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Birder Jargon Project: Birds that hate us

August 2, 2012

We birders are too often guilty of revisiting esoteric or otherwise rarely used pars of the english language.  It’s bad enough that we’re all too aware of the real meaning of words like chevron and palmate and cockade, words whose use outside of birding is limited to an SAT study guide. It’s probably one of the cool things about birding that increasing one’s knowledge in this very specific arena has the side benefit of increasing your knowledge in a whole host of other subjects, from history to etymology, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to salvage the reputation that we’re all a little off our rocker.

Nestled deep within this bizarre list of arcane words comes one generally used only when referring to comic book super-villains.  Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, and every birder has those species for which fortune has deigned to hide from view despite significant efforts to find them.  Our nemesis birds.

Black-headed Gull. Photo from wikipedia, because I sure as hell didn’t see it

Nemesis birds are frustrating.  They are infuriating.  And the idea of the bird species with whom you have a long history of not seeing is so ingrained in our culture that there’s even an excellent blog with that name.  After all, missing birds is as crucial a part of the listing game as finding them, and arguably a much more authentic experience though we rarely admit it.  But simply missing a bird doesn’t a nemesis make, though I’ve heard the term used in that context.  A nemesis is something more than a dip, it requires multiple opportunities and multiple misses and the creeping realization that this bird may forever remain beyond your grasp.

I’ve been guilty of this dumbing down of the term on occasion.  Sometimes I use it just because it’s sort of embarrassing that I’ve never seen something as pedestrian as Black-billed Cuckoo or Cerulean Warbler (the last two glaring misses among eastern birds on my life-list), but neither of those birds are true nemeses, only species that are sort of uncommon where I’ve lived that I’ve never managed to cross paths with.  But I do have a real nemesis.  An honest to god bird for whom better than half a dozen trips was not enough to appease the bird gods to allow me a look.  And it’s Black-headed Gull.

Black-headed Gull is a semi-annual, but rare, visitor to North Carolina.  Back when I did my pathetic excuse for a state Big Year I figured it for one of the species I had a better than even shot at picking up.  Perhaps I should elaborate that the gull I had in mind was a very specific individual bird that spent every year for half a decade at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR, one of North Carolina’s winter jewels and a place at which I was already planning to spend a fair bit of time that year.

Not only did I miss that individual on multiple occasions, on a later date, when I was sitting precipitously at 499 species for the ABA Area, a Black-headed Gull was reported at a lake near my home.  I was there immediately and missed it by a few minutes.  I went back the next day and spent several hours in the vicinity, finally being chased away by winter rain, only to read that it had been found not long after I left.  I have not had an opportunity for Black-headed Gull since.

That, friends, is a nemesis.

  1. August 3, 2012 1:51 pm

    Ah, yes. I just bestowed the official Nemesis title upon Black-backed Woodpecker yesterday. it had been vacant since I finally ticked a Henslow’s Sparrow in May. I’ve chased BBWO reports, had others on a field trip get one on their way to the parking lot I was standing in, just spent a few days visiting several “reliable” BBWO in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yup, it’s official now.

    Funny story, while roaming a fresh burn area in the U.P. yesterday, a car stopped on this random wilderness dirt road. The driver said, “Looking for Black-backeds?” I figured I was in luck as this man obviously had information. I gave the illusion Black-backeds were no big deal, but after a brief conversation he said he was from Ohio and sheepishly admitted BBWO was a nemesis bird for him. I just looked at him crestfallen and said, “Sir, we are absolutely the wrong two people to have run into each other in the middle of nowhere.” Yes, Picoides arcticus has it in for more than just me.

    • Nate permalink*
      August 6, 2012 8:28 pm

      That’s a good one. It’s always the missed birds that become the best stories.

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