Monday, November 24, 2008

Fooled Myself, Again

I tend to trust my instincts when I'm out birding, but the mind does play occasional tricks, often getting the better of me.  It happens often enough; a flash of color or the shape of a wing as it disappears into a grove of trees seems unfamiliar, somehow, or wrong - I can't quite put it into words but I feel compelled to take a second look.  Usually I end up chasing down a song sparrow, a pleasant, familiar bird with a boisterous song that I see or hear almost every time I step outside with my binoculars.  This is a part of the program: knowing all the ins and outs of the relatively common birds is essential to make any headway into the rarities you might encounter.  The more you know the song sparrows, red-tailed hawks and herring gulls, the more likely you are to take a second look at that unassuming lincoln's sparrow, distant soaring rough-legged hawk or iceland gull.  

I went out the Wachusett Reservoir yesterday, ostensibly to scout it and a nearby river for future fishing expeditions.  Wachusett is a pretty big lake north of Worcester, and it has virtually no development along its shores and is closed to boats, swimming or wading.  It does allow fishing from much of its shore, and has healthy populations of lake trout, smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon, along with a few brown trout and other fish here and there.  I had a short hike in from one of the entry gates and to my delight found that much of the shore would accommodate a fly rod.  Whether I might dredge up a fish here and there is another story.  

As I walked along the shore in a very cold, stiff wind, I saw a loon.  I immediately assumed it to be a common loon, though from the very first I was struck by how light it seemed.  I got my binoculars on it and thought that the bill looked awfully bright and yellowish, sandy even.  I wondered about yellow-billed loons.  I watched it for a little while, thinking to get out my Sibley's Guide and check out the diagnostic elements and the ranges, but somehow I just didn't get that excited about it and continued on my hike.  

After watching a paranoid group of hooded mergansers and a soaring bald eagle I left the lake and drove over to check out the Quinapoxet River, which empties into Wachusett.  I saw a couple trout swimming along in the startlingly clear water and scoped out the runs, riffles and rocks for likely spots a trout might hang.  Then I drove home.   

Eventually, I remembered to check out the loons in my Sibley Guide.  This is where my head got, well, creative.  I saw that big yellow bill.  I thought I remember the shape of the bill being somewhat upturned as in a yellow-billed.  That lighter, sandy color really spoke volumes to me. I remembered noticing the eye of the bird significantly, and saw that on the yellow-billed it was more separated from the darker colorations of the head.  I thought back and said to myself that it was a really, really big bird, maybe even bigger than the common loon's gargantuan dimensions.  Of course, I saw that the yellow-billed loon would have been a find of great rarity for Massachusetts, though not unheard of in the great lakes region (though still very, very rare).  

But any birder who pays attention knows that crazy things happen, and every year some nutty Moroccan Fish-eating Cassowary finds itself on the top of a flagpole in Government Center in downtown Boston.  I have to admit to myself that my ego played some role in this; I thought how cool it would be to find something like that and give the head's up to the New England birding community.  First I had to confirm the find.  I couldn't get it out of my head, so I drove back this morning.

I quickly found the bird, a friendly common loon in his winter plumage, sporadically diving, preening and loafing about.  It's possible that I did see a yellow-billed loon yesterday, and today saw a completely different bird; I put the odds about one in ten million.  

Anyway, I enjoyed watching the bird.  Loons are comparatively personable for birds; they don't seem very alarmed by our presence and even seem to enjoy keeping an eye on us in a generally curious, relaxed manner.  We followed each other along a nice stretch of shore for a couple hundred yards or so before I turned back.  

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