by Helena Uber-Wamble
The joy of watching birds is a very relaxing pasttime. One sets out feeders with anticipation of local birds coming in for a snack and bringing their friends with them. Carolina chickadees and Tufted titmice seem to be the first birds to check out the feeders. Northern cardinals soon join in and then other birds receive the news through the happy chatter and tweets taking place as the birds eat. One can usually predict when birds will pop in to dine; early in the morning and – in the winter – again around five. Chickadees and titmice don’t mind sharing, and these birds that belong to the “welcoming committee” greet white-throated sparrows and juncos as they fly south for the winter season.
It is great how this system works, with birds announcing the available food source to those in need. Migrants who passed through earlier listen for the calls of these birds to stop and refuel. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Indigo buntings and Blue grosbeaks are just a few of birds that unpredictably show up and dine. One day you look out and among the local feasting group is this colorful bird with a bright red chest and huge beak. This grosbeak is a beauty, but you know you won’t see him for long as he is in mid-journey to his wintering grounds.
What is so fantastic about birdwatching is that it is unpredictable! Birds don’t read books and therefore do not know that they are supposed to follow the Pacific flyway instead of the Mississippi flyway. They move on the wing with the weather patterns — sometimes this is not by choice and they end up a long way off from their regularly scheduled destination. When this happens, birdwatchers everywhere get really excited to have the opportunity to see a rare bird in their area.
Recently we had an unpredictable surprise here in Alabama of a white-eared Hummingbird showing up in the southern part of the state. This Mexican resident was trapped, banded and released near Mobile in the yard where it was feeding. This is a first state record for Alabama. Why is it here? Was it weather that threw it off course? Did it bring any friends? Can we come see it to check it off our life list too? Birdwatchers around the state were excited and were willing to drive a few extra hours just to get a glimpse of this beautiful purple-masked bird.
It is these rare occasional sightings that keep bird watching fresh and exciting. Migration makes each outing have the potential to stumble upon an unpredictable bird, such as this hummingbird. Up north, Snowy owls show up in various places that cause a stir for those who know they will never travel to the artic to see this beauty, and rare gulls mix in with the local flocks to feed. It is the patient birdwatcher who scans the entire raft of birds looking for the rarity among the masses; these may be the birdwatchers who are fortunate enough to find a Greater-black backed gull or other rarities. Scan that flock of blackbirds, you might find the one Rusty blackbird in the group. A group of sparrows? Better look again, there may be several surprises among the flock. Never miss an opportunity to scan and scan again. That second look might reveal that perfect unpredictable visitor.
Birds like the weather can be unpredictable, but true nature observers are helping to spot those birds and share their findings. That is why eBird.org is so important. This network of nature lovers not only logs the local birds, they log the “unpredictable.” Birders watch weather patterns to see if a storm might possibly bring in a straggler from afar. Once, I had a pair of white pelicans show up at a small lake 2 miles from my house. With a quick click of the camera and an entry into eBird, those 2 birds were documented. Remember, birds cannot read books, and field guides are just that, a guide. Never discount the possibilities of a rare bird being right in front of you. Document what you see. Photos are always great, and remember, nature is unpredictable!