During the summer of 1984, I was about to start my junior year of high school. I had been actively birding and chasing birds for three years, and had been a birdwatcher for several years before that. On August 11, I caught a ride to the Oregon coast with several birders. Of course, since I was a kid birder, I had to catch a ride, which was OK with me, since that got me out with some of the best birders in the state. It was a great time to be a kid birder, and I was starting to experience the rush of finding and documenting rare birds.
Sometime in the mid afternoon, several of us were looking for shorebirds on the edge of Lake Meares, which had been partially drained. I noticed a funny looking bird that I just couldn't place, since it didn't look like anything I knew. At first glance, it looked like a female Brown-headed Cowbird--with buffy edges to the feathers of the wings and back. But it was a shorebird. I only saw it for maybe 20 seconds, and it took me more than half that time to really understand that it was a shorebird, and not a cowbird.
Just as I was about to get someone else to look at it, the bird flushed. As it did, Jeff Gilligan, one of the best birders in the state, and the only one at the time with an Oregon list over 400 species, said excitedly, "did anyone see that shorebird when it flushed--it had really white outter tail feathers."
Of course, as a well-read kid birder, I knew what that meant. And that's when all the pieces came together in my mind. Buffy edges to feathers above, no breast streaks--just a buffy wash, plain face without noticeable supercilium, bright white tail feathers. Temminck's Stint!
I told Jeff and the others what I had seen before the bird flew off, thinking they would be really excited. This would be a first state record! "It was a Temminck's Stint!" I blurted out.
"No it wasn't," said Jeff.
"But I saw it clearly," I said.
"But," said Jeff, and this is what has since been burned into my mind, "you didn't see it long enough. You can't be totally sure of what you saw in that short of time. And you don't have any proof. It might have been something good. But it got away."
I wish I could say that I learned that lesson immediately. But I was a very active birder, with quick eyes, and a lot of skills. And I was seeing lots of rarities with other birders all across the state, especially at Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge during biennial trips to look for vagrants at the end of May and end of September. And I was out all the time, so I saw a lot of birds. And as you know, you don't always get the lingering look that you might want.
There was the female blackbird on the side of the road in Troutdale that had yellow eyes. YELLOW EYES! It HAD to be a Rusty Blackbird. I thought about that one for a long time before I decided, reluctantly, that I couldn't be totally sure of what I saw at 60 miles an hour. There was a Long-toed Stint, a Wood Sandpiper, and a Gray-tailed Tattler that I descovered and reported. Fortunately for me, I left the state eventually to go off to college, cooled off a bit, and Jeff's words of wisdom finally started to sink in to my rarity crazed mind.
Just because you are young, and the hottest birder around, doesn't mean that you can be sure of what you see in quick glimpses, especially when you half expect to see something rare at any moment. If you see something briefly, and it looks like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or a vagrant Yellow Wagtail, or a pteranadon--well, you know the pterandadon is a slip of the imagination. But what about the other two?
Quick glimpses of rare birds do not count. Period. Really, they shouldn't even be reported, except to your close friends, but even then as curiosities. What if tales. Fishermen call these "the ones that got away" and love to talk them up. Birders are usually more circumspect. Unfortunately, that means we often don't talk about our mistakes or relish those ones that get away. They don't count, and we don't want people to think we're rarity crazed, so we don't talk about them. If its all in good fun, it should be OK. But for most experienced birders, when they hear someone adamantly state that they were able to make out all the important field marks of a rarity in a split second, or in five seconds (which is often birderspeak for a split second), they just shake their heads. They may be respectfully quiet. But what they're really thinking is that you've lost it, crossed the line, slipped into a rarity-fever induced delirium.
Now I have no idea what's really going on down there in the Choctawhatchee. But when I read about a sighting of a bird flying through the trees for a few seconds, maybe flapping its wings eight times a second, and banking briefly to show the perfect Ivory-billed Woodpecker underwing, or flying quickly off a tree in the rain, the words of a much wiser and more experienced birder than myself come back to me: "You didn't see it long enough. You can't be totally sure of what you saw in that short of time. And you don't have any proof."
I know it isn't polite to say this. I was really ticked off that nobody believed my stint. Six months later I even put it on my state list for awhile. But if I'm thinking it, a hundred other birders better than me are thinking it. You're a bright kid. By all accounts a great birder. You could probably run circles around me on a big day. But do yourself a favor. Next time you see something flash by in the woods, and you think its an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and you don't get a photo. Take a deep breath. Swear if you must. But don't tell a living soul, unless you can laugh it off as "one that got away."
Good luck with your search and your birding. I admire your drive and ambition. You're welcome to crash at my place any time you're in or around Philly. I'd love to go birding with you anytime. You want to be a superbirder, and chances are you will be. But the sooner you learn that your brain is way faster than your eyes really are, the sooner you'll get the trust and respect that you crave.
Be safe out there.
Loose Feathers #515
3 hours ago