Birders have a language all their own. As with most hobbies, there’s a laundry list of jargon and slang terms that get thrown around by people who partake in the activity. Birds we’ve never seen before are called lifers, and we often make great efforts to chase or twitch these species. When we come up painfully short on our search, we say we dipped on our target, but a successful hunt means a new tick for any list we’re keeping. We also use a variety of specific words that feature infrequently or differently in other contexts. It’s not unusual to hear birders discussing the crippling views they had of a vagrant, speculating on the questionable provenance of the individual while sharing the photos that they crushed. One birding term is particularly poetic, invoking a very real sense of a personal struggle. When a species has eluded you on multiple occasions despite your best efforts, you have found yourself a nemesis bird.
The concept of a nemesis is not to be taken lightly. Birding is a fundamentally simple activity that reveals many challenges as you become more involved in the pastime. Finding birds is rarely difficult; finding a particular bird can prove monumentally frustrating. It’s generally understood that you won’t see everything every time you’re in the field. The whims of wild creatures are unpredictable, and a missed encounter rarely amounts to more than fleeting disappointment. Nemeses sneak up on you. One day you fail to connect with a certain target: you dipped…again. You do the mental math and realize this is becoming a bit of a trend. You’ve missed this species despite repeatedly searching the proper habitat at the right time of year. Remember that time you drove out of your way to follow up on a report? It starts to feel less and less like random happenstance. This bird is avoiding you. What nerve! Time to dust off that harpoon, Captain Ahab. The hunt is afoot.
I’ve experienced several nemesis birds throughout my career, some of which are spotlighted in the gallery above. It’s possible to have more than one nemesis at a time, but there’s typically a standout species that draws most of the focus and effort. For years, I have struggled to track down Bartramia longicauda, the Upland Sandpiper. This aberrant shorebird is, in all fairness, an intriguing opponent. Unlike most of their kin, they do not live their lives tied to the water. Uppies breed in prairies and similar open spaces from Alaska to Maine, with the bulk of their population concentrated in the Great Plains. Each year, the birds partake in a marathon migration to the grasslands of South America. They are most closely related to curlews, and they have bizarre habits and looks compared to smaller, more familiar sandpipers.
The bubbling whistles of these doe-eyed birds are becoming less common as populations decline and become locally restricted. This makes their status as my nemesis somewhat defensible, but I have taken several swings at this species in the past. They used to breed on eastern Long Island and still do in locations upstate, but they pass through in migration very infrequently. I’ve swept grassy areas in multiple states searching for Uppies, and I have failed to locate them every time. A reported individual at the Mendenhall Wetlands in Juneau: nothing. A former nesting spot on Clarry Hill near my Maine dwelling place: zilch. Blue Chip Farms, an expansive property a few hours north of NYC, features regularly-returning pairs of birds. I’ve scanned the fields from that roadside, only to have an Upland briefly appear for a birder standing next to me and quickly resume hiding from view. This species is cute and charismatic enough that I found myself wishing for a quality encounter, and thus nemesis status was eventually achieved.
The latest development in the sandpiper saga came with a text from Brendan on a Tuesday afternoon. He asked me when I expected to get home, and I told him that it was the one day of the week I had grad class keeping me in the city late. When I asked why, he informed me that an Upland Sandpiper had been reported from the Ocean Parkway throughout the day. In the midst of my work responsibilities, I’d been too busy to check my email and see the reports flooding in from the listserv. As I mentioned before, these shorebirds are an increasingly rare sight on Long Island, and many birders had headed to the coast to see the visitor. It was apparently quite cooperative, feeding in the median of the road and providing amazing views. Of course my nemesis would show up to taunt me when I was unavoidably detained by my program obligations. I was more than a little miffed, discussing my frustration with a number of friends. There was a chance, we supposed, that the bird could stick around, but I was expecting the long-distance wanderer to wander on during the night.
I made some contingency plans with Brendan and Tracey before going to bed, just in case it lingered on location. To my delight, an early morning email came in on Wednesday with a positive report. The bird had stayed, and if I could survive my busiest workday of the week I just might get a chance to see it. I focused as best I could on the day’s lessons, using the excitement of the planned chase to fuel my teaching energy rather than distract it. I see all five of my classes on Wednesdays, so it was a particularly rough slog to the final bell. Our school was celebrating Autism Awareness day by encouraging staff and students to dress in blue for the cause, and a few teachers were sporting colorful makeup. I got myself decorated with bright blue war paint, partly for the spirit of the campaign and partly for the imminent Battle of Bartramia. At the close of business, I raced to the train station and made great time back to Lynbrook, where Brendan and Tracey were waiting for me. We drove down to Jones Beach and headed east into Suffolk, laughing and joking the whole way. Our high spirits were briefly shaken when our first pass of “the spot” didn’t reveal the Uppie. We pulled a quick u-turn at Captree and looped back west, scanning the opposite side of the median.
There it is. My old nemesis, we meet at last. The plump-bodied, pinheaded shorebird was picking the grasses between the guard rail and the parkway, mostly unfazed by the rush hour traffic whizzing by. We pulled over to a safe spot on the shoulder to observe without startling the bird. Borrowing Brendan’s binoculars and camera, I was able to get amazing views and solid photos of our guest as it strutted along in search of food. The best part of having a nemesis bird is the victorious feeling you get when you finally track down the species. Even a brief glimpse can be incredibly satisfying after months or years of missed connections, and this sighting was unbelievably close and clear. Observers who are fortunate enough to be familiar with Uppies remarked that an encounter like this is as good as it gets. Bright, beady eyes, unusual proportions, and amusing behaviors all add up to make a charming critter. In the glow of the setting sun, the sandpiper’s intricate brown and black patterns gleamed with a golden cast.
Needless to say, I was a very happy birder. Going from cursing to crushing a species in such a rapid transition highlighted my favorite aspects of birding. This lifelong, endless scavenger hunt brings me new sights and experiences on a regular basis. Chance events like the arrival of a new species lend color and excitement to the chaos of everyday life. I’m compelled to explore the world around me, see things from different angles, and expect the unexpected. The challenges and struggles are appropriately humbling, and the successes are sweeter for it. A strong sense of community between nature enthusiasts makes the journey even more enjoyable. I’m awed by the unique, incredible stories of every creature I seek out, and it provides some scope for the vastness and variety of life on this planet. Birding is a lifestyle that builds a real appreciation for life. This particular adventure served as a reminder of why that’s important.
Year List Update, April 6 – 260 Species (+ Upland Sandpiper)