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My Life’s Birds: #354-359…er, 358

December 2, 2009

March 26, 1995 – Laguna Atascosa NWR, Tx – When I was thinking about this post I was kind of excited to write it.  I had some really great philosophical questions about the nature of birding and how we can’t really to any great extent choose what birds we see, we can only be in the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind to take advantage of any situation.  Then I was going to go into how it’s odd the direction your life birds take you, and that occasionally you can find yourself with a super rarity on your list while a few common species remain unticked.  And all this, of course would lead in to this wonderful birding encounter.  But then I discovered something tragic.  More on that to follow.

First though, I can say that late March for my family always meant our annual spring break trip to visit my grandparents, who just so happened to live smack dab in the middle of arguably the best birding in the United States.  For nearly a week we’d bed down in Mission, Texas, a mere five minutes from the entrance to Bentsen State Park, back in it’s heyday too, when winter Texans ran the trailer loop and set up feeder after feeder that in turn would be filled with glorious and colorful Mexican birds.  We had plans to camp there this year to experience it from first light, but by 1995 Bentsen was a known entity for us.  It’s the bread and butter of a South Texas trip, if the bread is stone ground pumpernickel fresh out of the oven and the butter is hand churned by French artisanal nuns using techniques honed over a thousand years specifically for creaminess. But a birder cannot live on bread, even the best bread, alone.

So our first trip upon returning to Texas was east, to Laguna Atascosa NWR, a vast expanse of marsh and open water tucked along the Gulf coast north of Brownsville.  On our turn along the wildlife drive we found many species you might associate with a regular day along the coast anywhere in eastern North America.  Missouri not being anywhere near a coast, this was the reason why I came all the way to southern Texas to tick species like Seaside Sparrow and Ruddy Turnstone.  Atascosa is famous for it’s wintering Redheads, but I was more excited about the Red-breasted Merganser.   And the sandbars over looking the vast inlet for which the refuge is known produced the phenomenal little bird with the phenomenally large bill, the Wilson’s Plover.

On our way out we lucked upon a stunning adult Aplomado Falcon perched upon a fence post that allowed close approach.  The reason for it’s relative naivete may have had something to do with the reintroduction program that, at the time, had recently begun and has since been pretty successful.  Even with multiple bands on its legs the bird, back in its historic range for the first time in nearly 50 years, was unfathomably beautiful.  Sadly, though, because it was part of a reintroduced population, it was uncountable.

Which brings me to the aforementioned tragic discovery.  You see, though my life birds on this day were not those closely associated with South Texas, we did find one tropical reminder.  The hot bird at Atascosa in the spring on 1995 was an American Flamingo (then Greater Flamingo) that had been discovered a couple weeks before our arrival.  My dad and I, frankly, could barely believe our luck and were totally stoked when we rolled up to Laguna Madre, where the bird had been hanging out, and quickly spotted a pink speck out in the middle of a very large lake that became distinctly flamingo shaped when viewed through the scope.  We needn’t have been in such a hurry, the bird stuck around on and off for the next three years, no doubt providing enjoyment for loads of birders.  At the time it was by far the rarest bird on my life list and in those bull sessions that birders often find themselves in where you try to one-up the rarities on each other’s lists this flamingo was my trump card.  Oh yeah?  Ivory Gull?  That’s great.  Have I told you about my American Flamingo?

Boom!  Told.

I wanted to get the story straight.  But while in preparation for writing this very post to celebrate the sighting in a way that a flamingo deserves, I found this old report from the Texas Bird Records Committee. And I quote:

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). One (1995-97) at Laguna Atascosa NWR, Cameron, from 14 February 1995 through at least the spring of 1998. Photographs examined by the committee strongly suggest that this individual was a member of the African subspecies of Greater Flamingo.

Well, crap.

In one sentence my bird was gone, deemed an escapee and therefore uncountable.  In at least the Texas bird records committee did not accept the record so I, if I’m an honest birder and I certainly consider myself to be one, should remove the offending bird from my life list.  A life list that now sits one trump bird farther from 500.  But that’s the way the birding game goes if you want to play by the rules.  The records committee giveth, and the records committee taketh away.

In the meantime though, have you guys heard the one about my European Storm-Petrel?

WIPL from wikipedia
AMFL by Yameza via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  1. December 2, 2009 7:13 am

    Oh bummer.
    However, as someone who has seen flamingos in their regular breeding grounds of southern Europe and Africa, I can tell you that no matter where you see them, they ALWAYS look like escapees.
    I suppose they are just too stereotype zoo’ish.

    • Nate permalink*
      December 2, 2009 1:10 pm

      @Jochen- I suspect you’ve got it. I guess there’s a mentality that anything that exotic couldn’t be from North America (or Europe either). And it’s probably mostly right.

  2. December 2, 2009 3:48 pm

    Oh, I hate it when that happens!

    I was very excited to see a bunch of ducks with crazy looking caruncles in San Francisco, only to be informed that they are feral Muscovy Ducks and therefore not to be counted in my life list. I’m still conflicted, though, because there are enough of them around to breed, but not enough to survive an environmental catastrophe, which is one of the ABA requirements (roughly paraphrased).

  3. December 2, 2009 3:52 pm


  4. Nate permalink*
    December 2, 2009 4:11 pm

    @Elizabeth- Yeah, the rules are odd in some cases. It’s especially weird when an introduced population drops to only a handful of birds but they’re still countable per ABA rules (like the Budgerigars in St. Pete, Florida), yet you’ve got a situation like your Muscovies. Exotic birds pose lots of problems for the putative lister.

    @Corey- Yeah, and to think I’d carried it as a legit life bird for these 14 years. I think I always knew, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself…

  5. December 3, 2009 12:43 am

    Dude, did you hear there’s an Ivory Gull in Cape May? And I think the Cape May Zoo has Greater Flamingos.

    But seriously, what a suckfest. I think I have a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat of questionable genetic ancestry from Sabal Palm on my list. I better go check the net.

  6. December 3, 2009 12:46 am

    Update – It checks out ok. I can keep the Yellowthroat on my list.

  7. December 3, 2009 4:05 am

    @Patrick: if I were Nate, I’d seriously question my friendly ties with you!



  8. Greg permalink
    December 3, 2009 9:14 am

    Speaking of philosophy, was it Goethe who said: “a joy shared is a joy doubled”? Well, Swick says “a sorrow shared is a sorrow doubled”, at the big pink bird vanishes from this life list, too. Now about this Riverlands Smew, January 13, 2001?

  9. Nate permalink*
    December 3, 2009 9:19 am

    @Patrick- Congrats. I think I remember the questions surrounding that bird. Glad to hear that consider it legit.

    @Jochen- I know, right? And he’s not coming to the Superbowl of Birding this year. Some serious re-evaluation may be in order.

    @Dad- If the Mo RBC accepted it, I’d have no qualms about keeping it on your list. That’s such a cool bird.

  10. December 3, 2009 10:45 am

    @Greg: regarding waterfowl, I would say that it is best regarded as a wild bird if it shows up in the right season, frequents the right habitat and shows no sign of captivity.
    Vagrant waterfowl species were/are frequently regarded as escapees in Europe as well and a sighting always leaves a bad feeling somewhere in the back of one’s mind, but recent research e.g. by isotope analysis of a vagrant’s feathers ore even ordinary ring/band recoveries have shown that a very significant part of the vagrant species are exactly that: vagrants, not escapees.
    So, to sum it up: in accordance with current moods on the bloggosphere, I’d use that Smew to brag a bit – look at Corey at 10,000Birds or Patrick with his Ivory Gull.

    “You got American Flamingo? That’s great. Have I told you about my Smew?” Boom. Told.

  11. December 4, 2009 1:08 am

    Hey, I see all the smack about me here you know! As Groundskeeper Willie would say, “Aye, I’m standing right here!”

    I’d like a NJ Smew.

  12. December 4, 2009 5:58 am

    Look Patrick, we still love you with all our hearts.
    It’s just, you know, I mean: TWO Ivory Gulls?

    Don’t worry though, things will get back to normal again once we have all seen two freakin’ Ivory Gulls, which should be very soon, or not?


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