Monday, December 08, 2008

The Lure of the Lifer

This morning I had the pleasure of adding a new bird to my life list, a dickcissel.  A dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird with a stout, seed-crunching beak, generally found during the warmer months throughout our midwestern states.  However, according to Kenn Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, it is "rarely winter except in the northeast, where a few may spend the season at bird feeders."  Right on.  This bird was first seen a couple of days ago at a bird feeder in Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I had an itch to head out today, but I also had a lot of chores to take care of, and also, it was cold.  Though I love winter birding, spending hours up at Plum Island in 15 degree and windy weather seemed a bit much.  So I took the dickcissel sighting to heart and drove up the road to the world's most famous birding cemetery and readily found the spry little gal (it is thought to be an immature female) running frequently between a rather wilted and dismal-looking rhododendron and the base of a forest-green bird feeder. 

I was prepared for a more difficult identification than was needed. As the bird reported was a young individual and a likely female without all the unmistakable marking of an adult male, I thought I would need to pare subtle facial markings and shades from the assortment of other sparrows and finches that enjoy that feeding station.  The dickcissel, however, quickly showed up with a clear and bright yellow wash on its breast and a wonderfully googly-eyed facial pattern.  Frankly, the markings were distinctive enough in the full sunlight that I wonder if it wasn't an adult female I was looking at rather than a young bird, though vagrants like this are more commonly immature individuals without a lot of experience navigating their way south.  

I don't normally do a lot of chasing after rarities.  This has become a very popular manner of birding these days, greatly enhanced by the steady flow of information on the internet as well as networking by walkie-talkie while out in the field.  I certainly do my share; I very much enjoy seeing unusual birds, especially if I've never seen them before, but I guess I prefer to go somewhere and get out of the car and see my birds while I'm walking around in a nice place rather than driving from point to point and peering out of the window or stepping out of the car for a couple of minutes at a time.  I also don't particularly like gassing up and driving a long distance just for the chance to see one rare bird; it encourages a single-mindedness in me that, frankly, often prevents me from enjoying the experience as much as I should (especially if I don't find the bird). Of course, I'll do some chasing on occasion.  Certainly, once or twice every winter, I enjoy taking a day to hit several spots scattered across Cape Anne in northeast Massachusetts; one spot is good for king eider, another for the eared grebe, the state fish pier is great for black-headed, glaucous and iceland gulls, eastern point for black guillemots...I can really put together a fun list for the day if I hit a bunch of spots.  But the high point is always Halibut Point where I take a few minutes to walk through the coastal scrub (where you might see wintering hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warblers or chats) in order to get to the spectacularly rocky coast.  There I'll see harlequin ducks, eiders, scoters and with some luck a few alcids like razorbills (or dovekies!) winging by.  

But with just a few minute's free time on a cold winter's morning to spend birding, the lure of the lifer was just too much to resist.  And with my dickcissel now in the bag, I can go about the rest of my day with a satisfied smile on my face.

(The photograph, by the way, was not taken by me, but by Will Freedberg on the day preceding my visit, when it was snowing. It was bright and sunny, though much colder, when I went.  You can see more of Will's images at:

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