The Joy of Uncommonly Common Birds

The Joy of Uncommonly Common Birds

When I first took up bird watching many years ago (or as most of my friends might put it, “When John went mad for birds”) I had a remarkable number of opportunities to practice my new hobby in a variety of different locations – both within my own country and abroad. Naturally, as might be expected of one who wished to accumulate the largest life list possible in the shortest amount of time, I not only enthusiastically sought out every possible species within a reasonable distance of my home but also would spend every free moment on any business trip or family vacation in quest of species I would never expect to see back home.

As might be expected, this strategy was successful and in a few short years I tallied up a list that might have otherwise taken a decade or more had less enthusiasm been applied to the quest; however, as I expect eventually happens to many bird watchers, I one day began finding myself taking greater enjoyment from the relaxed observation of birds that might be best described as uncommonly common – both at home as well as while abroad.

Some might simply chalk it up to age; an assumption belied by all who have ever been knocked over on a trail by a birding septuagenarian chasing his or her 700th North American life list species. Others might ascribe it to a waning of interest in a hobby perhaps too much over-indulged (although if this were the case, why would I continue to trade two graduate degrees and the possibility of a far more lucrative career for my present one as a natural history writer?). No, I think it is quite likely something far more simple – the fact that I have finally come to understand that, with the exception of a few that are critically endangered, most all bird species are reasonably common somewhere in the world.

Take, for example, the Clay-colored Robin that is so prized among birders visiting the Rio Grande Valley of the United States. Few visitors to the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival would feel their attendance at that popular event complete if they left without at least attempting to add the species to their respective life lists. Indeed, my own first observation of one of these dusky reddish-brown birds was made during one of this very event’s field trips. So it was with some astonishment that during my visit to Panama with Panama la Verde I saw these birds seemingly around every corner I turned. They were as common as… well, as robins.

To my great shame, I will honestly admit initially feeling a little cheated upon discovering Clay-colored Robins to be so ubiquitous – not just in Panama but anywhere. The bird was one of the great “trophy birds” to be found on my life list; now here they were where ever I turned. In the sometimes perverse rationale of the list obsessed birder, such a bird was somehow sullied. It was only after reflecting upon the subject at greater length that I began to realize the truth of the matter – that it was not the bird that was rare when and where I first saw it, rather it was my opportunities for encountering it were rare.

Of course, one need not venture so far away or to a locale nearly so exotic to see this same principle at work. As part of my work, I sometimes find myself attending various conferences and meetings that are more often than not held in a state other than the one in which I live. Occasionally such events will be held in areas near a wildlife refuge, wetland, or other prime bird watching location; however more commonly they take place in urban conference centers or suburban hotels that are themselves surrounded by acres of box stores and strip malls.

To make matters worse, time and money are often of the essence so everything is scheduled as tightly as possible, leaving no opportunity for even a half-day excursion to any parks or wild areas that might be reachable by car. These trips formerly drove me to distraction – being in a new area where (to me, at least) rare and desirable birds might be found with only a few hours time invested in the search.

Now, however, I am perfectly content to accept with gratitude the opportunities to observe the birds with whose paths my own naturally crosses in the course of my trip. Perhaps it is a Brown Thrasher seen at the edge of the hotel parking lot on a brief walk before breakfast or the Great-tailed Grackle noted resting atop a street light outside a restaurant window – either would be cause for dialing up the local rare bird hotline were they to be seen in my own backyard. Yet for how many years did I quickly adopt the perspective of too many of my bird watching friends when I visited them in their own “native habitats?” “Oh, it’s just a thrasher.” “Nevermind – I thought I saw something good but it was only a grackle.”

None of this, of course implies that I don’t “go heeled” whenever I travel or even when I am just running an errand across town or simply taking an evening walk with my family. However unlike in years past when I might insist on taking my alpha binoculars anywhere I might expect to see a new life bird, now I am more comfortable with smaller (but by no means inferior) optics as travelling companions.

Yes, I still take my Swarovski EL 8x32mm ELs along if a designated bird watching excursion is in the plans; but see me on the street in my hometown or walking though an airport en route to Birmingham for a meeting, and you could bet safe money that I’ll have my Leica 8x20mm Monovid in its case on my belt or perhaps a Minox 8x25mm Macroscope in my pocket. You just never know when a Barn Swallow or a Blue Jay might perch conveniently nearby.

From where I now sit – both in terms of my intellectual outlook as well as my actual physical location: stretched out in an armchair by a woodland-facing window in our home and tapping away on my laptop – I can see the American Robins gathering in the lower branches of the trees. Soon they will begin their evening chorus, perhaps additionally accompanied by the Swainson’s Thrushes that inhabit the cool shade of the forested ravine adjacent to our property.

To all-too-many birders, the one would be quickly ignored, if even noticed at all in the first place, while all attention was focused on determining the location of the latter (a task I have long since declared to be effectively impossible – even living mere meters from them summer after summer, I have only seen one who deigned to make himself visible on an exposed branch for a brief minute).

Individually, each one has its own charms, yet the song of both together brings the listener a richness and complexity of song that is far beyond the power of either alone to create. To be able to acknowledge the beauty in these uncommonly common birds as they are found not only in the comfort of my own “home territory” but in whatever corner of the world I might find myself is a lesson I have come to think of as among the most significant my years of bird watching have taught me – and one I most ardently wish never to forget.