Thursday, December 15, 2016

Birding, Patience and Aloneness

Some people like to bird in groups with others and others prefer to bird alone.  I have spent a lot of time birding alone this year.  I haven't had too much choice in where to bird, but wherever work has sent me this year I have been out birding, from my home in Toronto to California and from Key West to Washington State.  I have birded nearly everywhere in North America and with just over two weeks left in the year I am finishing off my last trip to where I had to be, in this case Maryland and Florida.  Next week it's "birder's choice" and I have chosen the Rio Grande Valley of Texas for a number of reasons.  First, even though I've been to Texas twice this year, I did not get far out from Houston or Dallas.  Birding there for ten days will help me get close to 500 species for the year, a selfish goal,(I also want to be in the e-Bird top 100-another selfish goal, naturally).  Second and selflessly, it gives Sue a chance to pass me on the Life List again.  See, so it's not always all about me.

Anyway, back to this trip.  I was working all but a few hours in the mornings in Maryland and though I hoped to get out to find, say, a Great Cormorant, that didn't work out so much, though I did enjoy birding every morning along the Patomic River within walking distance of the hotel and with the occasional view of the Washington Monument.  And I did see a different variety of birds each day, so I had a good time.  But I was biding my time until I could get to Florida, where a wish list of birds awaited me, including a few rare ones I had hoped would stick around.

In fact, each of the birds I was seeking was not exactly hanging around waiting to be found.  These were not the ubiquitous Palm Warblers that are seen nearly everywhere in Florida in the Winter.  After a succsessful search for the Brown Bobby, I was on the prowl for White-crowned Pigeon, Northern Gannet, Spot-breasted Oriole, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-winged Parakeet, Western Spindalis, Smooth-billed Ani.  I was hoping to see all or most of these species as I enjoyed the solitude of birding in south Florida.  However at this time of year these birds take time and patience to find and though I exhibited lots of patience, I didn't exactly have a lot of time and I spent more time stuck in Miami traffic than I would have liked.  

My first goal was to find Northern Gannets off the Atlantic Coast as I drove down to Miami.  Standing alone, with my scope I patiently scanned the horizon everywhere I could stop and was rewarded with a Gannet feeding frenzy at one point.



My next goal was a pair of female Western Spindalis that had been reported even before I got to Florida in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.  Every day while I got closer and closer to arriving, the birds were reported on e-Bird.  Then a storm hit and it rained all the way down the coast.  I arrived on the 10th.  It rained on me and there was no spindalis.  Turned out I was a day and a half late for this bird.  I was also late for a lovely male Western Spindalis the week before.

But there were other birds to chase.  The Kendell neighborhood near Baptist hospital for Red-whiskered BulBuls was my next stop.  This seems not to be my year for the bulbuls as my many trips around the neighborhood proved in both spring and fall.  And yet, I didn't come away empty handed, as two birds I was expecting to find elsewhere, Spot-breasted Oriole and White-crowned Pigeon appeared to me on adjacent blocks over the next two days of searching for the bulbuls.  



The next morning I drove around Homestead and did my annual dumpster diving trek around the backs of McDonad's and various other sites looking for a Common Myna.  First time I ever laid eyes on one, I had no clue as to what crazy bird, or juvenile something or other it might be.  Sue figured it out for me, at the time, and now it is an annual tradition to go looking for them.  I found one right behind an Auto Zone.  It would be the seventh and last bird I would add to my year list in Florida, giving me 437, three short of my goal of 440 going into Texas.



Had I seen the Red-whiskered Bulbull and Western Spindalis, the Smooth-billed Ani would have helped me reach my goal.  But birding doesn't always go as planned and birds love to tease and frustrate me.  It would be an ABA  Lifer,(I've seen onen in Costa Rica in 2014).  There was one reported in the spring.  I couldn't find it.  And now, just 30 minutes from where I was staying in Homestead and on my last evening in the Miami area one had been reported in a Brazilian Red Pepper bush on a canal between two industrial sites.  I had to fight ridiculous Miami morning rush hour traffic and had trouble finding the spot, of course.  And I couldn't help but think it would stay around for a day or so.  Right?  Both the male and Western Spindalis had been around a week before I arrived.  Now I was in the perfect spot at the perfect time to drive there at first light and record the bird.  Right?  Of course not!  A morning of walking the half mile stretch of canal proved Ani-less and and drove back to Tampa without a bird in the bush.  

On the bright side, I now know what a Brazilian Pepper bush is.  Never heard of it before, but both the spindalis and the ani were said to be frequenting locations with pepper plants.  Not being a big fan of pepper in it's cracked form, I am now even less of a fan of the plant, as birds I seek within range never seem to be there.   Meanwhile back home, naturally, rare for Ontario birds started appearing the moment I left Toronto for Maryland.  With a little luck there will be lots of birds left for me to count in Texas beginning just five days from now.  

At the end of the day, though, the number and count of birds wasn't as big a deal as I thought.  The chasing, the wanderings, the absolute aloneness was often as wonderful a feeling as finding Brown Boobies.  Birding gives you so many opportunities for solitude, for quiet contemplation as you enjoy the natural world around you and appreciate that nature isn't there for us.  It exists and we have been given the chance to surround ourselves in it and enjoy everything it presents to us.  That we, as birders, can travel around a city, county, state, provence or the world finding birds behind every tree, bush, and occasionally warehouse and trailer park, is what makes it special.  The folks we meet along the way that break up the solitude become even more welcome when you travel and bird on your own.  A golf book from a number of years ago was entitled, "A Good Walk Spoiled."  Birding, if you remain patient, and sometimes embrace the solitude, will always be a good walk made better.

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