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(Not) Finding 500

December 13, 2010
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I have perhaps more than my share of nemesis birds, but they have a certain hierarchy.  There are nemesis birds that I just haven’t been fortunate enough to come across in my birding.  Birds that I maybe should have had by this point in my birding career, but for whatever reason, I don’t.  For me, this category is headed by Black-billed Cuckoo and Cerulean Warbler, two species that are more or less findable, if rare, anywhere in the eastern US at the right time of year.  Finding them is just a matter of time and a small bit of luck.  I’ll get them eventually.

Next are birds for which I’ve been in their territory at the right time of year, maybe they’re on a short list of target species, but still I haven’t found them.  These are species like Red Crossbill, Ruffed Grouse, and Ross’s Goose.  I know where they are, and fairly regularly find myself where they’re present, but because I’m generally birding the areas with other targets in mind, they’ve always managed to avoid me.  But like the group above, finding them is only a matter of time.  Because of that, these two categories consist of species that are probably only marginally nemeses.  It’s frustrating to have not found them certainly, but because I haven’t made a significant effort it’s understandable.  I suspect we all have birds like these on our lists.  You may or may not consider them nemeses as I do.

But the top of the nemesis pyramid is reserved for those birds that, despite multiple specific efforts, still remain unseen and unticked.  For that last several years, that bird for me has been Black-headed Gull, generally a specific Black-headed Gull that has spent the last few winters out at Lake Mattamuskeet in the eastern part of the state.  A bird that I chased and missed no less than six times during my Big Year run in 2008.  The same bird that others found practically cavorting right off the causeway or hanging out in the flim-flamming Wal-Mart parking lot on the Outer Banks.  Needless to say, Black-headed Gulls and I have a history.  The kind of history that can only lead to misery.  For me.  The birds seem completely indifferent to the suffering they leave in their wake.

So anyway, this is all relevant because a juvenile Black-headed Gull was found just north of Raleigh, at Falls Lake, following an unseasonable cold snap.  The bird was found on Thursday by a park ranger who quickly got the word out such that the bird was seen by a small handful of quick reacting birders along with some Surf Scoters, another excellent bird for the area.  Despite being located about 30 minutes away, I didn’t go after it.  I’m sadly not in a position where I can so easily take the very-long lunch I’d need to pick it up so I had to take my chances.  So I sat tight, knowing that it’s not unusual for gulls to stick a few days, and hope for the weekend.  When the bird was refound on Friday, it looked like I’d made an ok decision.  Until the rain started.

Saturday afternoon it started raining precisely upon my arrival at Beaverdam Reservoir, the arm of Falls Lake where the bird was consistently being seen.  I stepped out of the car and was immediately greeted by three gulls, two Ring-bills and one, shall we say, “interesting” bird.  But try as I could to make out the orange-based bill that would differentiate the bird from the dozens of Bonaparte’s Gulls, the dreary conditions and the rain accumulating on my binoculars conspired to prevent any sort of scrutiny.  A seemingly golden opportunity slipped away because I wasn’t prepared to jump out of the car and come face to face with my target so quickly.  That’s a lesson I won’t forget again.

So I headed to the swimming beach where I found a group of birders commiserating over the lack of Black-headed Gulls present and we stood and watched each Bonie until our scopes were useless from rainwater and our hands were freezing. I had places to go, and a free morning the next day anyway.  I was going to take my chances then.

So I returned the next morning, in the rain once more, and covered the arm from top to bottom.  I saw fewer Bonies than the day before, and far fewer ducks.  Certainly no Black-headed Gull.   The bird had apparently, for the however many-th time, eluded me again.

The bitter cold of the previous few days seemed to keep the birds concentrated on these outer parts of the lake, as the temperature rose over the weekend, the birds seemed to scatter.  It’s an effect called a “freeze-in” and it generally makes for good birding as the birds scattered across the wider reservoir come together to find the same patches of open water.  That may have been what happened to the Ruddies and Hoodies I’d seen throughout the day, and almost certainly was what happened to the balance of the gulls.  Hopefully, the individual Black-headed Gull is still around, hanging out with a flock of Bonies on some other part of the lake.  The temperature is predicted to get bitterly cold later this week again so perhaps it’ll get picked up again.  And if the bird is seen again, maybe there’s a chance it’ll stay all winter, extending my chances to find it.

But that’s probably just wishful thinking borne of another painful experience with the Black-headed Gull.  Now, beyond all doubt, the nemesis to beat all nemeses.

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10 Comments
  1. December 13, 2010 11:07 am

    Your bonie pic is exactly where the bird was last seen. Hope another good bird shows up soon!

  2. December 13, 2010 11:42 am

    If it makes you feel any better you are exactly 48 birds ahead of me still…

  3. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    December 13, 2010 11:47 am

    Man, I caught a cold from sitting out in the rain waiting for that stupid gull. Worst. Twitch. Ever.

  4. Nate permalink*
    December 13, 2010 4:27 pm

    @Ali- That’s what I figured. And no, that doesn’t make me feel much better…

    @Corey- That might make me feel al ittle better if I didn’t know you just got back from flipping Ecuador.

    @Robert- Yeah. The next day wasn’t much better. I stood in the cold rain for the privilege of missing an NC Say’s Phoebe once too. But at least there was a shelter then.

  5. Kent permalink
    December 13, 2010 8:21 pm

    When I used to go on pelagics out of Montauk, the fishing boat office had a sign that said “It’s called fishing, it isn’t called catching”. I’ve often wished we had a similar expression for birding but I haven’t come up with a suitable parallel construction.

  6. December 14, 2010 3:36 am

    Ouch.
    Just … ouch.
    Although it might be debatable if a bird that’s on your life list (trip to Europe, if I remember right?) can be labeled a nemesis. Maybe a regional nemesis, but a universal nemesis? Hmmm… I think we need to define rules for nemesis birds, clearly ABA’s next target.

  7. Nate permalink*
    December 14, 2010 11:15 am

    @Kent- Ha! No doubt.

    @Jochen- That’s a good point. I have seen BH Gull in Europe in 1995. But I think given the history this gull and I share, issues of regionality and universality are moot.

  8. Becky permalink
    December 14, 2010 11:27 pm

    Black billed cuckoo: intersection of highway 151 and the blue ridge parkway or along the upper portions of highway 276 between the BRP and Brevard. They breed there! Good luck with the gull.

  9. December 15, 2010 6:58 am

    Well, had you managed to miss the gull in Europe, we’d be talking serious nemesis stuff… 😉

  10. Nate permalink*
    December 16, 2010 4:17 pm

    @Becky- Hmm, is that south of Asheville? I’m going to remember that!

    @Jocehn- It’d be impossible I suspect.

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