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Go South to get West

January 9, 2012
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I can’t decide whether I’m a serious state lister or not.  I mean, there are a not inconsequential number of birds present in North Carolina every single year in predictable locations that have not, yet, seen within the borders of the Tarheel State.  I tend to call them “nemesis birds”, but they’re not really.  The dirty truth is they only require an effort, the budgeting of time and a little, but not a lot, of money, whenever I decide to get off my keister and make it.  But still, when a report of a Western Tanager, a legitimate state vagrant slides down the old bird line, sneaking onto my cell phone minutes before taunting me from the listserv, I can’t help but feel that itch, that twitch.

And if I had to make the trip myself, I might not.  But I have found myself thrown in with a group of hard-nosed and enthusiastic birders – mostly younger than me – who see state listing as a contact sport and bring out those impulses in me even though they have long since left my meager state tally in the dust with their eager gallivanting across the state and any attempt to keep up with them is liable to leave me wrecked.  That enthusiasm is addicting, though, and when the e-mails and texts start flying setting up the logistics of making the just over an hour trip to Pinehurst.  Alone I might not do it, but with someone else in the car, how could I not?

I ended up making the trip with Mark Kosiewski, Pittsboro area birder and Chatham County eBird arch nemesis.  We arrived at the private residence, right off the fairway for Pinehurst Course #1, where the Western Tanager had been spending the last couple weeks gorging on shelled peanuts and suet.  Marjorie, the keeper of the bird and quite possible the nicest bird host I’d ever had the pleasure to meet, noted that the bird was generally pretty skittish but regular, coming to the feeder every 45 minutes or so in a mixed species flock.  The yard was exceptionally birdy when we got there so we took a seat behind Marjorie’s impressive floor to ceiling windows and waited in the hopes that the tanager would be along shortly.

It was about that time that the Cooper’s Hawk arrived.

Accipiter cooperi, scourge of the stakeout.  The little male sent every single bird in the vicinity scattering to kingdom come as it spent what felt like an eternity, but what was actually about five minutes, passing back and forth in front of the house menacingly.  It was nearly 45 minutes before birds started sneaking back into the feeding station, but it wasn’t a anxious wait.  Marjorie had prepared coffee, and a banana bread, and several other birders had arrived such that the stakeout was sort of filled with that subdued joviality you get when several people who share the same passion that is more or less ignored by the general public find each other.  There was lots of shop talk, and all of a sudden, there were birds.

The feeders, apparently free from the grip of winged death had picked up.  Nuthatches and finches and doves and sparrow jostled for position.  And then, someone spotted the target up in a pine, looking down on the feeder anxiously, daring not to come any closer than necessary. Close enough to get excellent views, but too far for anything resembling a good photo.

I snapped off a few record shots, all the while expecting to get something better when it would, at long last, alight on the feeder.  But it never did.  It cruised by a couple time, looking nevous and not willing to take on the cadre of doves that had commandeered its favorite peanut spot.  By that time, we didn’t have much time to wait for it, the Cooper’s Hawk siege having taking a good portion of the time budgeted.  But the bird was still ticked, the twitch successful.  And so I have another state bird.

I may not have Ruffed Grouse, or Red Crossbill, or Cerulean Warbler.  All nesting species that I’ve failed to run across, but this time I have Western Tanager.  I’m not sure what it means for me as a state lister, but I’m happy to have it anyway.

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