Diary of a day in search of rare birds

birders, Kelp Gull
Early birds.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m not a morning person. I could make a career out of sleeping in. Not this day.

I was the official driver of a group of guys in search of a couple of rare birds that had inexplicably showed up in northeast Ohio. I love to bird this way, with friends who happen to be expert birders going in search of uncommon species.

Up at 5 a.m. and out the door 45 minutes later, I was dressed for the seasonably chilly weather. After two stops, the troops were gathered, and we headed north in the thick blackness of the morning.

We arrived at the natural lake near Akron where an unusual gull had been spotted. To see it, you had to be there early in the morning or late afternoon. A dozen vehicles already filled parking spots in the little park on the lake’s south shore.

Early birders lined up along water’s edge, scouring the area through the pre-dawn dimness. Light snow amid a foggy haze above the lake made it difficult to identify the birds even with expensive scopes and powerful binoculars.

We were looking for a Kelp Gull, a bird that should be in the Southern Hemisphere. Somehow it ended up here with thousands of other gulls, mostly Ring-billed. The gulls’ familiar squawking rang out across the silvery water and through the snowy fog.

The gulls began to circle tornado-like over the water. Even for expert birders, it was difficult to distinguish one species of gull from the other in the haze of the morning’s twilight.

The gulls swirled in a chaotic chorus and sailed southeast for unknown destinations. If the Kelp Gull was there, we didn’t see it.

birding, birders, Brambling
Line of birders.

From there our group traveled a few miles northwest to a residence to see a Brambling. Like the gull, no one could say why this Asian bird had landed adjacent to a small county park in northeast Ohio thousands of miles from where it belonged. It just had, and avid birders near and far were thrilled.

This beautiful bird had arrived amid flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches. The homeowner was a retired park director who immediately perceived the rarity and had his finding verified by noted birders.

Once the word got out, there was no stopping the entourage of birders wishing to add this avian curiosity to their life list. Birders came from as far away as Mississippi and New Jersey to see this bird. We were among them.

To keep the bird and birders safe, observers lined up along the county road opposite the feeders where the Brambling frequented. We climbed the slanting roadway and instantly spotted the bird. As I aimed my camera for a shot, a neighbor scared us all with the harsh sound of scraping off the hard frost from his windshield.

brambling
Brambling and an American Goldfinch.
The birds flew for cover. No one admonished the man. Good birders know to be patient. Sure enough, seed-eating birds began to return to the feeders munching the scattered black oil sunflower seeds.

Like humans, birds behave in routines, too. The Brambling flew to a small, stunted bush by the chimney of the house, checking its surroundings. Soon it again fed on the ground among finches and Northern Cardinals to the clicking of cameras and satisfied smiles of birders whose ages spanned three generations.

Even though we had missed the Kelp Gull, it had been a productive morning seeing the Brambling. The blessings lay not only in observing rare birds but in the company of congenial birders, too.

I’d gladly alter any morning’s familiarity for such delightful diversions with kindred companions.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016