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Origin of a Nemesis

October 14, 2010
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This is how neuroses are born.  This is how anxieties start.  This is how the the dizzying highs of birding are momentarily forgotten and all that surrounds you is ruin and frustration and destroyed expectations.  But I get ahead of myself…

Last Friday, a Connecticut Warbler was discovered and reported in Durham County, on the edge of a far arm of Falls Lake along a railroad trestle.  The fact that it was found at all was something of a lucky coincidence, as while the area in question is historically a fairly decent spot for shorebirds when the lake levels are low, the water has been too high for good diversity in the last few weeks so it hasn’t been covered like it can be in a good year.  But that didn’t stop Robert Meeham apparently who, undeterred by the promise of a long trek to nothingsville, went anyway and found far more than he expected in flushing up the bird and providing an excellent record for the triangle.  People paused, thought “That’s a great record”, and went on with their business thinking it was a one-day wonder at best.

Then he went back the next day and found it again, this time getting some blurry, but identifiable photos.  “Very cool”, thought the North Carolina birding community, including yours truly, “but there’s no way it sticks another day.”

The next day your intrepid blogger took the first weekend day off from birding in over a month and slept in following a lovely Beerfest.  The key here is that I did not go chasing what, at this point, was an absolutely dead to rights Connecticut Warbler, a life bird and a super desirable one at that, not more than about 30 minutes away from me.  I just felt like that’s an important point to make.  It was later that afternoon that I heard that some friends Ali Iyoob and Matt Daw had tracked the bird down and gotten some fine photos.  This was getting ridiculous.

Monday I sat at work and watched as local birders trekked out to the arm of Falls Lake and picked up the bird easy as pie.  This could not stand. The next day I made plans to leave work early and go get the bird.  My odds were not so hot however, as both of the people I talked to that day who had searched for the bird did not find it.  There was a good possibility 4 days was enough and it had finally vamoosed,  but I had to try.  So that’s how, at 4:00 pm I found myself trudging out to the appropriate spot to take my chances.

That photo above is not where the Connecticut was being seen, mind you, that’s the end of the peninsula at whose base is dense willow thickets of the sort Oporornis type warblers are no doubt fond of.  I walked along the edge of the lake until I found the corona bottle on a stick people had left to mark the spot where the bird had been generally seen.  I walked this path, made clear by the trampled down sedges, back and forth, and saw many birds.  What I did not see, however, was a Connecticut Warbler.

I did find Palm Warblers.  Lots of Palm Warblers.  Skritchy scratchy, doing their best impression of a significantly un-skulky Oporornis.  Crawling all over the leaf litter, chasing each other out into the grass-covered mudflats. The Connecticut had been reported associating near, but not with, the flock of Palmies.  So I tore through that flock like a failed vegetarian through bacon, turning up Palm after Palm after Palm after Yellowthroat after Palm.

The verb “skulk” is often synonymous with Oporornis warblers, but the Connecticut is generally considered to be the skulkiest skulk that ever skulked.  So having an extra pair of eyes is helpful, or rather, would have been helpful as their only so many directions one can look when there are birds (mostly Palm Warblers) flying around you skulking rather poorly and unhelpfully.

Skulking must have been the order of the day, as Pine Warblers were busy digging through the leaf litter too.  Fortunately, they’re quite terrible at it and generally rather easy to find.

No the worst culprit were undoubtedly the Palmies, especially the western version looking plain browny with a flash of yellow near the tail.  These birds caused the most problems.  Consistently and constantly.

It wasn’t long before the time I had budgeted as Find-Connecticut-Warbler-and-celebrate-with-multiple-photos-time was over, and without a single Connecticut.  I’d been there nearly an hour and a half; I had to go home.  No worries though, the bird had probably moved on.  You can’t find a bird that’s not there after all, so there’s no shame in missing it, even though my Sunday inaction was weighing heavy on my mind.  As I crossed the railroad trestle I passed a young birder and directed him towards the Corona bottles indicating where the bird had been seen.

“Sorry”, I said, “but I didn’t see it and neither has anyone else today.”

“Good luck though!”

20 minutes later he ended up with this.

The screaming has yet to abate.

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16 Comments
  1. October 14, 2010 8:09 am

    “Defeat is a common fate of a birder. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it. The great point is whether we have performed our duty.” [Admiral Tōgō after the battle of Tsushima, although I might have gotten a word or two wrong]

    Yeah, right, whatever – it still stinks that you missed the bird!

  2. October 14, 2010 10:25 am

    Nice recounting of an escapade I know all too well. If you’re like me, you’ll be back at that spot year after year hoping . . . nay, expecting that it passes through exactly like it did this year. I hope you’re not like me, as that strategy has never panned out. And of course I hope you find your nemesis in the near future, and find it on your own (not one of those staked out “easy as pie” sightings, though those come with a wonderful sense of relief after a few missed attempts).
    -Mike

  3. October 14, 2010 10:42 am

    Reminds me of the 4 hour trip to chase the Sooty Tern. I was there for 5 hours with a few stragglers in and out. Nobody saw it. Everybody else left, but i stayed till the sun went down, hoping that the bird that had been there for over a week would show up. Never saw it, but read that somebody had seen it at 7:30, when I could swear that I was the only person there at that time. Anyways, they probably got the date wrong on the Texbirds. It was never seen again.
    As Maxwell Smart used to say “Missed it by that much!”

  4. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 14, 2010 11:25 am

    This is why I never twitch, it always ends in disappointment for me (all two times that I’ve done it). Sorry you couldn’t find it! I don’t expect it’ll stick around with all this rain today, but I’ll head out there tomorrow… just to see. Hey, that’s what worked last time, wasn’t it? If not, I’ll keep you apprised next time I find a CT Warbler, lol.

  5. October 14, 2010 12:10 pm

    Ouch. This is why I rarely twitch unless a bird is well established at a location.

  6. October 14, 2010 1:35 pm

    That’s why birding is more exciting than botany…….

    The connecticut is a yard bird for me, by the way…..

  7. October 14, 2010 2:26 pm

    I don’t understand the big deal about Connecticut Warblers. Just go to a nice grassy area and wait for one to walk by. It’s an easy bird to see.

  8. October 14, 2010 6:50 pm

    Oh man, that sucks! I’ve been there.

  9. Nate permalink*
    October 14, 2010 7:19 pm

    @Jochen- Yes, yes it does. But as you (or Togo, whatever) say, defeat is as big a part of what we do as success.

    @Mike- You read my mind. I’ll be back there next year, likely to miss it again.

    @Dave- Now that story sounds like my NC Say’s Phoebe story, another tale of lifer lost, though I did end up getting the Phoebe in Colorado a couple years later.

    @Robert- That was a great find! Lemme know if you find another one, but it’s my own fault if I wait five days again.

    @John- The problem is that this one was a staked out as one could get!

    @Laurent- I don’t know if I want to talk to you just now…

    @Corey- And I especially don’t want to see that crap.

    @Patrick- I think we all have. It sucks hard, but it’s nice we can all commiserate about it. 🙂

  10. Lena Gallitano permalink
    October 14, 2010 8:00 pm

    Maybe you missed the Connecticut but you sure have provided your readers a great tale of your attempts to find it!!

  11. October 14, 2010 9:58 pm

    Ouch. That little migratory gnome otherwise known as Connecticut Warbler is such a diehard nemesis! Quite amazing that it stayed around and so many people got to see it. Three or four of my first misses of that bird were when friends of mine glimpsed one that disappeared as soon as they called out its name. I dont know, maybe it resents being referred to as the name of a state where it doesnt breed. In any case, I eventually got my lifer of an uncommonly friendly individual at Point Pelee and have seen a few since then BUT I feel your pain (and hear your screams).

  12. October 15, 2010 3:39 am

    Careful, Nate, about rising CT Warbler to Nemesis level. After a certain amount of misses and once I have recognized a species as being my Nemesis, I develop a revengeful urge to not go and twitch it but find it all by myself, just so I know the bird didn’t “beat” me in this game called birding. I want to know it was me and me alone who got it, and that I overcame the bird’s best effords to evade me.
    This might not be a big deal with e. g. Yellow-crowned Night-heron once/if I get to the right area, but if this is what you want to do with a CT Warbler in NC, you’ll have a more than decent task ahead of you…

  13. Nate permalink*
    October 15, 2010 8:51 am

    @Lena- Thanks! At least something came out of it.

    @Pat- Apparently there are places where CTs are not terribly difficult to find. Unfortunately I’ve never been to any of them, so it remains frustratingly out of reach.

    @Jochen- CT may be a nemesis, but it still hasn’t reached the level of Black-headed Gull or Ross’s Goose or Greater Shearwater for me yet. Man, I have way too many nemeses…

  14. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 15, 2010 2:37 pm

    Nate – get out there ASAP! Scott Winton and I got great views of the CT Warbler today, having now been present for 7 days and withstanding a TON of rain. Good luck!

  15. Nate permalink*
    October 15, 2010 4:05 pm

    @Robert- Damn my schedule. Seriously. Damn. It. It’ll have to stick till tomorrow.

  16. October 15, 2010 11:06 pm

    That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.
    Hope it sticks around for you.

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