Despite my extensive travels throughout North America, there are plenty of birds on this continent that I haven’t seen. Some are range-restricted and only found in specific regions I haven’t yet visited. Others are relatively common but were easily overlooked by a young, inexperienced birder following his family’s itinerary. I didn’t see the ubiquitous California Towhee until my most recent visit to its home state, because it is subtle and inconspicuous compared to the charismatic A-list wildlife I sought with my limited time in the Golden State. The birds that hurt the most are the ones that my parents or siblings saw that I missed. It’s especially rewarding when I finally meet up with these sneaky species. A Calliope Hummingbird once visited the window of our broken down car while Mom and the other kids were waiting in the vehicle, 10 years before my life sighting this summer. Dad spotted both Vermilion Flycatcher and Scaled Quail on a rainy drive through Big Bend National Park, but my obstructed backseat view kept both birds off my list prior to my return to Texas in 2016. One of the first near-misses I experienced was the Lark Bunting, which Dad spotted at Badlands National Park in South Dakota back in 2003. This distinctive sparrow is a denizen of the Great Plains, and it rarely wanders beyond those borders. Every once in a while, someone gets lucky enough to find a vagrant, and last week Brent was that lucky birder.
The reports first came in on Thursday morning: a young or female Lark Bunting had been discovered at Robert Moses State Park. Adult males are black with bold white wing patches, but other age and sex classes appear very similar to more common sparrows if you don’t know what to look for. Brent noticed that the cowbird-sized creature had a large, silvery bill and distinctive pale blazes at the bend of the wing, and he was quick to get the word out. Thursday was the only day of the week that I had obligations after work holding me past dark, but I had already secured personal time off for Friday. Fortune had provided me with a chance to chase the unexpected new bird.
I got out of the house before dawn, knowing that I had a limited window of opportunity. I was pleased to hear the nocturnal flight calls of Swainson’s Thrushes overhead, and when I stopped to listen I picked out a lower, burrier call that could’ve been a Wood Thrush or a Veery. There was no question about the identity of the subsequent higher, descending vocalization that cut through the crisp air: a Gray-cheeked Thrush! Starting the day with an impressive new yard bird is hard to beat. I reached Robert Moses just after sunrise, and it wasn’t long before I was joined by a crowd of hopeful watchers. Mike Z was the first to relocate the wayward wanderer, and I enjoyed brief but satisfying looks at my latest lifer.
The bunting often went missing for long periods of time, but my morning on the barrier beach featured plenty of other nice surprises. A strong dawn flight brought hundreds of flickers, steady streams of passerines, and good numbers of raptors flying west down the shoreline. I was surprised to hear classic Dickcissel buzz calls coming from both sides of the ball court path, and even more shocked when I later found both individuals feeding on the same stalk of grass. I joined Taylor, Jessica, and Shai to watch the passing birds from the entrance road, and we were treated to a great show. A healthy-looking Red Fox that trotted past us was a welcome sight, and a quick flyby of my first-ever Red Bat was an even greater surprise.
One of the most prominent components of the dawn flight was the movement of Monarch Butterflies that we observed. The multigenerational migration of this flashy species is a spectacle to behold, and populations have declined throughout the continent. Local nature lovers have commented on the steadily decreasing numbers of Monarchs moving through our region each fall, but this year, at least, appears to have been a good one. I got up close and personal with a few roosting butterflies, and I watched countless others bravely winging their way westward throughout the morning. Even my drive home was constantly accompanied by the bright-winged insects.
As the early morning movement began to slow down, I took my leave so I could stay on schedule. The reason for my personal day lay in Ithaca, and I had to transport my friend Lauren from the airport to Cornell. On Saturday morning, we joined several other familiar faces to assist my former roommate, Ryan, with his proposal to his long-time girlfriend Paige. I was honored to be offered a part in this special event, and it was wonderful to come together with old friends in celebration of this big step forward. We spent the remainder of the weekend exploring familiar haunts and old stomping grounds. The Apple Harvest Festival on the Commons, a visit to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a hike at Buttermilk Falls State Park, and several stops for delicious meals and local ice cream all helped to make this unforgettable occasion even more memorable. Congratulations, Ryan and Paige! Here’s to the adventures yet to come.
Year List Update, October 1 – 373 Species (+ Gray-cheeked Thrush, Lark Bunting)