Birds We’ve Met Before

Knowingly seeing an individual bird that has been previously encountered is a special treat in the world of birding. Most birders would probably agree that the fascinating life cycles of these wild creatures are among the greatest draws that keep people invested in the hobby. It is a truly remarkable privilege to witness multiple chapters in the stories of specific birds. Repeated meetings occur more frequently than one might expect, given the difficult, fast-paced, and often short lives many species lead. Even so, it never gets old.

The high-profile sagas of rarities and vagrants regularly feature surprising encore performances. Wayward birds sometimes reappear months later and hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the original discovery site. Recent examples include the magnificent Texas-to-Maine journey of the late Great Black Hawk and subsequent sightings of the 2017 Pennsylvania Black-backed Oriole in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A celebrity Swallow-tailed Gull in Washington the same year was apparently spotted again on the coast of California a month after it went missing up north. In the summer of 2016, an Ancient Murrelet took an extended tour of the Gulf of Maine, and a sighting in Virginia that fall was almost certainly the same bird migrating south with its local relatives. Improved connectivity within the ever-expanding birding community has made it possible to properly document the scope of incredible stories like these.

While some vagrants wander unpredictably over long distances and periods of time, others are quite content to stay put once they find a suitable location. Regional rarities often surprise birders with unexpectedly lengthy visits in strange lands. Just this past winter in New York, we’ve been honored to host a number of fantastic rare birds for the season. The young Golden-crowned Sparrow discovered in Downsville during the 2018 Christmas Bird County has apparently survived its first winter, with this week bringing a fresh report on the listserv some three months after I stopped by to see it. A Pacific Loon frequenting a marina in Nassau County lingered for weeks on end, providing countless birders with the opportunity to get up close and personal with a species that is usually a poorly seen one-day-wonder in this corner of the world. There’s even an Evening Grosbeak still hanging around in Manhattan, the lone holdout after a flurry of sightings throughout Long Island and NYC during the fall. It’s always a pleasure when desirable birds stick around for repeated viewings, especially because the degree of stickiness and cooperation is so variable and uncertain. Sometimes you only get one shot to twitch a Pink-footed Goose which is foraging in a farm field half a mile from the road, and sometimes it spends the whole winter grazing on the lawn at a public park.

Perhaps the least common, most impressive category of repeat observations are those that span multiple years. Birders love to speculate about “The One Bird Theory:” a comfortable, convenient assumption that oversimplifies the complexities of avian movement patterns and underestimates just how many birds there are out there. Such suspicions about roaming and returning vagrants are often difficult to prove one way or another. Every once in a while, however, provably recognizable rarities do turn up. When they come and go with the turn of seasons, revisiting the same spots over and over, it’s a rather special occasion. I doubt anyone could have imagined that a Red-billed Tropicbird first spotted at Maine’s Seal Island in 2005 would ever be seen again, and yet it has returned every summer for more than a decade. Birds are predictably unpredictable.

There’s been a Cackling Goose at Hendrickson Park in Nassau County every winter since 2016. That’s not a huge surprise; there are stray Cacklers reported with flocks of migrant Canada Geese all across Long Island each year. Despite the challenge of picking out these uncommon drifters amidst the hordes of their similar-looking fellows, they are now expected annual visitors in the region. Check out the pair of pictures above, though. Both were taken in November, a full year apart. The Cackling/Canada Goose complex is famously complicated, with a broad spectrum of variations in physical traits. This bird’s bill and body proportions, along with the shape and extent of the white markings on its face and neck, are unique enough to make it identifiable as an individual.

It’s nice to have a familiar feathered face who visits my neighborhood so consistently. Though I have no way of knowing where this goose goes when it migrates north each spring, I have a pretty good idea who it’s traveling with. Every time the Cackler has been seen, it is keeping the company of a particular Canada Goose. The bird in question is much smaller than the lake’s permanent, nonmigratory inhabitants, nearer in size to its associate but still showing a obviously Canadian profile. Upon closer inspection, it, too, has distinctively shaped cheek patches, as seen in three winters’ worth of comparison shots below. The dark-cheeked Canada visible in the first image also resurfaced the following fall, but it did not return this winter. Lacking any striking field marks of its own, the Cackling Goose’s mate would be just another face in the crowd without its companion. It’s fascinating to consider that this individual is just as dependable in its annual reappearances as its rarer mate, but I would never know if not for their unwavering partnership. How many other birds have I met repeatedly without being aware of it?

Let’s not forget the unsung heroes of birding: the resident, reliable birds at your local patch. Many naturalists eventually come to know the animals that establish territories in their neck of the woods, and the intricacies of avian biology often make it possible to discern between individuals. Particular birds may favor specific perches, or exhibit distinctive variations of vocalizations. Mated pairs tend to return to the same sites year after year to breed. Unusual plumage characteristics and behavioral quirks are occasionally apparent to the careful observer. Becoming intimately acquainted with other organisms can be an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience. It’s no surprise that so many birders get their start monitoring the daily lives of chickadees and cardinals outside their windows. I’ve kept a close eye on the pair of Great Horned Owls at a park near my home ever since I graduated from college. This year, for the first time, I’ve been fortunate enough to follow their progress through the nesting season.

I’ve watched these raptors with some regularity for the better part of five years. Most of the few dozen encounters we’ve shared involved them roosting peacefully among the tangled branches while I quietly observed for a brief moment before continuing on. From time to time, I’ve gotten lucky and caught them during periods of activity at dusk as they prepared for the night’s hunt. Blue Jays and Fish Crows pop in for some light mobbing from every once in a while, but nothing can compare to the spectacle of an all-out battle between the Great Horned Owl pair and a trio of Common Ravens. It was difficult to capture photos that adequately depict the chaos of the clash, but it was an incredible event I won’t soon forget.

The local owls are currently busy tending to their two new owlets, who have just begun to peer out periodically at the world around them. All of their past breeding attempts that I am aware of have failed, largely due to questionable nest site selection. Regrettably, the abandoned squirrel dreys and decayed snags that they previously selected all blew over during late winter windstorms while the birds were still incubating. The former Fish Crow nest they are presently occupying has proven sturdier, even though it is located quite close to a hub of human activity. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll finally fledge young successfully this spring, and I’ll be keeping tabs on their efforts from afar all the way. After all we’ve been through, I definitely feel a special connection with these birds. I recognize that I’ve only been witness to a fraction of their life stories, but I’m still compelled to root for them.

For all of these individuals that I realize I’ve seen multiple times, there are plenty that I can’t be certain of and untold others that I’d never suspect. How many Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were involved in the sightings at the ballfield down the block every summer from 2004 to 2017? Did I ever meet the Gray Catbird that I rescued from the garage again after the fact? What of the multitudes of scoters and loons and gannets that migrate to our coastal waters each winter; what unknowable percentage of them have I seen more than once? Such mysteries have inspired generations of birders and scientists to look more closely at the natural world around them in search of answers. Banding operations, breeding bird surveys, satellite-tracking projects, and prolonged behavioral studies have all sought to fill in the gaps in our understanding about the world of birds. There’s no doubt about it: we share the planet with some pretty incredible creatures. The improbable joy of crossing paths for these chance encounters is its own reward.