Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jinx Birds

Once a person becomes interested in birds and birding, the next stage on the risky road towards obsession is "listing". For many of us, it's not enough to merely be able to identify birds. We need to keep a list of the bird species that we've seen - a "lifelist".

A lifelist is the what, when and where of birds that one has observed for the first time. Some people also create subsets of bird sightings, such as, a "year list", "city list", "state list" or "country list". One of the final stages towards obsessive aviaphilia is graduating to the level of "twitcher". A twitcher (or ticker) is a birder who actively seeks out new birds, or ticks, on their lifelist. I think that most birders are content to observe many of the same birds year after year, and it is always exciting when a "rare" bird shows up in ones neighborhood, but there are some truly driven people who will spend large sums of money and time to increase the length of their lists. At 745 species, Sandy Komito of New Jersey holds the current North American "year list" record. I'm not certain how much money he spent chasing down all those birds, but it was probably a lot. This brings me to the main subject of this post - "Jinx Birds".

In my short time as a birder I've heard numerous anecdotes by more experienced folks about their jinx bird. It seems like everyone has, or has had, one. This is a bird species that, no matter how well one plans, seems to always escape the view through your binoculars. Mine was the Golden Eagle. It took me 10 years to finally track one down. I couldn't even find one in the Pacific Northwest. A typical comment that I heard over that period was, "That's odd, there was one here just a few minutes ago." Generally, once that bird has finally been observed, the spell is broken and it is seen over and over again.

I have a birding friend, Kelly, who never managed to find a Great Horned Owl. She is a dedicated and very skilled birder, and, strangely Great Horned Owls are not particularly rare. In fairness, though, they do have the ability to hide in plain view. Kelly's jinx bird story, however, goes beyond frustrating.

Last Sunday we both participated in the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count. Towards the end of the day, the teams covering east Bronx all met at Greenlawn Cemetery. When I saw Kelly she said, "I finally found my Great Horned Owl." She then held out a white, plastic bag and said, "Wanna see?" Inside the bag was the remains of a dead Great Horned Owl that she had found while doing the survey. I felt bad and didn't want to point out the obvious, that dead birds don't count on a "life" list. She kept the owl to turn over to the state wildlife pathologist.

Before leaving I told her that I knew of several locations where I could "get" her a living, breathing Great Horned Owl. Her disappointment turned to optimism and we agreed to meet during the week.

Fast forward two days. As we were walking through the woods I suggested that we remain quiet, so as not to spook the birds. Within 5 minutes we were looking up at two Great Horned Owls. Kelly couldn't have been happier. Two owls, and they were both still alive! The mated pair were perched in trees several yards apart. The paler of the two birds sat, eyes closed, facing the low, winter sun. Several times he opened his eyes and looked down at me with a glaring expression which would intimidate even the bravest person. After a few minutes we quietly walked away to let them snooze undisturbed.

On Sunday, when I told Shane about Kelly's dead owl he said, kidding around, "Maybe it was the red-tails getting even for the dead hawk." We joked about an urban gang war or Mafia hit for turf control. Later on it occurred to me that animals don't practice revenge. It is a unique behavior invented and perfected by us civilized, "higher" forms of life.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

yes! Bluebirds. Apparently they were numerous at one time in our valley -- and then the Starlings arrived and stole their nesting places. I've lived here 37 years and I have never been in the right place at the right time.

2009 -- I WILL see a bluebird.

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