For the Birds Radio Program: Rare Birds Here and There
On Monday, I walked into a meeting in one of the conference rooms at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to find a host of birders crowded at the windows, staring out at a young Little Blue Heron perched on a snag out in the big pond. These birds are normally found hundreds of miles east of here, along the coast, or hundreds of miles south of here, but not in upstate New York. One of the top birders at the Lab and editor of New York state’s new Breeding Bird Atlas Kevin McGowan said he’d never seen one in the Cayuga Lake Basin in the two decades he’s been here. Kevin took photos, both to verify the record with the state ornithological records committee and to add to his collection of photos of birds of the Cayuga Lake Basin. The Little Blue Heron stuck around long enough for Lab birders and most of the other birders in the Ithaca area to see, and even showed up briefly on Tuesday for stragglers to add it to their state, county, and Cayuga Lake Basin lists.
Meanwhile, back in Duluth, one of my favorite birders in the universe, Peder Svingen, found a probable Long-billed Murrelet Tuesday afternoon on the Lake Superior side of Park Point. Murrelets are small oceanic birds related to puffins and the extinct Great Auk. There are a few records of their relatives showing up in the Midwest, including the mention of an unidentified one in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, and Long-billed Murrelets have a history of vagrancy to inland areas, but this would be the first record in Minnesota. Fortunately, the right assortment of birders collected immediately when Peder put the word out. The first wave found it close to where Peder saw it, near the Park Point recreation center, and later in the day when others arrived, the bird had swum past the Park Point Airport closer to the Superior Entry, and also closer to shore—that’s where Sparky Stensaas took photographs of it, which are posted at his stoneridgepress.com website. From the photos you can see the salient field marks—the thin dark bill, white scapulars, light throat, and black face with lack of white on the neck. Nowadays, if there is any question about field marks, photographs are usually expected, though there were so many top birders looking at this bird and noting everything that the record may have been accepted without photographic documentation. The fun ended when an adult Bald Eagle tried to grab it. The Murrelet eluded it but moved farther from shore, and rain and fog sent birders home. So far, no one has relocated the bird. There are plenty of other “good” birds in Duluth right now. At Park Point on Thursday there were an adult male Barrow’s Goldeneye, two Red-throated Loons, a Pacific Loon, and Surf and White-winged Scoters. Migration is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get—and the birders who scour places from day to day like Peder tend to be the ones who find the rarities and get the word out for others to share.
A rare bird showed up in Chicago at Montrose Beach on October 29—a Burrowing Owl. A huge number of birders gathered to see it, each new one flushing the poor thing, and it ended up being killed and eaten by a Cooper’s Hawk, its death certainly contributed to by the excessive birding activity which prevented the poor thing from hunkering down and resting. Water birds like the Murrelet have an easy time staying out of reach, so it’s pretty definite that the Duluth birds aren’t being disturbed at all by birding activity. I think the Chicago birding community might have been able to avert the tragedy had birders taken turns keeping the tiny owl in a scope at a long distance from the bird, and shepherding birders one by one to the scope but keeping them from approaching any closer. This is what a famed birder named Smitty did for years to allow birders to see a pair of Spotted Owls in Arizona without causing the birds undue stress. Rare birds are thrilling to see, even when we’re chasing hotline birds that others actually discovered. It’s tragic and ironic when one of these birds comes to harm specifically because of birding. I don’t think it’s really hotlines that are to blame—it’s more an issue of policing ourselves and going to a bit of extra trouble to help birders see rarities without disturbing them.