Birders are a strange lot. If there’s a 90 percent off sale at Beall’s or free Krispy Kreme doughnuts, they’ll just procrastinate or just not care. However, mention a lifer bird, and they spring into action — running out the door, filling up their vehicle with gas, shoving peanut butter crackers and a bottle of water into a backpack to drive 200 miles.
The hopeful sighting of a whiskered tern was one of my favorite search trips. It was not terribly far from my home in Maryland — only a couple of hours. The word was out that it had been sighted on the fringes of Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The sighting was written up in all of the newspapers, and people were flying into Delaware from all over the world.
It was a nice sunny day, and I jumped in my van and took off with high hopes. One of my best birding buddies had driven there several days before me, failed to see it, then turned around and drove home. Did that dampen my enthusiasm? Heck no!
Why the excitement? Well, this little seabird is found in Australia, Africa and Eurasia. It’s a rare vagrant in North America. In its non-breeding stage, it has a white head with a black eyebrow. During the breeding season, the head cap area is black with a slash of white through the eye area. The body is gray. “Normal” people would never notice it.
I arrived at the designated site that was posted on all of the area birding boards. Much to my dismay, there were dozens and dozens of cars lined up on the little dirt road. This meant I would be walking a great distance to get to the dike where the bird had been sighted.
I finally arrived at the spot — one of hundreds of people jammed onto this skinny dike on the marsh. I was glad I left the scope in the van as I had to weave and push through the crowd. Finally I decided to wiggle into a space next to a guy with a three-foot ponytail and what looked like a 500-pound camera. Yep, a real birder in scruffy clothing.
I introduced myself and asked if the whiskered was sighted. Yes, it had been sighted just an hour prior to my arrival. I was hyped. I started searching the marsh but saw nothing. Suddenly, ponytail said it was coming in our direction. I spotted it through the binoculars — a dot in the distance, growing larger and larger until I had to lower the binocs as it came so close it almost flew into my forehead.
I turned to watch it fly away, and a black tern flew across my field of vision. I hiked back to my van, did a quick trip to Bombay Hook, and returned home for dinner. What a great day.
I’ve had other successful searches for lifers, like the one for the yellow rail in Texas. It was an easy find at the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary in south Texas, right on the Rio Grande. The refuge is now on the other sides of the all-important border wall, but fortunately has survived.
Then came a very unsuccessful search in Florida. Some years back, I was searching for the black rail. I was visiting on the east coast at that time and heard of a place where black rails could be sighted. So, off I went in a rented red sports car (not anything a birder wants to be seen in, but that’s what they had). I drove north up the coast with my scribbled directions.
The black rail was definitely a nemesis bird. This tiny six-inch rail could easily be mistaken for just some blackbird. It’s black with speckles, and the underside is a charcoal gray. It has a small black beak. I had it embedded in my mind’s eye. If I could add it to my life list, I would have seen all of the North American rails.
I finally reached the turn-off after driving forever. Another turn and I found myself driving on a very narrow rutted dirt road. After slowly driving for a while, I was getting concerned. Suddenly two rough-looking men appeared out the bramble, each carrying a shotgun. That’s when I knew I was truly in the wrong place.
One of the men walked over to my window and actually told me that I was lost. No kidding. I asked about the birding refuge and he gave me a new set of directions. Off I went, after a difficult three-point turn. Finally, I reached this tiny deserted little refuge in the middle of nowhere.
It was a small refuge nestled into a swampy area. But it was late in the day, and my hopes of the black rail were diminishing. I searched as many trails as I could, but the sun was setting and it became dark quickly. At this point, I was hoping I didn’t trip over a gator while hiking in the dark back to my rented car. And so the search for the black rail continues.
Have you seen a black rail in Florida? I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know where
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.