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The Rarity Radius

March 1, 2011
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While I’m always interested in seeing weird vagrants and new birds, I never really considered myself much of a twitcher on the state level.  For the longest time I never saw the point of it all, especially if it was a bird that I’d seen somewhere else.  Why would I travel all over the state of North Carolina to go after a bird that wasn’t even a life bird?  Isn’t it more rewarding to see the bird as it’s meant to be seen, in the place where it regularly occurs?  In the habitat where thousands of years of natural selection acting upon its ancestors produced a species that fits its ecosystem as tightly as a hand in a surgical glove?

This is the sort of rationalization of the pre-convert, of course, so it’s sort of amazing I can still recreate that mindset.  Because during my 2008 North Carolina Big Year my mentality shifted 180 degrees.  Suddenly every weird freakshow vagrant that showed up in the state was fair game, a gauntlet laid down before me taunting me from their far-flung locales still within the borders of the Tarheel State.  Scott’s Oriole?   I may have seen that in Arizona, but this is a state first!  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher?  I grew up with them on every barbed wire perch, but this is probably the only individual in the entire Carolinas!  Needless to say, my state list, which until that year was loosely held in my mind, became another spreadsheet to agonize over, another open-ended goal to reach.

Then eBird happened, and as I began to get better about entering my checklists into the program I began to get more serious about the smaller geographic entities, states yes, but especially counties.  Adding new birds to that list became something of an obsession, which lead to long-term challenges like my Carolina Century Club and this most recent Triangle Area Big Year that I’ve taken on in 2011.

Twitching and Big Years get a bad rap from time to time, because of the hours spent traveling to spend what is often only a minutes with the target bird.  But I’m high on county level, and even state level, twitching because it often encourages birders to cover unknown corners of the county looking for untapped habitat.  And with a young child at home and traveling time and resources limited for the time being, county listing and this regional Big Year have been a way for me to mirror the intensity and focus of a state or national Big Year and life list on a much smaller scale.

Which is a long way of saying that I don’t really chase state rarities much anymore.  Besides, I’ve got too many holes in my North Carolina list anyway to get too serious about it – I should clean up on the resident species I’m lacking before going nuts chasing vagrants – but I have a rule of thumb that if a potential state bird is present within an hour’s travel time of the triangle, I’ll go after it.  This is my rarity radius, and it generally precludes me from chasing the most exciting birds, the Rough-legged and Swainson’s Hawks on opposite sides of the state this winter, for instance. But on the rare occasion that something great shows up nearby, I’m on it.

Take, for instance, a Common Redpoll that was reported coming to a feeder last Thursday just down the road in Graham in Alamance County.  Redpolls show up every few years in North Carolina, but they’re very difficult to get.  While generally multiple birds across the state will be reported at any one time during an irruption, they never stick around in one place for more than one day.  The last such influx was in the fall of 2007, and before that in 2004.  Very few of those birds where chaseable, so any Redpoll that sticks for a couple days is a notable one indeed.

This Graham Redpoll, however, was reported on Thursday and again on Friday.  I had high hopes it would stay till Saturday so I could chase it, but because I had a field trip to lead Saturday morning that would have to be in the afternoon.   I was asking a lot of this bird, and it would be totally like this species to vamoose in the mean time.

But it didn’t.

My dad and I arrived to the house to see two birders already there.  They said the bird had been gone for half an hour or so and that it was regularly visiting a sunflower seed feeder in the presence of several Goldfinches.  We set up and settled in preparing for as long a wait as we needed.

It wasn’t long, no more than five minutes, before we heard the Goldfinches approach, and a streaky bird dove into a bag thistle feeder.  My immediate thought was Siskin, but when the binoculars got up, I was staring at a nice little Common Redpoll.

It settled into the feeder and began going to town on the sunflower seeds, actively chasing away every other bird that perched next to it, even much larger Titmice.  We watched it for about 20 minutes, and eventually had to walk away from it.

A lifer for my dad, and a great state bird for me, all within about a half an hour from home.  It’s a shame it wasn’t within the borders of my Triangle Big Year, but beggers and choosers.

There’s no intention to extend my rarity radius for the present (at least not until Noah gets older), but so long as the birds stay within it, I don’t need to.

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2 Comments
  1. March 1, 2011 12:12 pm

    Hey Nate

    great post

    I am pretty much on the same state of mind about chasing vagants. The county where I live host many serious state listers, but, really chasing bird all over the state would require time and dedication I can’t possibly find. Plus, did you ever look at a map, and looked at the distance between the UP (upper peninsula) and south east michigan? It is just enormous, I think the travelling would just spoil the whole fun of it.

    But with Ebird, I developped another kind of addiction, as I honnestly suffer physically to see holes in the barcharts of some of my favorite hotspots. It is a feeling that is hard to describe. A hole seems to me like an obvious failure, an incomplete task, and I can’t help but try to plan my birding outings so I can fill those holes. I call them “statistical twitches”……

    If being a birder is a geek game, what is Ebirding?

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 7, 2011 8:52 am

    @Laurent- I know the feeling all too well. In fact, it is my intention to try to fill in the data gaps on many of the local hotspots, which generally means birding them at off times, like mid-summer and such. I actually make plans weeks in adavance to be there at the right time. It definitely provides some purpose to what would normally be a pretty pedestrian day in the field.

    Thanks eBird!

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