Monday, August 30, 2010

I Get a Lifer, and It Takes Me a Week To Realize It

The birding situation in Gainesville is oh-so-slightly improving. The temperatures have plummeted to the mid-eighties (woohoo!), and the migrant and wintering warblers have started drifting back in.

A couple of weeks ago--just before things started getting good again--I decided to go on another "practice birding" outing: I'd go and just try to get looks at as many far-away and partly hidden birds as possible, and if any early migrants showed up, all the better. I headed to Bolen Bluff, a well-liked local migrant trap only fifteen minutes from my place. Since it looked like it might rain (it always does at this time of year), I didn't bring my camera.

The parking lot at Bolen Bluff was empty when I got there, which meant I had the place to myself. Just by the entrance, I got my first-of-season Black-and-white Warbler--a good sign. A while later, I spotted a female/juvenile American Redstart--also good.

Off the trail leading out to the prairie, I heard an unfamiliar song: three high, slow notes followed by three fast ones: wee...wee...wee...weet-weet-weet. Or something like that. It was loud and insistent, and whoever was singing must have been close by. Then I saw movement in the trees a few feet above my head--then none. Then something moved again, but it was behind a clump of leaves--but still singing. Ooh, I hate it when birds to that!

I stood there following shadows and movement with my bins for about ten minutes, while my evil little quarry flitted and sang away, slipping in and out of view. Finally, it deigned to perch on a bare branch, and it was an unremarkable little thing indeed: pale and plain underneath, brownish, plain wings and back. Its only defining visual feature from where I was was a distinct white eye line.

Meh, I thought. Red-eyed Vireo. But what's the deal with that song? Maybe it was a juvenile; I've been thrown off by the vocalizations of juvenile sparrows and Northern Cardinals before. Whatever.

I went home, entered my sightings on eBird (I counted my mystery bird among the several Red-eyed Vireos I saw that morning), and forgot about it. Sort of. But that song still bothered me.

A week later, I was flipping through the warbler section in my Kaufman guide when I saw that bird again: Swainson's Warbler! I read the description of its song: "clear,ringing teer, teer, teer, whipperwill."

I hadn't even considered that possibility, but that sounded about right. But I wanted to make sure, so I went to Whatbird and played the Swainson's Warbler song: that was the song I heard at Bolen Bluff! Cool.

After conferring with one of the local birding gurus, I learned that the Swainson's Warbler wasn't just a lifer for me, but a rare sighting in the Gainesville area in general. But my report was solid enough that the gurus let it stand. (They know I'm not clever enough to make up something this laboriously detailed.)

And again I was grateful for that birding-by-ear class I took back in California (we learned not just the songs of Southern California birds, but how to listen to birds in general), and for my decision to spend part of the summer on "practice birding." For once, my practice has paid off!


ABranch said...

Awesome story! The "surprise" lifer memories are always the best and most remembered. Good birding.

Hilke Breder said...

Congratulations, Felicia, to a lifer. Enjoyed reading your post.

Felicia said...

Thanks to both of you! Lifers are always a treat, and surprise lifers an even better treat!

jen said...


Harold Stiver said...

Interesting. I wish those southern Warblers would be more adventurous and head farther north.

I've had a few delayed lifers from photos on birding trips where I finally puzzled out the species.

Felicia said...

Jen--thanks for coming by again!
Harold--my husband first got into birding through his photography--he got into bird ID so he'd be able to label his photos. Then he started taking photos so we could ID the birds later.The two activities work well together, as you probably know!

dAwN said...

Great story..and Congrats on finding out what the bird you really saw.