeming masses of over zealous birders. A current issue in Birding discusses the good and bad digit dancing on the internet. The good is obvious, information quickly. However, there may be a cost. The internet also offers information that is sometimes unedited, ill written both in spirit and in grammar, incorrect and misleading. Just because it is in print does not mean the information is factual. People commonly doubt reports in newspapers, so why not be at least as cautious with information on the web. Do not believe everything you read, except this.
Without doubt, there’s some pretty good internet stuff out there. A sprinkling with grains of salt and healthy scientific skepticism will continue to veil interpretations requiring some experience and prior knowledge, the kind learned from books and journals, and mentors. Evaluating information from the internet is not terribly different from endeavoring to solve some taxonomic conundrum at the museum. Conclusions hinge on data and knowledge at the time. An email report of a rare bird will depend upon years of improving field guides and concurrent advances in field identifications and optics. Most knowledge based on field identifications is the summation of knowledge of others. Verification of data and proving or disproving it should not be foreign to good birding practices. Once the veracity of an observation reported via email or some similar method is established, further documentation is in order before an observation appears in a printed form. Because of the checks and balances, published information is generally more reliable than say email reports. A publication may demand a photograph or a specimen, or at least written details to support an observation of a rare bird. For an observation to receive acceptance, proof is more than desirable.
Beyond the sparkle of the rare is a foundation on birds, their identification, geographic range and seasonal frequency. Having those factors in mind provides a background to evaluate unedited email reports. Obtaining the background frequently requires eye-burning reading. Information in journals and many magazines is subject to repeatability, an imperative tenant among scientists. Information on paper is more likely to fall under the scrutiny of an editor and, in journals, is usually peer reviewed. Much of the information birders depend upon start out as mostly lack-luster prose (style and humor are usually too costly for journals living on the financial edge). Examples of such publications might include the Auk, journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Most articles in Birding, American Birding Association’s organ, often add style and humor. Peers with prior knowledge on a subject of a manuscript check it over for content. Is the manuscript sound? Is its subject, it hypothesis and facts something that should appear in a journal or magazine or is it not suitable for publication? These peer reviewers, often-called referees, then make recommendations to the editor of a publication. Most manuscript will require revision at the very least. Not only will all the t’s be crossed, but also all the facts will be double-checked. After all, the power of information is only as good as its source. A well-educated mentor who relays the facts and tutors the counseled also helps make information more reliable.
It is essential to ask questions and to question the answers whether the source is from the internet, from printed material or from an informed mentor. It is also worth getting the story out there to continue the process of peer review. Again, It is a check and balance system. A well-crafted post of an observation on the internet will likely result in others, peers, believing the observation. When I read recently that someone saw a Green Violet-ear in Texas in late February, I wondered. The sighting is almost one month earlier that my discovery of a Lone Star Green Violet-ear last year, a report rejected by the state rare bird committee because it was unverifiable and one month earlier than previous records. What if a dozen observers from different localities in Texas reported early occurrences of Green Violet-ears? None of the observations were verifiable, say with a good photo. What if the same situation included two-dozen independent observers? When does unverifiable information become truth? An honest answer should be never. That is why, if I find a rarity, I want someone to see it too. I want an identifiable photograph. I want proof. Analysis of data on the arrival of the species from several observations might show the species arrives earlier than previously thought. Such a conclusion, based on the data, might become a paper in a peer-reviewed publication. Following that, the next edition of a field guide might state that the species appears in Texas as early as February. The February report does not support accepting my March sighting, but it lends more credence to what I saw. However, I am not chronicling the birds of Texas or planning to publish a paper on any kind of hummingbird. As for counting what the AOU now calls Green Violetear, a word my spell checker rejects, I know what I saw and can only prove it to myself. Should I feel vindicated by February sighting? Sure.
Admittedly, six of the last 24 species added to my ABA list are children of the internet, RBAs reported by others. Finding the remaining 75 % of the species was by the old fashion way, with information from bird finding guides, having prior knowledge of bird distribution, getting out there, and searching. Some of the more exciting finds were unexpected, just like some of the species people report on the web.
Every now and then thoughts go to the old days, when spreading the knowledge of a rare bird sighting came from a human voice, either in person or by way of a telephone. That is the way it was during my 30 years residing in Arlington, Virginia. However birding at first could not be high on my list of priorities. From a windowless chasm of the Pentagon, my worry was would I ever be a civilian. Following that wonderful time, while employed at the museum, a Ross’s Gull visited Baltimore. The year, 1990, Claudia Wilds made frequent visits to the museum, and may have mentioned the gull as she surely saw it along with a multitude of fortunate birders. The time 1990 was the year my evaluation of all species and subspecies of North American birds saw publication in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. More than likely, I was busy researching subspecies of Dunlin, Cliff Swallow and planning a description of a new subspecies of Wrentit. Ross’s Gulls and other new birds were in the background and my life list lay in the back of a file drawer. During those 30 years, rare bird committees were archiving records from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia of at least 20 species not now on my life list. That total includes only birds that were around more than one day. One day wonders, pelagics seen at sea and records still in review by respective rare bird committees were not in the what-if list. The 20 only includes those accepted by those committees. Who knows, some of the unaccepted ones, had they been seen by me, might also be counted on my life list. That may sound arrogant, but one usually knows what they see, given good light, suitable distance and time to observe the field marks. That does not apply to all species. Sometimes it is best to forget immature gulls, female ducks and many others species, at least to keep sane. Maybe one is the big fish that got away, but that’s life. Hopefully, there aren’t any misidentified species on my list. Nonetheless, I’m counting the 2007 Green Violet-ear even though the Texas Committee didn’t. I know what I saw. Being the only member of my self-critical committee helps the decision.
A missed Little Gull and Yellow-legged Gulls visiting Georgetown Reservoir and Maryland, which were short commutes for me at the time. It is hard not to cringe especially at missing the Yellow-legged Gulls, but there were others including European Golden-Plover, Little Egret and Fieldfare. I was so to speak, fat, dumb and happy. No, not fat, but light in the brain is more accurate. Otherwise, why ignore the Ross’s Gull?
During those eastern years, the years before internet RBA’s, a good phone network passed the early word. It was not until later, especially by the 90s, that many of the rarities were posted on the web. However, I rarely checked the local Voice of the Naturalist and later did not check the net. The few times I did check the Voice, I heard Claudia. The internet was at first unavailable in our lowly budget, and when it was accessible, I was troglodytish. Had I checked the existing sources, there would have been chances to see at least a few of the 20 or so birds now not checked off on my ABA list. Maybe I would have seen one or two of the one-day-wonders such as a Band-rumped Petrel seen from Delaware’s Lewes Ferry, a ferry I took on several occasion. Other rarities grazed the eastern shore. A Yellow-nosed Albatross flew by Cape Henlopen in 1989. Other Atlantic coast waifs I could have chased include a Whiskered Tern in 1993, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and single day sightings of Gray Kingbirds during multiple years and a Dovekie in 1972. What was I thinking?
During August 1996, several rarities were showing up, including a Northern Lapwing. That month and year was when a Little Stint and a Wood Sandpiper visited the nearby Delaware coast. That is when Linda and I were dutifully packing. Retirement was eminent. Right after Labor Day, we were driving west toward Oregon.
During that eastern era, the years of lower cholesterol, better vision and fewer aches and pains, about two dozen species missing from my current life list were visiting my former home state of Oregon. Even a west coast Smew came knocking. All those east and west coast vagrants and not a species to check was the story encompassing over a quarter of a life span. While at the museum, cottage cheese came in large and small curds, pockets jingled not from a phone but change left over from filling the gas tank, but missing ABA lifers did not matter. I was birding by museum specimens, in a manner, library books replete with information that help build what we know about birds today and the future. How can I begrudge what didn’t happen, not seeing those 20 or so rarities coming so near, since what did happened was so much fun? There was never a dull moment at the museum.
If, during my stay in Washington, D.C., I did chase eastern rarities, I could have enjoyed gasoline at less than a dollar per gallon. However, money was tight and living in the region was expensive. After retiring, when adding a new life bird began to feel more and more crucial, new sets of eastern rarities to salivate for are a continent away. What’s a birder to do? The unexpected do show up around my present home turf in the Pacific Northwest. These are affordable birds such as King Eider, Tufted Duck, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. Oh, for the good old days when you could pay $0.33 a gallon for gas and get a candy bar for five cents. Those were the days when almost everything I saw was a life bird. Not only has finding new life birds crucial, just time for life became more vital with a greater realization of time as we experienced the care for and loss of our parents. Being next brings a new perspective, even if it is decades later.
Other birders may claim similar history of aging and missed birds. Rarities showing up, for example in a home state of say, Nevada, will be different from those where perhaps a career anchors someone to Tennessee. Born and raised a Californian, but toiling in North Carolina or reared in Vermont, working in Utah, the individual stories are similar, but with different species of birds. It is impossible to be everywhere all the time, and even when we try, it costs more time and money than most will amass. Some may see all the species on the ABA list from ABA territory, but no one has seen all the species of birds of the world.
My tattered ABA checklist was not half-empty, it was half-full, and the prospect of seeing missed species is tantalizing. As I wait, maybe the Smew will wander into public domain before flying north this spring. In the meantime, my pileous eyebrows attempt to become Andy Rooneyfied and little beards sprout out of my ears. Is the extra hair part of aging or is it an evolutionary process to prevent mosquitoes from flying into the wrong orifices of a mature birder? Keeping watch for a new bird with a good pair of scissors to prune away the possible internet weeds is a continuing task. Once sifting past the internet chaff, any birder can track down reported birds and, with digital cameras, probably prove or disprove the initial World Wide Web. Plans that involve birding in special areas with target species that I know should be there also lay on the burner. How do I know those birds are waiting for me to see them? I know from years of pouring over field guides, finding guides, ornithological literature, specimens, and talking to people.
While waiting for time to take a birding trip or report of a rarity within a day’s drive, an arriving piece of unsolicited postal mail suggests that I should hurry. The junk mail said I could win a pre-paid cremation. Wow, that is a contest worth not entering. Not that cremation is a bad thing; it is a good way to clean up the exit. However, it would be great for a little more life, not to mention life birds, before flaming out. It is too early to leave some powdery bones and a grease spot.
Circumstances leading up to entering a contest for a free cremation, as is almost everything, a good joke, love, avoiding a near fatal car collision, the beauty of a sunset or a rainbow, or that rare bird, maybe a Smew, is all in the timing. Even then, sometimes there is more than meets the story. The story here is not without wrinkles. All the while Linda and I cared for our now deceased parents, we managed a tropical trip, a tour of Texas and the arid Southwest and a journey into the Canadian Rockies interspersed with short forays closer to home. All the while, we continue providing for Linda’s son, injured at birth over four decades ago. No one ever experiencing caring for someone with mental and multiple physical handicaps will understand the impact. Although he lives in a group home, he requires considerable monitoring by his guardian, Linda. Although, the stress weighs heavily on her own health, her son provides Linda great joy.
People’s lives are often the result of what they put into it. The best possible course for my life was to marry my childhood sweetheart. To do otherwise was not an ingredient for our well-being. Too bad we first married the wrong people and lost decades to others, but now, together, we plan to love the days and nights, listen to great music, watch a movie and go birding.
So, here we are, facing our realities and ever hopeful of future adventures. And, as spring jumps from 80 degrees one day and it snows the next, we plan a possible birding trip maybe not this year but perhaps the next year. Meanwhile, a Nashville Warbler lands in a tree just feet from word processing fingers and the weatherman predicts that temperature may dip to 25. The few returning breeding birds, the Neotropical migrants, will be in for a shock. Hummingbird feeders will freeze. The two male Bullock’s Orioles, the second arriving today in the cold wind, will have to forage elsewhere. All of the nearly 700 species that breed in the ABA region will be facing good and bad weather. Some have already begun nesting. Some will have to search for familiar habitat now plowed or paved over.
Of the targeted ABA breeding birds, I am missing 77 species. Even seeing all the breeding birds, the 700 mark will be short about a dozen species. Over time, slightly over 250 nonbreeding species have visited ABA land. It is embarrassing, but I have bumped into only 14 of those species. Half of the dozen nonbreeding species flown in front of my binoculars are shearwaters. They are all category 1 or 2 species. The harder ones, along with all the petrels out there, are somewhere, waiting. That is 18 species, not counting the Fea’s/Zino’s or the Galapagos/Hawaiian petrel pairs. Surely, someone will figures out how to separate the foursome before I set sail. There are a few storm-petrels needing my stare and a handful of boobies would be nice. Overall, any of the category 5 pelagics are unlikely candidates for this landlubber’s list. Shorebirds constitute the largest group of unseen species, with about 28 being from category 2 to category four species. Two of the ABA shorebirds, curlews, are in category 6. One probably went extinct about one year and a mechanically sound car away, when, in 1963, I was headed for Galveston, but my car derailed the plan. Some of my best birds are in category 5, but these are few in number. Since the Zenaida Dove I found and Sandy Sprunt photographed in 1962, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Colima Warbler, California Gnatcatcher and more were seen by 2005. It has been somewhat slow for finding rare birds since then. Even though every birding hour has a touch of “maybe I’ll find something really remarkable,” I really hope there is someone there who will be witness to the “stop the presses” find. At least, maybe the rarity will be close enough from my little snap and shoot camera. Probably not, but experiencing any such red-faced and palm sweating chagrin will not dissuade beating the bushes.
Well over half of those 200 nonbreeders, the 4 and 5 birds, those poor unticked species, frequent certain hot spots. The best places for those life list missing birds are at the edges of the ABA area. Most occur in the western Aleutians. No surprise there. Owing to the closure of Attu, many of the 27 species that would nicely decorate any birders list will not grace most birders eyes. Even if Attu was accessible, documentation of those 27 species was over the course of several years by several people. A visit now, if possible, might include a small percent of those 27 waifs, or it might not yield anything new. It does not hurt to dream. After all, I was paid to work at Smithsonian, and I eventually got the girl who helps me look for waifs. Five more of those casual and accidental species make forced landings on St. Lawrence Island or the Pribilofs. Another 15 share their fame as visitors to ABA land by showing up both on the western Aleutians and St. Lawrence and the Pribilofs. From Yellow Bitterns to Eurasian Hobby, Oriental Greenfinch, and just about any kind of snipe you can imagine and more may visit these climatically and, to most birders, economically forbidden zones.
There are a few other hotspots, place many birders visit and revisit in the hunt for category four and 5 species. These are warmer locations, and, since they are more accessible than the Alaska sites, they are more forgiving to the budget. There are 17 waifs from southern Florida waiting for my eyes. Species like Banaquits and Western Spindalis. The tanager would be brand new, Banaquits made my overall list years ago. About the same numbers of species visit southern Texas. Close to a dozen 4’s and 5’s have shown their colors in southern Arizona. Aztec Thrush, Yucatan Vireo and Bumblebee Hummingbird are just a few of the birds that made brief pit stops in the realm of Arizona and Texas. Newfoundland is another location at the edge of the ABA boundary where six or so hard to find momentary guests such as Pink-footed Goose and Common Redshank have landed. Next, are those category 4’s and 5’s found offshore. Perhaps trips off North Carolina and southern California would add a baker’s dozen of pelagics. A Bermuda Petrel would be nice.
Of all of the four and five species, I have seen so far, only one was outside the hot zones, the fringes of the ABA area. Most were seen while on extended birding trips, the ones when you bird for hours day after day, those great days when you bird to you drop. The more time out there definitely helps produce results. The moral to the story is not very clear, but first it helps to be in the places for a suitable duration where most rarities are likely to appear. Second, study the field guide and other sources on identification including vocalizations. Third, repeat number two over and over and over, which helps the brain be ready for the unexpected. It is easy make a quick identification of a common species, but what if that easy to identify and expected species is similar to a rare species. What if what you off-handedly identified as a Snow Egret was actually Little Egret? Fourth, and this is a sad thought, be ready for southern species coming over the southern border as a response to global warming. In SE Arizona, Crescent-chested Warblers probably nested in 2007 and a Sinaloa Wren has been cooling its heels there in 2008.
Still, the elements that do dissuade any bush beating efforts are often time and money. By June 2008, gasoline had exceeded 3.50 and was climbing faster than its fumes could rise on a hot summer day. Any travel budgets succumbed to the higher cost of driving and commensurate rise in food and motels. Would it ever be feasible to drive for more brass rings? Early summer 2008 also required family obligations. Additionally, a notice for jury duty arrived in early June. It essentially read, “be there in early July or else. “ If we had planned a trip, I might have tried sending the message “Dear court, I cannot be a jurist because I’m going birding.” Yeah, sure.
August began as a great month. My mentor and friend, Dick Banks flew down from Portland where he had been taking care of ornithological business at the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting. Dick arrived on 9 August. We birded the irrigation canal above home. It was uneventful birdwise, but to the best of my recollection, maybe only the second or third time Dick and I had ever birded together. Our past was spent mostly huddling over specimens, sheets of data we collected and pertinent literature, then hammering out manuscripts. Back at the house, in the cool of air conditioning, we discussed a few taxonomic issues. One was that the opus on Canada Geese, the one describing 30 some new subspecies was out and how to deal with all those ill-conceived newly proposed names. Published posthumously by a friend of the author, the subspecies are actually unrecognizable, but now they are out there for any unthinkable person to use. We also discussed some of the changes his committee on nomenclature put forth in this year’s supplement to the AOU Checklist. Dick did not vote for removing the hyphen from Violet-ear. We agreed the change read viole tear. We talked about why some of the potential species in present supplement and that splitting Savannah Sparrow had not been addressed.
We also talked about the linear sequence of species. Flamingos were moved next to grebes to indicate their close relationships. Gulls were shuffled. It had not been so long ago that ducks and geese were put at the head of the line, well before loons and grebes. I have taken this in stride. While working at the museum, I was forced to deal with numerous sequences, depending on the age of the literature. When attempting to formulate a taxonomic history of any given species, I might need to peek into literature back to the Eighteenth Century, and the need to consult tomes by Latham, Swainson, Hartert and many others was frequent. Close proximity of hawks and owls and the “waterbirds” group was expected, but that is about it. Sequences began to change in the 1800’s but only lately, in the advent of genetics, has it changed so much.
Speaking of systematics, we even talked about formally describing a new subspecies we discovered too many years ago in the natural history museum in Ottawa. The new taxon would be for a subspecies of Thayer’s Gull. That is correct, larophiles. Shades of gull controversy, literally, one of the characters of the new subspecies we would describe was to be based on color. Of course, the systematic relationship of Thayer’s Gull with other large, white-headed gulls of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland are steeped in intrigue concerning the ethics of earlier studies by Smith and by just what are these Arctic gulls. So far, genetics have not helped, but ornithologists are now realizing genetics at the species level is not always the path to follow. There is a lot more to determining species relationships than little microscopic genes. Especially just from the mother, if I may use that term when thinking science. We all have them, but the mtDNA, the mitochondrial DNA, from the mother, unless you believe in parthenogenesis is only half of the story. What about daddy gulls? Did I really say that? Getting the picture may take male and female genes, and, it will take much more than that. Do taxa that differ morphologically interbreed and if so, is it assortative or is it a random free-for-all gull orgy. After all, gulls may be promiscuous, but just how often they stray to non-relatives is just one of many questions to answer. However, as I published once, these gulls ought to be recognized as separate species until proven otherwise.
That brings back the thought of flocks of Canada Goose subspecies. Truly, ornithology has been goosed, but that is not because of real taxonomy, but because of unbridled zeal by an author lulled into fantasy. Unbridled zeal and illogical logistics in the case of Smith’s gull studies in the Canadian Archipelago and the goose goosing are issues taxonomist must sort. Then the real scientific issues can be tackled, including genetics and loads of data collected by those willing to turn their thumbs raw from repeatedly moving their dial calipers. It takes hours and hours, and more, of weary eye-rubbing, sometimes mind-numbing time pouring over every specimen available. It takes careful field observations often including capturing and marking your prey, and putting it all together to arrive at what is, at the time, the nearest possibility to scientific truth. That the results may later be altered, overturned, or momentarily reinforced is expected.
As the afternoon progressed, it became increasingly more difficult for me to entertain thoughts of avian systematics. A sharp stabbing pain came and went through my chest. I had felt the pain, on and off, weeks earlier. There were no other symptoms, not a heart attack, just those pesky sharp throbs. Perhaps I unknowingly broke a rib or I had a bad case of indigestion. My doctor agreed it probably was just gas. Just gas? Linda prepared a dinner of Bison burgers and other great dishes I failed to appreciate. Skipping dessert, I excused myself, thinking if just lay down a while everything would be fine. It was not as I rolled into a fetal position with pain overriding ability of even speaking. I could hear Linda on the phone, telling the ER we were on the way.
The hospital admission diagnosis was multiple pulmonary embolisms in both lungs. The left one, the one so sharply alerting my pain center, hurt because of a thrombosis. Anticoagulants and bed rest, following a minor exercise regime predicts a good outcome. Being admitted later would have put me somewhere in the proximity of extinct birds. Linda’s quick thinking saved my life. Who says you should not marry a nurse? Will I be able to go for the brass ring of 700 ABA species? Very likely. When can I get started? Probably in six months, after a CAT scan to recheck my lungs, I will be free, but watchful to long bouts sitting at the computer, in a cramped plane, polluted air and other enemies. In the meantime, we canceled our scheduled trip late in August to the Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. To not gander at a Himalayan Snowcock is a disappointing but logical decision. Diminished lung capacity and the threat of dislodging those stinking clots meant no mountain goating.
4 October 2008
On 30 September, local Willamette Valley birder John Sullivan found a Wood Sandpiper at Fern Ridge Reservoir, a locality west of Eugene, Oregon. Linda and I saw our first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper there last fall. Being on the lookout for rarities, I spot an internet announcement of the sighting about the same time I notice a rash on the bottom of my feet. No, it not athletes foot. It really is more like a tingling mixed with an itch to press the gas pedal and drive the 150 or so miles north of home. Eurasian Wood Sandpipers are fairly common to the outer Aleutians where it breeds, uncommon on the Pribilofs and rare on St. Lawrence. On the other hand, it would likely never be fairly common or even rare for me to bird any of those localities. My trusty Geographic states the species is casual to British Columbia and northeastern North America. Apparently, the British Columbia locality is Queen Charlotte Island and the NE North American locality is New York. That is according to the seventh edition of the A.O.U. Checklist, a copy I keep on my desk, the same copy Dick Banks gave me a couple years after my retirement. It is not as frayed as my copy of the fifth edition. Inside its familiar blue cover of the older edition, with the blue spin cover dangling by a thread, the account on Wood Sandpiper lists the species as only accidental on one outer Aleutian Island. More birders in the right places now help document the current known range. Normally, Wood Sandpipers breeding on the Pacific Rim migrate south along the Asian coast and winter as far south as Australia. The Wood Sandpiper in Oregon, a juvenile, is the state’s first. Perhaps this inexperienced bird is taking part in a mirror migration. That is, its brain looked at the map but interpreted it backwards, a mirror image of the Asian coast. I understand. Sometimes I have to think twice when looking in the mirror while trimming eyebrows and other unwanted old fart hairs. It is a good way to look uneven or poke out an eye. As for the sandpiper, the long-range migrant would stop for a lengthy rest and long food break about half way to its wintering grounds. Perhaps the mirror of the Asian plumping up location is Eugene.
A look into the mirror at home allows me to ascertain the right from the real left and reflected upon what to do next. My future, as I kiss Linda in the darkness of 4 a.m., is soon to be within sight of my first, and perhaps only, Wood Sandpiper. Even though the bird was seen yesterday, there is no guarantee that it will be at the appointed place today. Did the recent rain fronts prompt the sandpiper to move on? Did water accumulating in the paludal shorebird habitat south of the reservoir make it impossible to find or would it relocate to a different spot in the vast marshes south of Fern Ridge Reservoir?
Following a darkened drive, with one stop for coffee, morning light at the dead end of Eugene’s Royal Avenue is welcoming. Two local birders direct me to a spot in the small parking lot. They are also present to dissuade any would be persons from breaking into vehicles, something several locals had not been fortunate to avoid. Having my vehicle guarded is a luxury, but their other news is not so welcome. No one has seen the Wood Sandpiper.
It is about 7:30 a.m. as I trudge west then south on the approximate ¾ mile along a dike road. The ground requires stepping carefully on the uneven, wet and soggy surface. My trek ends at a place being occupied by about eight birders. Their scopes point westward, toward the shallow water of an impoundment a little over three quarters of a mile long and slightly over a half-mile wide. Rain falls intermittently. A couple of people remark that the water is rising. Those are dreaded comments; habitat suitable for the bird is increasing. It could be anywhere, but the intrepid birders are reassuring. The sandpiper had been seen after all, about 3 minutes before my arrival. Great or not so great.
We wait and soon there are over two-dozen of us. Dark clouds cover the sky and darker ones fill the western horizon. More rain falls, sometimes hard, sometime not at all. Dowitchers, yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers and others forage between two swooping Peregrine Falcons and a Northern Harrier. The sandpipers and falcons seem hardly to notice the growing crowd of birders with their three legged contraptions holding scopes of every ilk and vintage. My weapon, besides my 10X binoculars is my small prism scope protruding from my raincoat pocket. I hang onto the unused and flimsy tripod, figuring if the bird does show, I might beg a peek from one of the birders sporting heftier tripods.
Where did the sandpiper fly three minutes ago? I was told it went beyond a small and low island on the other side of the impoundment. My first thought is someone should go over there, but I’m advised, upon making my thought voiced, that it would be a long and possibly fruitless walk. Over an hour later, someone takes off for the other side. Then another, who tells his partner he will be on walkie-talkie channel 22-11. I can’t stand it and follow close behind, with at least three others trailing our march. It is about a mile to the other side, where we are able to view the western side of the island. The new view reveals about a dozen dowitchers garnishing the small island shore. The long bills sew at the mud near what I take to be a foraging Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. I do not say anything about the Sharp-tail, which quickly disappears. (10 days later a confirmed Sharp-tail Sandpiper was found in the region.) There are Tringa sandpipers, but none with the binomial glareola. More yellowlegs, dowitichers and other sandpipers as well as a snipe now and then keep us gazing and staring. One birder offers to play the call of a Wood Sandpiper from some sort of portable device. Having barely graduated from analog magnetic tape, I am amazed as a tiny digital object is produced. The playback upset a couple of people about 25 feet away as Tringa sandpiper flew overhead. The two birders almost messed themselves from hearing the recorded Wood Sandpiper, but what they see is a Lesser Yellowlegs. The same disc jockeying birder informs me this will be his 712 ABA species. I tell him it will be my 624th. Eventually most everyone saunters grimly back to the original spot. Luckily, the people remaining on the west dike, including one female birder, head north to return to the parking lot. In addition, even more luckily, I had spied a couple of willows that will provide a great place for privately contributing to the raindrops.
About 11:45, the stomach begins to grumble. I head from the original eastern dike location to the car to sit and eat lunch. Standing is not my forte as my aching back attests. The parking lot is overflowing. At least thirty cars fill the lot and the shoulder of the dead end road. I eat fast; avoid exposure by using the parking lot outhouse and head back to the place where I earlier stood the sandpiper vigil. On the way, I meet the person who had the recording. Apparently, he is giving up, heading for Arizona for a reported Sinaloa Wren.
At least two-dozen anxious birders stand watch. By now, the weather turns to raincoat ok to drowning duck intolerable. Rain comes down sideways. I am not the only one who is not wearing rain pants. It is a time of soaking, drying by the cool wind during the eye of the storm and soaking again. Finally, the downpour dwindles to nothing. In the meantime, a dry someone on the northwest side begins madly waving a large beach umbrella. The Wood Sandpiper is over there! It has to be. All but a couple of the group begin a hard march, double-time, to the umbrella waiver. It is, again, almost a mile to the new place, but by the time we get there, the wayward sandpiper disappears, flying with several yellowlegs trying to avoid a Peregrine Falcon. Where did the Wood Sandpiper go?
The skunked group eyes everything that moves. Then, someone’s cell phone rings. The call is from the couple of birders left at the original site. They have the bird. Time is advancing. I promise myself to be home before dark. My deadline for departure is nearing as I huff back to the site where birders see the bird. It is a good thing I had been walking up and down the hills at home, but even so, I am tired and a little winded. By now, my right shoulder is hurting so much it is hard to hold up my binoculars. Still, I must keep trying. Finally, at the other side, again, I hear people chortling to one another. Scopes are aiming at the target and smiles are everywhere. Finally, after nearly seven hours of searching while standing and standing and walking close to 6 miles, I see the elusive Wood Sandpiper.