Salt in a Big Year wound (or, a story I nearly forgot)
I didn’t write much specifically about the end of my Triangle Big Year when the calender flipped over to January a couple weeks ago. That was a little intentional, in that I almost hate to delve into the mind-numbing minutia of Big Year stat checking and would I haves-should I haves that rehashing a Big year can be. I’ve said before that the biggest insight I’ve picked up from my two attempts at Big Yearing (this Triangle one and my state-wide run in 2008), and one I think Big Year accounts fail to emphasize, is that these things are as much about the birds you miss as the birds you get. Particularly towards the last quarter of the year, the run is less about finding unexpected birds and more about making sure you don’t miss expected ones. Or maybe I’m just a terrible Big Year birder, I don’t know, but the frustration of missing Eastern Screech-Owl is one I don’t care to relive, nor the multiple failed attempts to nail down Wood Stork late in the summer into November, nor the inconceivable lack of Black-belled Plovers in the area, nor the dipped Nashville Warbler, Sooty Tern, Red-necked Grebe, etc etc etc.
Once the year is over, the mania can subside and you can find yourself birding just to bird again. And like the cliche about love, the birds seem to find you when you’re least expecting them.
I started the year 2012 birding. I had drawn a choice spot for the Jordan Lake CBC, with long-time Triangle birder Tom Krakauer as my companion for the morning. The first bird of the day was Ring-billed Gull, calling out on the water, and as the light slowly opened up the lake, thousands upon thousands of roosting gulls slowly emerged from the fog in clouds of white wings. Now that the new Wake County (Raleigh) landfill has opened not more than a few miles (as the gull flies) from the largest lake in the region, this is where they come every night. And with the increasing light, they began passing over us in flocks hundreds at a time. Ring-bills mostly, but impressive numbers of Herring Gulls, nearly one for every 50 of the smaller birds. We estimated a conservative 50,000 gulls, which made for about 1,000 Herrings. Lots of birds. Literal tons of them.
I had sort of joked at the possibility of a Lesser Black-backed Gull in that mass, noting that I wouldn’t be able to tell it on the wing even if it was in there and resigning myself to a cursory study of the Herring Gulls just in case something obvious jumped out at me. Nothing doing. After all, I had spent an inordinate amount of time exactly one year hence looking through this flock of gulls for that Lesserback for my official Big Year with absolutely no luck. I didn’t expect anything different.
After 90% of the birds had headed for breakfast, there was still a large flock of gulls that hadn’t headed towards the dump, now loafing on the swimming beach of the nearby park. Expecting nothing in the much smaller flock of merely 500 gulls, I pulled out my scope and did my CBC duty, trying to estimate the numbers of Herrings in this group when a dark-mantled bird practically jumped out at me. Even tucked into its wing, there’s no denying that slate gray mantle and that smudgy eye. My Lesser Black-backed Gull, and an adult too. Turns out I didn’t even have to work too hard at it.
I considered, for a second, the irony of the situation. I’d spent nearly every weekend from January 1 to December 31 looking for birds just like this one. Even the night before this CBC, the eve of 2012, I spent a couple hours driving the backroads of Orange and Durham Counties trying to whistled up that infuriating missing Screech Owl with no luck. And yet, not nine hours after the official end of my Big Year, I was staring into the smudgy yellow eye of one of my primary targets for last year. The birding gods certainly have a sense of humor.
But that’s the way it goes. Regardless of whether the Lesserback counts on some arbitrarily dated list, it’s still a great bird. A county bird, yes. An auspicious start to this year of normal birding, of course. A sign that we shouldn’t take these little games we play too seriously? Absolutely. One I, at least, would probably do well to remember.