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My Life’s Birds: #376

March 17, 2010
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September 12, 2005 – Blue Ridge Parkway, NC – Often implicit in the origin story of nearly every birder is the concept of the “spark bird”, the single species or experience that got you hooked on birding as an avocation.  It’s such an essential part of the hobby that simply asking a given birder about their personal spark bird will likely put the questioner on the receiving end of a well-worn tale, undoubtedly embellished over years of involvement in the hobby but certainly filled with the passion and pathos that that’s tied into a relationship with something to which we give so much of our time and ourselves.  The discovery that birds, and incredibly fantastic ones at that, are truly everywhere puts you in touch with nature wherever and whenever you are.  This revelation can be earth shattering, so it’s no wonder that the single species that symbolizes that revelation can hold an important place for the birder for whom it inspired.

I suppose I could be said to have two spark birds, but because the two facets of my birding life were separated by a significant amount of time I can’t really recall the first special one.  It could have been the White-eyed Vireo in the thick riverside brush that drew me with its clockwork song and forced me to the field guide to identify it piece by piece over a whole summer, or any of the brilliant south Texas birds on my first trip to the Rio Grande Valley in 1993 that led me to think about keeping a list of what I was seeing.  There had to have been something that turned me from a kid who was a aware of birds to a kid who was obsessed by them, but for the life of me the actual tipping point is lost to memory.  The second one, however, is not.

Not a week before, my wife and I were married. Instead of honeymooning in some tropical locale we decided to travel to western North Carolina to take in a bit of the Appalachians around Asheville, an arty university town with great architecture and fantastic food. We stayed at a bed and breakfast, doing the typical touristy things in the area, before the very last day when we decided to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway to an overlook that was specifically recommended by the folks that owned the place where we were staying.  We pulled into the parking lot and had just began the short climb to the top of the knoll when I heard an unfamiliar chip note from deep in the rhododendrons.

I don’t know why I stopped, there was no reason to do so.  I was wearing no binoculars, didn’t even have a field guide in my home, let alone my car, let along my pocket.  But I did stop, curious, and to what would the eternal consternation and bemusement of my new bride, I warbled a simple Screech Owl whistle.  Instantly, and I mean within five seconds of the whistle’s end, a stunning, gorgeous, unbelievable male Black-throated Blue Warbler bolted out of absolutely nowhere and gave me the once over from about three feet away.  To say that I was shocked would be a significant understatement.  This warbler, of all the warblers in the field guide, was the one I wanted to see more than any other, but as they winter in the Caribbean and migrate up the east coast, they’re exceptionally rare in Missouri, and unheard of as far west as I had grown up.  To see one here, now, without the need of binoculars, was all it took to re-awaken the birding monster that had lain dormant for so long.

When I got home I bought a new pair of binoculars practically the next day.  My wife, at this point unaware of what was in store, was completely supportive of this new turn, even buying me a brand new copy of Sibley.  I wonder now if she regrets that; because, from here on out, I was once again a birder.

photo from wikipedia

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5 Comments
  1. March 17, 2010 7:47 am

    A very warm and very belated “Welcome back”.
    We owe some to that warbler, ey?

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 17, 2010 9:50 am

    @Jochen- Indeed. It’s my favorite warbler for several reasons, but this one is chief among them.

  3. March 17, 2010 1:34 pm

    What a great bird! I would like to have seen the look on your wife’s face when you started your Screech Owl impersonation.

  4. Nate permalink*
    March 17, 2010 5:07 pm

    @Dave- Five years later and I still get it when I do the call…

  5. March 18, 2010 7:08 am

    A honeymoon bird! You got to start married life and re-start your birding life all in one weekend; no wonder this bird is special to you!

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