A Visitor From the North

I had planned to get up early and go birding Sunday, but I just didn’t have it in me.

On Friday night, I joined Anne in Durham for the Duke Lemur Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. She’s the DLC’s director, and she’s spent the past year and a half organizing a scientific symposium to mark the milestone: three days of talks and presentations, culminating in a big  dinner-and-dancing gala Friday night.

Afterward, we gathered with a small group for an after-party, and then with an even smaller group back at the hotel for an after-after-party. It was all a glorious good time with dear friends, but we didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. (In hindsight, the bottle of rye that materialized at about 3 may not have been the wisest of all possible choices).

I’m decades past my party-til-4 a.m. prime. Saturday was a Bataan Death March of a day — just survive until it’s over — and that night I collapsed into bed desperate for a long restorative sleep.

Hence my failure to get up early Sunday to go chase birds. It’s the thick of fall migration, and I hated to miss it, but the body needs what it needs. I got up late, made some coffee, and took it out onto the deck, despite unsettled skies that threatened rain.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal
An Unexpected Arrival

At the deck feeder, the usual suspects — Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches — came and went. But as I sat reading the New York Times on my laptop, something tickled the part of my brain that notices when something unexpected has entered the environment. I glanced up just in time to see a small bird zip up and away from the feeder and into the trees.

It was just a brief blur. Nuthatch-shaped. But within the blur I thought I detected black-and-white head stripes. What the hell? Only one nuthatch has that pattern, and it would be a surprise to find one in my back yard.

Of North America’s four nuthatches, two — Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches — are common year-round residents here in central North Carolina. The third, Pygmy Nuthatch, lives only way out West. None of them have black and white head stripes.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch

The fourth, Red-breasted Nuthatch, is primarily a northerly species — so much so that they used to be called Canada Nuthatches. They breed mainly in New England and northward, although a  narrow tail of breeding grounds extends south along the ridge of the Appalachians and into the cool highlands of the North Carolina mountains. Down here in the Piedmont, though, they are normally no more than occasional visitors.

I’ve seen Red-breasted Nuthatches in Cape Cod, and I got a brief glimpse of one eccentric individual that summered in Durham two years ago. The last eBird record in Orange County, where we live, was from over a year and a half ago, in February 2015.

My glimpse Sunday morning wasn’t sufficient for a conclusive ID, but it sent me scurrying inside for my camera, just in case. And within about ten minutes the bird returned: a tiny, handsome fellow, with a blue-gray topside, caramel breast, and black cap and eye-line separated by a pure white eyebrow streak. Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch
A Good Sign

The active little newcomer hung around all morning. It fed like a titmouse: streaking in to grab a seed and then retreating to a nearby limb to hammer at it with its bill. When it was up in the treetops, I could hear it singing (although “singing” is generous; it sounds exactly like someone tooting a little toy horn).

Perhaps beckoned by the tooting, the bird’s cousins — a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches — soon showed up to join the party. Like most bird people, I love nuthatches, with their crazy upside-down ways and spirited energy, and I spent the whole morning enjoying their comings and goings.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Among other things, the day was a sign that we may be in for a good Red-breasted Nuthatch winter. Red-breasted Nuthatches are the most migratory of the North American nuthatches, but they are erratic. Unlike most migratory birds, which move every year on predictable timetables along well-established routes, Red-breasted Nuthatches are mercurial. Some years they stay put near their breeding grounds. But every other year or so, when food supplies, especially conifer cones, fall short in their breeding range, they irrupt, sweeping southward in large numbers, sometimes as far as the Gulf Coast.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

As it happens, the people who keep track of this sort of thing (conifer cone counters?) report that cone production in the northeast is down this year. And the Red-breasted Nuthatches appear to be on the move.

So my bird on Sunday, and others that have popped up here and there across central North Carolina in recent weeks, may well be the vanguard of a wave of Red-breasted Nuthatches that will spend the winter with us.

They’re more than welcome in my yard. It may actually have been a blessing that I was too worn out to get up and go birding on Sunday. I probably missed some warblers, but I enjoyed the rare treat of a three-nuthatch morning, and an unexpected visitor from the North.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
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Making a List, Checking It Twice

I was stalled.

Ever since I started my life list in April 2014 — yes, I’m a late bloomer — I’d managed to add at least one species, and often many more, every month. After I hit 250 with a gorgeous Fox Sparrow in the snow in my backyard last January, I set my course for 300.

Fox Sparrow, life bird 250.
Fox Sparrow, life bird 250

A family trip to northern California over spring break covered a lot of that gap, netting 31 new birds. But then progress slowed to a crawl. After a Reddish Egret and a pair of Gull-billed Terns on consecutive days in late June for 297 and 298, everything sputtered to a dead stop.

Beautiful bird.
Reddish Egret, life bird 297

July, brutal with heat, came and went without a single new bird. I had high hopes on a trip to Cape Cod in August, but nope: everything I saw, I’d seen before. One morning I tracked down a Red-breasted Nuthatch high in pine tree and felt a brief, completely irrational flush of regret: Crap. I wish I hadn’t seen that one in Durham two years ago.

The climbing gets steeper once you’ve seen all the common birds in your area, of course, so it’s normal for progress to slow. But August ended as July had, and I seemed to have stalled completely, with 300 so tantalizingly close. Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe I’ll just sit here at 298, the magic number visible just up ahead but unreachable, forever.

Only A Little Crazy

Why did I care? On one level — and maybe more — this whole listing business can look a little silly.

Certainly, a lot of non-birders think so. Even those who understand the appeal of the natural world wonder why any otherwise rational human being would climb out of a warm bed before dawn and go slogging through the wet woods, feeding ticks and mosquitoes, all in hopes of catching a brief glimpse of some little brown bird just to check it off a list. A list that nobody else cares about. That will bring you no riches, rewards, or glory. That won’t help you advance your career, attain enlightenment, or lose weight. What’s the point?

I do it for lots of reasons, one of which is that it keeps the game perpetually afoot. Birding is like an endless scavenger hunt. It’s a challenge, a game that you can never really win, but at which you can always improve. It’s a competition with myself. Listing is how I keep score.

Baltimore Oriole, life bird No. 100
Baltimore Oriole, life bird 100

It also fulfills the human urge to collect. Something in our nature compels many people to seek out similar objects and gather them together. (One theory holds that we collect things in order to attract potential mates by proving our skill as providers. I’m pretty sure that birding has, if anything, the opposite effect.)

In any event, it’s thing we do. My dad collected stamps. My wife and I once stayed in an Airbnb whose owner collected tiny porcelain cats. I had a boss who collected anything eggplant-themed: dishes, salt and pepper shakers, ceramic pieces.

Birders collect birds — and, happily, we do it without disturbing them. Each sighting is another item to add to my collection. Listing is how I keep track of what I have and, equally important, what I still need. Crazy? A little, but at least my collection doesn’t clutter up the shelves.

American Kestrel, life bird 150
American Kestrel, life bird 150

Listing makes me a better birder. When a Warbling Vireo was reported at Lake Lynn in Raleigh last year, I listened to recordings to learn its pretty, burbling song with a cheery rising note at the end of each phrase. I drove over one morning, hiked in — and, right on cue, there was that lilting song with its little concluding lift, leading my eye straight to the vireo up in the branches. In seeking a specific life bird, I’d also added a new song to my small repertoire.

Blue Dacnis, life bird No. 200
Blue Dacnis, life bird 200

And, of course, listing is a way of recording my own little history. A life list is like a ship’s log, and each checklist an individual entry. Looking back over them jogs my memory and, in a small way, lets me relive times and places and experiences that might otherwise dissipate in time.

Magic Numbers

We went to Wilmington for Labor Day weekend, imprudently driving down into the torrential teeth of what had been Hurricane Hermine. The next morning, birders reported crowds of shorebirds in a flooded recreation field  at Fort Fisher.

The crowds had scattered by the time I arrived, but some stragglers lingered. Least Sandpipers scurried across the drowned grass and a carpet of tiny yellow flowers. Lesser Yellowlegs waded in the deeper water, and a trio of Solitary Sandpipers huddled in a loose formation off by themselves.

Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs

Then there was a medium-sized sandpiper that looked new to me. It had beautiful scalloping on the back and wings and a tapered bill with a bit of a droop to it. The breast was draped with fine, dense streaking that ended abruptly where the white belly began. Yes! Pectoral Sandpiper. Bird No. 299.

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Pectoral Sandpiper, life bird No. 299

I got ready to leave, taking note of a pair of Yellowlegs feeding in floodwater up their bellies. I looked away — and then looked back. One of those birds was not a Yellowlegs. It was too bulky, too pale. Soft gray, white eyebrow, long black bill. Could it be?

It could. Stilt Sandpiper. Life bird 300. The magic number.

And then, in the way of magic numbers, as soon as it appeared, it vanished, and another one materialized in its place. Four hundred, I’m on my way.

Stilt Sandpiper, life bird 300
Stilt Sandpiper, life bird No. 300
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