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When birding goes wrong

November 4, 2008

I’ve got a few nemesis birds. Those birds that, no matter how hard we try, we just seem to miss. Over the years I’ve been birding I’ve managed to track down most of them, and a lot of the time I’ve found birds I considered to be nemesis just require a real concerted effort to track down. Perhaps that’s the difference between fake nemesis and real nemesis. The fake ones fall by the wayside in the face of dedication, leaving the real ones, the ones for whom luck, especially the bad kind, is the real obstacle. For me, that bird is the Black-headed Gull, a bird I’ve chased and missed no fewer than six times in the last two years. When one was reported not an hour away from me last week I was chomping at the bit to put that nemesis to bed.

The bird was reported at a wastewater treatment facility in Goldsboro, a place I’d checked before but at which I’d never found anything particularly great. The big ponds are crisscrossed with wires intended to keep waterfowl out. They never seem to work especially well as the ponds were filled with newly arrived ducks. Ring-necks and Lesser Scaup and Shoveler and plenty of little Ruddy Ducks.

I pulled into the office buildings expecting to wave my binoculars to the guard, but there wasn’t anyone there so I just drove right on in. Ponds in the back supported the same diversity of ducks, a few late-staying Great Egrets and clots of Coots, but oddly not a single gull of any variety, let alone Black-headed.

I drove around the ponds a couple times, pausing to scan here and there but found nothing new. I was forced to accept that my bird must have flown the coop (or, as it was a wastewater facility, the poop?). This was not entirely unpredictable, a couple weather systems have moved through since then that could have pushed it out. No lucky number seven. That’s why it’s a nemesis bird I guess.

I hit a few fallow fields on my way out to see if Pipits had returned but didn’t find any. Pipit habitat is good for other birds and I found lots of Mourning Doves, Meadowlarks, Killdeer and a nice Loggerhead Shrike.

The most abundant birds were the blackbirds though, having begun clustering in advance of winter. There were at least three flocks of several hundred, mixed Cowbirds, Starlings and Red-wings, and I failed trying to pick out a Yellow-headed or the extremely unlikely Brewer’s. But this is the sort of place to find those rarities, and now that the blackbirds are clustering again, it gets a little easier.

I headed home without my nemesis, but hopeful that a Black-headed Gull that hangs out every winter at Lake Mattamuskeet (that has been my regular nemesis since I moved here) will again return so I can have another shot. You can’t find a bird that’s not there, anyway.

Until a message came out on the listserve stating that the bird had indeed been found again.

It was about then that I ripped out the Black-headed Gull page from my field guides.

  1. November 4, 2008 9:31 am

    N8, you and I share a common enemy!

  2. John permalink
    November 4, 2008 10:44 am

    Luckily for me, I don’t have that species as a nemesis. Horned lark evaded me for a while; golden eagle still does. However, since I don’t chase rare birds very often, I haven’t developed a real nemesis.

  3. November 4, 2008 11:45 am

    Whew, been there, done that! I wonder how many birders have a gull species as their nemesis?

  4. November 4, 2008 12:15 pm

    @patrick – Good to know the BH Gull is no easier further up the coast!

    @john – I wouldn’t be surprised if you pulled out a Golden Eagle up in Cape May in the fall. A handfull seem to show up on hawkwatches on the east coast every year. If you’ll don’t get one there, you’ll just have to go west like I had to. : )

    @mike – Too many. Far, far, too many.

  5. November 5, 2008 4:18 am

    I really don’t know what you all are talking about, I mean, come on: I have seen thousands and thousands of BH Gulls, it’s impossible to have THAT as a nemesis.

    Yeah, that was a lousy shot at being funny, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

    N8, BH Gulls usually search for food on fields during the day and only once in a while pop up at a nearby body of water to rest during the day or sleep at night. So if you want to try for that particular one again, search the reservoir. If it isn’t there, look for preferably freshly ploughed fields in the surroundings (they like worms) and search there. If that’s not successful, return to the reservoir a few hours later etc. Or just go there at nightfall and wait for what drops out of the skies.
    They also hang around parking lots or any place with trash cans, but not as frequently as RB Gulls do. So I wouldn’t spend much time searching nearby malls or fast food ditches, go for the fields instead.
    And they usually like company, as most gulls do, so a flock of any gull species is good to find when looking for BH Gulls, but that’s self-evident. Say it aint’t so, N8!
    Oh, but that disaster didn’t strike after all. Good thing, right? You bettcha!

    Good luck, mate!!

  6. Mary permalink
    November 5, 2008 2:28 pm

    I can’t say I have a nemesis bird but I usually swear at Belted Kingfishers.

    I enjoyed your story. Made me laugh at the end :o)

  7. November 5, 2008 9:46 pm

    @jochen – I’ve actually seen BH Gull in Europe on a trip to the UK a long time ago. But I don’t remember it well, and these epic fails time and time again get frustrating.

    @Mary – Belted Kingfishers always seem to me like they’d swear back. : )

  8. November 6, 2008 7:20 am

    N8: if all your epic fails result in good posts, they might not be so bad after all – for everyone but you, obviously…
    Seriously, good luck!!

    Mary & N8: Yes, especially the black-Belted Kingfisher morph is a bird better left unaroused.

  9. November 13, 2008 10:13 am

    Hey Nate – perhaps you North Americans need a few photos BH Gull photos to jog your memories and as ever 10,000 Birds is happy to help out (LOL)

  10. November 13, 2008 10:24 am


    Rub it in a little why don’t you, Charlie.

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