Rare Birds 2

I used to drive my kids across the continent every summer so they could visit their grandparents in southern Ontario. They’re grown now. For the first time in many years, I’ll be driving cross-country to Ontario, a journey which, for me, will have a slight tinge of melancholy attached to it-a sense of times gone and never to return.

But I like driving. My route takes me  through Pendleton, Oregon,  Laramie, Wyoming, Kearney, Nebraska, Bettendorf, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s a lot of miles, not to mention the return journey. And then, of course, there are the road hazards, like this alleged BLT.


Road Hazard, Michigan

The Kirtland’s Warbler is a rare bird I’d like for my list. To see one means a side trip to  Grayling, Michigan-many extra miles and no guarantees. The birds nest in a tiny area of second-growth pine forest in north central Michigan, and that’s pretty well it. Winters are spent in the Bahamas. The Kirtland’s is very unlikely to come to you; you have to go to it, especially if you’re a westerner.

In Grayling, I find my motel and take a break. Grayling is a small town, very small, surrounded by pine forest. I’m going to be here for two nights! Grayling has a nice little independent movie house though so if I get bored on the second night I could take in a show. I check the marquee. The movie is Minions, so maybe not.


Kirtland’s Warbler habitat

The Warblers are supposed to be in a patch of pines just outside of town. I don’t plan on going too far into the nesting area although the season is pretty well over and the new birds fledged. Some Clay-colored Sparrows appear and check me out. However, it’s a very nice day  and I’m enjoying the quiet of the forest with its wide, sandy trails.


Clay-colored Sparrow

I pass a Cowbird trap. Cowbirds are a particular menace because they lay their eggs in warbler nests. The much bigger Cowbird hatchling pushes the warbler chicks out to die, after which tiny warbler parents bust their you-know-whats to feed and raise the monster changeling.


 Cowbird Trap

Now, I’ve checked pictures people have taken of the Kirtland’s. For reason, I think the birds are usually near the tops of the small pines, which I where I look for them. Other than the rather scruffy yellow and gray-blue bird watching me from a patch of brush, waist-high, I’ve seen nothing. Then it dawns on me-the bird looking at me is a Kirtland’s Warbler! This is another case of not reading the whole description. Every bird book tells us that the Kirtland’s Warbler stays low. I have no idea how many I walked past while I was searching the treetops.



Young Kirtland’s Warbler

So…it’s evening, it’s Grayling, Michigan. I’m alone. What to do? Luckily, there’s a small movie house in town…




Rare Birds 1

This morning I drove 30 miles to a place I didn’t know, got rained on and then dropped my spotting scope, all before breakfast. This is what birding does to people. I’d actually gone to look for a Laughing Gull, a rare bird in my part of the world. Unfortunately, the gull only shows up at low tide and when I arrived at the location, the tide was full in. Now, I could have checked-I live on the ocean after all. As any sensible person mighy expect, I did not see the Laughing Gull, which was, I guess, doing its laughing some place else. Like many birders, I had succumbed to a kind of rare-birditis, a condition that tends to make “sugar plums dance through your head“. I really wanted to see that bird and I thought I might get lucky.

Rare birds fascinate most birders. And why not? The Laughing Gull is most commonly seen far to the south, on Mexican beaches, or the Florida shore. So what’s it doing in British Columbia, several thousand miles away from its natural habitat? Nobody knows for sure. Just like nobody really knows why this Tropical Kingbird would spend a few weeks at a beach in Washington State, where I saw it in October. There is some speculation that the Kingbird brain wiring gets screwed up, confusing their sense of the earth’s magnetic field. They fly north thinking they’re flying south. I just hope that never happens to me.



Tropical Kingbird, Ocean Shores, Washington

What makes a bird rare?  In some cases, a species is so reduced in numbers that seeing one is special. Usually, such birds are almost constantly under scrutiny so finding them is not difficult-so long as you don’t mind going to them-Whooping Cranes, for example. Just over 300 wild Whoopers survive. Since they nest in vast, swampy and northern Wood Buffalo National Park, you’re not likely to see one in summer. Go to their restricted winter range at Aransas near Corpus Christi in Texas, however, and you’ll almost certainly spot several, especially if you take the Whooping Crane boat tour.

Whooping Cranes, Aransas, Texas


The other rare birds are the strays, the birds who get blown off course and show up thousands of miles from home. When they do, an epidemic of rare-birditis breaks out. A rare bird search is a treasure hunt and some birders will cross the country to add the bird in question to their list.

A travelling birder checks the rare bird lists every day, as I did in northern California. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known about the Brown Shrike hanging out near Mendocino which, most of us would agree, is not a bad place to hang out. Shrike, incidentally, hunt like small falcons, catching mice, insects and small birds and impaling them on thorns. This Brown Shrike would normally live in Asia, on the other side of the Pacific.

Brown Shrike, Mendocino California

Brown Shrike, California

I’ve managed to log quite a few rare birds over the past few years. I delight in each and every one. More about them in future posts. Right now, I’ve got to go drive 30 miles to catch low tide and, hopefully, spot that darn Laughing Gull.