The Spark Bird

I had just left the first long open stretch of trail and started a dogleg through the woods when a bird flashed through the trees to my right. Out of the corner of my eye, all I could tell was that it was dove-sized and long-tailed. Mourning Dove.

The bird lit on a branch in deep shade just off the edge of the trail, and I got a better look. Wait a minute. Maybe not Mourning Dove. I lifted my binoculars on a two-toned bird, upper parts the color of shoe leather, underside creamy white. Long, curved bill. Whoa, I thought. That’s a cuckoo.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Definitely not a Mourning Dove.

Outside of a field guide, I had never seen a cuckoo. I’d never seen a lot of things. This hike was my very first solo bird walk, the first time I ever went into the field by myself with the express purpose of looking for birds.

I knew a little bit about birds, but what I knew was dwarfed by what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what kind of cuckoo it was; I don’t think I even knew there were different kinds. I didn’t know how common they were or whether it was unusual to see one here.

And I didn’t know this bird was going to change my life.

When I got back to my car and checked my few quick photos against Sibley, the ID became apparent: Black-billed Cuckoo. What wasn’t apparent to me then was how unexpected this bird was in this place.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill is one of the best and most popular birding sites in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden, it’s a wonderful 367-acre tract with open fields, expansive brush, deep woods, and wetlands, all of which abound with birds.

Mason Farm
A foggy morning at Mason Farm.

But not Black-billed Cuckoos. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are regular at Mason Farm, but Black-billed Cuckoos are unusual anywhere in the Piedmont, and sightings there are very rare; aside from my bird, in fact, eBird still has only a single undated historical report.

yellow-billed cuckoo
The more common, but still elusive, Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

For a brand-new birder, the thrill of finding an even slightly unusual bird was heady stuff. The sum total of my dedicated birding experience up until then was a Bird ID 101 class and field trip offered by the New Hope Audubon Society. That was fun and fascinating, and it warmed my interest.

But it was that Black-billed Cuckoo that lit the fire. Somehow, with that one bird,  all the joys of birding suddenly snapped into focus:  the tranquility of the quiet walk, the thrill of the hunt, the puzzle of identification, the urge to collect, the artistic challenge of photography, the exciting possibility of discovering something unusual — and above all, the wild beauty of the birds.

That Black-billed Cuckoo was my gateway bird, my catalyst bird, my spark bird, what Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds calls a “trigger bird.” It was the bird that made me a birder. I’ve been a happily obsessed one ever since.

black-billed cuckoo
The bird that changed everything.

I’ve seen only one other Black-billed Cuckoo. The following spring, two much better birders invited me along on a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail near Falls Lake. I was the weak link, but near the end of the morning I spotted a bird silhouetted against the lake off to our right. Somehow my brain instantly recognized it, and the words were out of my mouth before I even had time to think: “Cuckoo! Black-billed Cuckoo.” And so it was.

I may never see another one. They are famously elusive. In the meantime, through a sort of fondness-by-association, their more outgoing cousins, the Yellow-billed Cuckoos, have a special place in my heart too. (One is calling insistently from the woods surrounding the deck where I’m sitting right now, in fact.)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
A Yellow-billed Cuckoo peeks out from its hiding place.

I don’t know whether most other birders have a particular bird that lit the fire in them. For me, it was a Black-billed Cuckoo that appeared out of nowhere beside the trail one morning and opened up a whole world.

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The Dance of the Egret

The bird was tall, long-legged, long-necked, and long-billed, and at first glance, from a distance, I assumed it was a Great Blue Heron. I might have dismissed it and moved on, except for one thing: it wasn’t behaving like any Great Blue I’ve ever seen. Great Blues are as stately as they are statuesque; when they move, they do it with enormous elegance and grace.

This bird was … well, the opposite of that. Standing in the shallow water at the edge of a tidal pool, it lurched into a clumsy, splashing sprint along the shoreline. It paused for a moment and peered into the water. Then it lifted its wings like Dracula raising his cape and hop-staggered another few jerky steps back the way it had come.

Chasing fish in the shallows.
Chasing fish in the shallows.

Through the binoculars, this bird wasn’t colored like any GBH I’d ever seen, either. Great Blues are largely grayish-blue, but they have a lot of contrasting parts: that broad black swath above the eyes bordered by bright white crown and cheeks; the bold black shoulder patch; the white throat edged with black dashes.

By contrast, this bird had no contrast. It was a nearly uniform pale gray, from top to tail. No crest, no eyeline, no patches, no streaks or stripes. It looked like a Great Blue Heron covered in volcanic ash.

How much more gray could a bird be?
How much more gray could a bird be?

There are only a few species of herons and egrets that you typically see in North Carolina, and this guy didn’t look — or act — like any of them. Could it maybe be a young GBH, I wondered, still gangly and awkward and learning to hunt?

The bird was in one of the saltwater pools linked by channels that run like a maze through the expanse of marshes at the north end of Wrightsville Beach. When it stood still, it was as refined and exquisite as any Great Blue Heron or Great Egret. Then it would launch into a series of bizarre moves: leaping, running, raising one or both wings, teetering and tilting and stutter-stepping like a man trying to keep his footing on the deck of a heaving ship. Occasionally it made an abrupt stab at the water with its bill. It was an uninhibited and oddly endearing spectacle.

P1490711
Poetry in motion.

But I still didn’t know what the bird was. I hadn’t brought a field guide to our rental house on Wrightsville, and the one the owners had left for guests was an old Audubon guide that didn’t show anything like this bird. I posted a photo online, and within about half an hour a consensus came back: immature Reddish Egret.

Although I’d never seen a Reddish Egret in person, I know what adults look like: rich gray back and brick-red neck and head adorned with beautiful shaggy plumes. But immature birds, it turns out, look just like mine: overall soft gray — “chalky” is the perfect word that David Sibley uses — with greenish legs and startling, pale eyes.

Photobombed by a Black Skimmer.
Photobombed by a Black Skimmer.

Reddish Egrets are North America’s rarest resident member of the heron and egret family. They’ve recovered since nearly being wiped out by plume hunters in the late 1800s, but they’re still far from numerous, with probably fewer than 5,000 birds in all of North America. Aside from the occasional lost soul who goes astray and winds up in Iowa or Wyoming (in birding terminology, these are “vagrants,” which always sounds to me vaguely disreputable), they are found in the U.S. almost exclusively along the shorelines of the Gulf Coast states.

North Carolina is about as far north as any Reddish Egrets are seen annually; every year, a few individuals show up on our coast. From what I could glean on eBird, my report was only the third recorded in the state this year; two earlier reports came from further north, near Ocracoke.

The one-wing stab.
The one-wing stab.

So this was a good bird. (To paraphrase George Orwell, all birds are good, but some birds are more good than others). It was certainly the best bird I’ve ever found. Much later that day, as we sat on the deck looking out over the emerald-and-blue vista of grass and water, I spotted it again, deeper in the marsh. I handed the binoculars to Anne, who tolerates but does not share my passion for birding. “That’s the goofiest bird I’ve ever seen,” she said after a few minutes. “I love it!”

Beautiful bird.
In the evening light, the bird’s subtle blue-and-red tones are more evident.

Its animated feeding behavior — all that running and flapping and lurching — turns out to be characteristic of the species. It’s often referred to as the “dance” of the Reddish Egret, which at first struck me as an overly generous use of word “dance.” (Watching the bird that first morning, I didn’t think, “It’s dancing!” I thought, “Is that bird drunk?”)

Two days later I took a kayak out into the marsh. It was early evening. As I made my way up a reed-lined channel, I came to an opening off to my left, and there, in another tidal pool, was a pale, long-legged wading bird. It stood regally for a moment. Then it hoisted one wing and took off at a run like a scrawny ostrich. Yep, I thought. That’s my bird. It splashed to a stop and hunched over in a crouch to peer into the water, wings canopied over its head like an umbrella.

Success.
Success.

As I drifted in the kayak, I wondered at all these flaky tactics. To my eyes, it looked like a terribly labor-intensive and inefficient — if thoroughly charming — way to hunt. But somehow, it works. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have Reddish Egrets. Evolution comes up with some crazy stuff, I thought.

Then I paddled closer and sat for a good long while in the shallows as the light faded, watching the egret dance.

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