“I’m going to see the bird.” Barbara said hurriedly as I picked up the phone.
I glanced at my watch and noticed that it was noon. “What bird?” I asked. I had not logged onto the New Mexico Ornithological Society the bird sightings list for several days.
“A Yellow Grosbeak. It’s in the north valley. I’ll let you know what I find.” Barbara answered.
Reluctantly I returned to my work obligations. I had two staff in my office waiting to talk with me, and I was certainly not dressed for birding. However, it was difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.
About 20 minutes later as I was wrapping up my conversation, the phone rang again. It was Barbara calling on her cell phone. “I saw it as soon as I drove up,” she said. You can stand right on the side of a residential street and see it at a feeder in someone’s yard.”
“Stay tight,” I responded. “I am on my way. I only have my old binoculars in the car, so I will need to borrow yours to get a good look.” I rushed out of the office realizing I would have to skip lunch and hoped I could spot it quickly, since I had to be in a meeting on campus at 1:30. At each stoplight, I studied the field guide I kept in my car to memorize the bird’s markings.
When I wheeled my car onto Pueblo Solano I spotted a group of people a block away standing in the middle of the road with their binoculars to their eyes. As I got closer, the four birders let their binoculars fall to their chest. “It’s gone now,” Barbara sighed as I alighted from the car.
However, I only had to wait about five minutes for it to re-appear. I could see its bright yellow chest with my bare eyes as it perched on a branch in plain view. It was about the size of a Robin. Through the binoculars it was easy to note its large black upper beak and black wings with white bars and spots. The light streaking on its head indicated it was a juvenile. From its perch, it shyly made its way down to one of the feeders crowded with House Finches. It seemed to know that it was a guest.
I was only able to hang around for 15 minutes before I had to head back to the office for my meeting – long enough to thoroughly observe this rare bird. When I returned, a colleague asked, “Is it all about the chase?”
While there is certainly a rush of excitement about pursuing an unusual bird, it is more about the opportunity to observe a bird I might not otherwise see. The Yellow Grosbeak normally doesn’t stray further north than Mexico. According to my Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, its winter range is in the Sierra Madre Mountains somewhat south of the US border. It was a rare opportunity – and certainly worth forgoing my lunch!
These birds are referred to as strays or accidentals. Strays are often seen during migration, such as the Blackburnian Warbler that was spotted on an Audubon field trip I was on last spring. These birds normally are discovered unexpectedly and don’t hang around very long. When a bird is spotted, the word spreads rapidly among through various Rare Bird Alerts and Listserves. Sightings of the Yellow Grosbeak were posted daily on the NM/AZ birders Listserve:
“As of about 10:30 am this morning, the bird had NOT shown up. People continued after I left, and I don’t know if they saw it or not.”
“The Yellow Grosbeak appeared this morning at 9:45. It perched high in a cottonwood and then flew west to the yard with the pond…It moved around the second yard for 20 minutes plus. Excellent looks for a large crowd.”
One of the items on “You know you are a birder if”… was checking rare bird alerts before heading on a trip. It might even mean altering your route. After scanning the Wyoming bird sightings Listserve prior to my vacation last summer, I learned about a stray warbler that was seen in a Fort Collins, CO cemetery. It had never been observed that far north before. Of course, I arranged my itinerary for the opportunity to try and see this beautiful bird.
When I asked my friend Barbara why it is important to her to take advantage of a visit from a rare bird, she replied, “If I don’t go and see it now, I might never have the possibility again.”