It’s two months into the year and I’ve already seen two different Western Tanagers. The first, a state bird staked out at a feeder in the golfing community of Pinehurst. I twitched, and, after a lovely morning sitting in the dining room of perhaps the most-generous vagrant host in the entire state (Seriously. She had coffee and homemade banana bread), picked up what I figured would be the only Western Tanager I’d need to chase for the state of North Carolina. I got my vagrant, now I can look upon all subsequent reports sans jealousy, merely remarking, “nice bird” as I mouse over to the delete button.
But then one was reported in a county I care about. Durham, not my home county, but next door, the one with the highest list. And worse, I knew, I just knew, that the two guys ahead of my in the eBird rankings for Durham County were on this bird like a Black Vulture on a road-killed raccoon. This is where the obsession with county listing gets dangerous. I will dutifully ignore the mess of outstanding and needed state birds that birders turn up in the far flung corners of the state. I keep a state list, I enjoy it, but I’m not super competitive about it. Those birds may as well be in another country as far as I’m concerned. But when something notable turns up in Durham or Orange County, for some reason those reports burn into me, tear at my soul and stoke the inner listing flames that torment other birders on a much larger scale. It suddenly didn’t matter that I’d seen a Western Tanager six weeks previous. I needed this Western Tanager.
Need. It’s a word we birders, we listers, know all too well. We toss it around like it’s nothing. “Oh, I still need a Snow Goose for so-and-so county” “I need to pick up a Henslow’s Sparrows for the state”. So base. So shallow. But so simply descriptive of that ridiculous urge. We realize it appeals to the worst aspects of twitching culture, but we still use it without thinking. It spills out of us, birding’s id. We talk about how much we enjoy getting out a working the local patch to enjoy plausible deniability when accused of the green-eyed monster, but we reveal our true natures amongst ourselves. We do not simply want rare birds, we need them.
So I had to go get this bird. Fortunately, friends Robert Meehan and Mark Kosiewski were up for the chase as well, so I met them at my house and we headed up to just north of Durham to find the house where the Western Tanager was visiting. We rang the doorbell, introduced ourselves, and were shown the way to the backyard. About three minutes later it arrived.
It was a female bird this time, so not quite as fancy as the Pinehurst bird, and it was never quite brave enough to make it’s way to the feeder, but it didn’t have any qualms about perching up in a bare tree in the good light for which I am very grateful.
The bird circled around twice in the 20 or so minutes we were there. A nice touch, considering how cold it was and that we poor southerners were standing in it. Few twitches are so quick and painless.
One less thing I need.