Some birds can be identified by their silhouettes more easily than others.
At dusk on a field trip quite a number of years ago, a participant asked me to identify a bird outlined on a distant branch against a gorgeous sunset. Not being able to name the species, I simply replied, “That’s just a silhouette bird.” After dinner that night the participant sought me out, perplexed that he had searched his bird book diligently for the “Silhouette Bird” and had not been able to find it anywhere. Sometimes those silhouette shapes outlined in the sky can be identified and sometimes they can’t. Surely everyone has seen an iconic newspaper photo of a Bald Eagle against an evening sky, and I surmise that all readers will be able to identify the silhouette birds depicted above in this article.
But there is a category of birds that I find even more interesting, that I call “Serendipity Birds.” These are birds that one stumbles upon completely by surprise and unexpectedly. They are birds you find yourself, either while birding, or not, that are out of range, or at the wrong time of day, or at a completely unexpected location. On our trips this summer Jewel and I encountered several Serendipity Birds.
For example, near Sunflower, Arizona, we occasionally played a Western Screech Owl (above, left) call to entice small birds, accustomed to harassing such owls, in to view. Having used this technique for decades, and while several owls, over the years, have responded with soft calls, I have never had one, Eastern or Western, respond into view at high noon. Until this one! Completely unexpected! Note also, that this bird exhibits a brood patch: bare skin on the belly, feather-worn in the process of incubating eggs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brood_patch. Another Serendipity Bird this summer was the Whimbrel (left) that flew across the bow of our boat returning from the Island Scrub Jay excursion just outside the Ventura, California, harbor. Technically, still at sea. Weird!
Downeast in Maine on a delightful hike in Quoddy Head State Park we stumbled upon this very confiding female Spruce Grouse (right), foraging on the trail, which let us approach to within 20 feet. While Spruce Grouse are not rare or even unexpected in Maine, this bird qualifies as a Serendipity Bird because we walked right up upon it, at mid-day, and were enormously delighted by the unanticipated encounter. A stranger to us, who shared the observation with us, told us he had been in Maine for six weeks, working nights and hiking every day, and that this sighting was the most exciting thing that had happened to him that whole time.
A day later, while admiring spectacular rocky seaside scenery on Campobello Island, Canada, we noticed a pair of sandpipers on the rocks just off shore. While they were at quite a distance for photography, I was able to obtain a few shots to conclusively establish they were Buff-breasted Sandpipers (right, below), even though that species typically migrates south along the Mississippi flyway. Nevertheless, a few are documented each year along the east coast of Canada and Maine. We may be the only people to see these birds on their southern migration this entire year. Serendipity!
Finally, we have two “Serendipity Birds” in Florida: the best one was the Lark Sparrow that we discovered on March 26, 2004, with Dottie and Hank Hull on a farm in western St Lucie County, in my pre-photography days; and the second one was the Least Flycatcher (below)Jewel and I found on January 8, 2008, along Carlton Road in St Lucie County. We were able to share that bird with Dottie and Hank a day later. To find “Serendipity Birds” one must get out into the field and be alert. You cannot find “Serendipity Birds” in your living room in front of the TV set. (9/6/2012)
(Click photos for larger versions)