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The missing Crossbills and the equivocal milestone

November 29, 2010
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For so many American families, scattered hither and yon across the country, the holidays at the end of the year mean travel.  It’s not for nothing that the few days around Thanksgiving are the busiest traveling days of the year.  So many of us head someplace else to spend those few days in late November celebrating pilgrims and turkeys and football and what have you.  For birders this means new sights and new birds, because it doesn’t matter where on the continent you’re going to, if it’s not where you live, the birds are going to be new.  So even if Thanksgiving puts you in the middle of nowhere, there are opportunities for something novel.

At least that’s what I hoped.  Even though most of my wife’s family now makes their homes between 5 and 25 miles of our house, they decided to pass on the long hours of preparation that is the yang to the overeater’s yin and travel west to Blowing Rock, a small mountain community in the northwest part of the state.  I was stoked because, well, I never need an excuse to go to the mountains and I’d hoped that I’d have some time to bird, hopefully searching out some Appalachian specialties I’d heretofore missed.  Birds like Northern Saw-whet Owl, Ruffed Grouse, and especially Red Crossbill.  Even better, with the split of the Winter Wrens netting me an armchair Pacific Wren, I was sitting on 499 ABA area lifers, the very precipice of the figure by which ABA birders are judged*.  The next bird was the big one.  I was excited.  What would it be?

*Judging any birder’s skill by the number on their life list is not recommended, as it’s less a testament to their field ability and more a testament to their ability to travel to lots of different places.  That said, a birder with a life list north of 500 is unequivocally someone who loves birds and has made a serious effort to see as many as possible.  Not that 400 or 450 or even 250 isn’t, but 500 seems to be the threshold at which point it’s clear that birding is a priority.  Any person can see 250 species, but you have to really work for 500.  That’s why it’s notable.

I was really hoping for Red Crossbill, just because Crossbills are incredible and that’s a bird that, as a young birder in Missouri, seemed so far removed from where I was as a birder.  Not just in its other-worldly appearance and the infrequence by which it would show up in my part of the world, but also because it was stuck there in the back of the old field guides, beyond the sparrows even!  If there was a bird that could represent how far I’d come as a birder since those old days, Red Crossbill would be a pretty good choice.  Or maybe this is the sort of rationalizing and romanticizing that goes on when you realize you’re at a milestone and you’re looking ahead to see what bird might hit the mark.  For a dose of perspective, I hoped for a long time 500 would be Trindade Petrel for many of the same reasons I laid out above.  So, you know, it’s all relative I guess.

Anyway, turns out my family was staying near a fairly reliable spot for Red Crossbills, according to a tip from my friend Dwayne Martin.  Not more than a three minute walk form the place we were staying was Bass Lake, a poor excuse for a lake, but surrounded by some nice stands of White Pine which are known to reliably host flocks of Red Crossbills when the trees have cones on them.  That seemed to be a good bet to me.  And the first chance I had I walked over to see if I could close the door on this 500 business.

The weather was overcast and drizzling.  The only birds on the lake itself were a single Pied-billed Grebe and a trio of Buffleheads.  I came across a foraging flock of Carolina Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets and a small band of Crows huddled around the trash cans by the parking lots.  A Kingfisher rattled.  I didn’t see anything else. I did, however, note that the Pine trees were entirely sans cones.  Not a single one.  I took this as a troubling sign, but headed back to the house.  I still had another day.

Except that the next day dawned clear and windy, and not just windy like the sort of weather you’d expect to put raptors and ravens in the air, but windy like just this side of an arctic hurricane.  Winds of 40 miles per hour gusting through the gaps, inundating any intrepid souls with a flood of funneled frigidity.   Any self-respecting Crossbill, not to mention any bird other than Raven and Juncos, was huddled up and out of the onslaught.  And after a couple hours of fruitless searching along the Blue Ridge Parkway as far south as Grandfather Mountain, I gave up.  No Crossbills, no Ruffed Grouse, and no Saw-whet Owls (the windy nights made listening for owls impossible).  Oh well.  At least the mountains are pretty.

From the bird perspective it wasn’t a total loss, and I may well end up with that 500th tick yet assuming I come to grips with how I feel about a completely unexpected, but interesting, bird I saw one evening.

I was driving everybody to dinner when a large juvenile Accipiter flashed across the road ahead of me, banked showing me it’s underparts and spread tail, and continued on into the woods to my right. The encounter lasted about a full second, maybe a second and a half.  My first impression was of a Cooper’s Hawk, the default largish Accipiter anywhere in North Carolina, but it was clear early on that something wasn’t right.The bird was clearly an Accipiter, with long a long tail and heavily streaked underparts, but the body seemed extremely tick and heavy and the wings longer than normal.  In fact, because of the seeming odd proportions, the head seemed especially tiny, not more than a nub.  This felt very strange to me, especially for a bird with such a large, wide, body.  By the time I realized something was up, the bird was gone.

I didn’t have a field guide with me, having forgotten to bring one on the trip, but I knew I wanted to refer to this sighting later, so I quickly sketched on my notepad so I wouldn’t forget the distinctive silhouette.

There are a lot of reasons to think that this is a good candidate for Northern Goshawk.  While definitely the rarest of the regularly occurring hawks in North Carolina, Goshawks are seen on several occasions annually anywhere along the Appalachian ridge.  They’re elusive, but regular.  That said, I’m having trouble fitting this bird into a Cooper’s box, though admittedly as the sighting recedes into the past my own ability to be objective recedes as well.

If I’m honest with myself, it’s probably nothing more than an I don’t know bird.  Destined to be tossed into the pile of interesting sightings and coulda beens that we all have made all the worst because it’s the bird that potentially breaks the tape on a new level of birding.

Another reason to go back, so long as 500 stays frustratingly out of grasp.

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7 Comments
  1. November 29, 2010 12:57 pm

    Ouch.

    That is all.

  2. November 29, 2010 4:59 pm

    I’ve had a few accipiter encounters like that. None of them are on my life list yet.

  3. November 29, 2010 10:31 pm

    Think I’ve had more interesting large Accipiter encounters than any other funky things. Still waiting for a good one for my home county list. I wouldn’t spend too long debating it though, you want to fully absorb #500 (or something, 5 seconds of flyover spoonbill wasn’t exactly absorbing) .

  4. Nate permalink*
    November 30, 2010 3:58 pm

    @Corey- Yeah, well. Yeah…

    @John- And neither is this one for me, as much as I may want to count it.

    @Jason- You’re probably right. A flyby is hardly worth it for a milestone. I’ll get both 500 and Goshawk one of these days.

  5. November 30, 2010 8:12 pm

    I think that “pile of interesting sightings and coulda beens” is just that –interesting, at least as interesting as a mere list. I like the stories. I never remember how many birds on the list but I always remember the stories. I’m enjoying the story of your 500th–whatever that will be.

  6. November 30, 2010 8:26 pm

    Sorry to read that number 500 didnt happen on this trip. Hopefully some super cool rarity will make up for it and you will get prolonged scope views instead of a brief flyby.

  7. December 2, 2010 7:42 am

    As someone who has seen Goshawks very frequently I sincerely hoped I could be of help, but the field marks you present are just a wee bit short of enough. Small head sounds good though.

    Never mind missing your 500th ABA lifer. It won’t stay your 500th anyway with a few splits at hand in some species placed (taxonomically) before the goshawk (or crossbill and ruffed grouse). By which I mean to say it might be some form of mile stone, but don’t over-hype the number.
    You’ll get there.

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