Open Letter to a Young Birder (Part 1)

Open Letter to a Young Birder (Part 1)

By Rob Fergus

During the summer of 1984, I was about to start my junior year of high school. I had been actively birding and chasing birds for three years, and had been a birdwatcher for several years before that. On August 11, I caught a ride to the Oregon coast with several birders. Of course, since I was a kid birder, I had to catch a ride, which was OK with me, since that got me out with some of the best birders in the state. It was a great time to be a kid birder, and I was starting to experience the rush of finding and documenting rare birds.

Sometime in the mid afternoon, several of us were looking for shorebirds on the edge of Lake Meares, which had been partially drained. I noticed a funny looking bird that I just couldn't place, since it didn't look like anything I knew. At first glance, it looked like a female Brown-headed Cowbird–with buffy edges to the feathers of the wings and back. But it was a shorebird. I only saw it for maybe 20 seconds, and it took me more than half that time to really understand that it was a shorebird, and not a cowbird.

Just as I was about to get someone else to look at it, the bird flushed. As it did, Jeff Gilligan, one of the best birders in the state, and the only one at the time with an Oregon list over 400 species, said excitedly, "did anyone see that shorebird when it flushed–it had really white outter tail feathers."

Of course, as a well-read kid birder, I knew what that meant. And that's when all the pieces came together in my mind. Buffy edges to feathers above, no breast streaks–just a buffy wash, plain face without noticeable supercilium, bright white tail feathers. Temminck's Stint!

I told Jeff and the others what I had seen before the bird flew off, thinking they would be really excited. This would be a first state record! "It was a Temminck's Stint!" I blurted out.

"No it wasn't," said Jeff.

"But I saw it clearly," I said.

"But," said Jeff, and this is what has since been burned into my mind, "you didn't see it long enough. You can't be totally sure of what you saw in that short of time. And you don't have any proof. It might have been something good. But it got away."

I wish I could say that I learned that lesson immediately. But I was a very active birder, with quick eyes, and a lot of skills. And I was seeing lots of rarities with other birders all across the state, especially at Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge during biennial trips to look for vagrants at the end of May and end of September. And I was out all the time, so I saw a lot of birds. And as you know, you don't always get the lingering look that you might want.

There was the female blackbird on the side of the road in Troutdale that had yellow eyes. YELLOW EYES! It HAD to be a Rusty Blackbird. I thought about that one for a long time before I decided, reluctantly, that I couldn't be totally sure of what I saw at 60 miles an hour. There was a Long-toed Stint, a Wood Sandpiper, and a Gray-tailed Tattler that I discovered and reported. Fortunately for me, I left the state eventually to go off to college, cooled off a bit, and Jeff's words of wisdom finally started to sink in to my rarity crazed mind.

Part 2 tomorrow

2009-03-22T17:13:09+00:00