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.
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, 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.