Itching to Twitch

One of the heart-pumping moments of birding is opening up my alerts from eBird and learning that a new or rare bird has been sighted within striking distance. There is a thrill involved with opening up google maps and figuring out how I am going to get to wherever it is to find it. Actually reaching the bird is more than often an an epic quest. I will never forget biking over forty miles on a ninety degree summer day looking for a Sandhill Crane that had flown into Ulster County or planning an entire day of bus-hopping to travel from Bard College to Poughkeepsie and then to Beacon looking for Peregrine Falcons and Black-crowned Night Herons. These adventures, among others, taught me that with a little money in my pocket to feed myself and the ability to read a map, I can go anywhere. It is an awesome feeling.

Sandhill Crane, "Grus canadensis"

Sandhill Crane, "Grus canadensis"


Objectively, without the romantic aspects associated with adventure, "twitching" (targeting a specific bird) can seem like a fool's errand. In reality, finding the bird can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. It is a single bird among hundreds. More importantly, it can fly, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be where it was reported even if directions are followed exactly. By the time I get there, it could be gone, and all of my efforts for naught. I do not know what I would have done if I arrived on Churchill Lane, sweaty, exhausted, and with only a few sips of water left, to find that the Sandhill Crane was gone. Initially, I thought it was- it was only the sound of its trumpeting call that assured me it was somewhere along the road. It was the image of its gleaming red cap burning against the green horse fields that kept me going on my return home; without it, I do not know if I would have had the energy to keep pushing myself forward. If I had not been able to watch the Peregrine Falcon rip the sky apart as it stooped from the clouds above me while I stood on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, I would have spent an entire day with no tangible show for my efforts.  

People think that I am crazy for going off on such adventures. But to me, there is never an option of not going. I do not care if I do not find it; I have to at least try. I could not live with myself if I did not. Although there is nothing like taking a walk and waiting for the unexpected, twitching forces me to push the limits of what I believe I can do and is incredibly rewarding no matter what the result. The places I go are always exciting, and though the target is expected, what happens along the way is always a surprise. And I see some pretty amazing things along the way. 

This week, I was lucky enough to have two opportunities to twitch. An incredibly rare Lark Sparrow was reported along the Salt Point Turnpike at the intersection with Market Lane. I cringed at the idea of trying to find a single sparrow. Sparrows all look remarkably similar and are difficult enough to identify when they are easily found. As my friend Margaux and I drive along Market Lane, I cannot help but notice that every single little bird that hops out into view (only for a split second, of course) is a sparrow. I am looking for a needle in a very, very large haystack indeed. 

The directions that have been provided to the location of the Lark Sparrow are superb. This does not make them any easier to follow. It takes Margaux and I about ten minutes just to figure out where to park the car and another fifteen to figure out which way we are supposed to start walking. There are farm fields on either side of us, with swallows winging about everywhere and chirps coming from all directions. How am I supposed to pick out a single bird from all of this? On top of it all, I have to make sure I pay attention to oncoming cars that seem to have no desire to slow down as they whizz by. Needless to say, I am rather exasperated by the time I finally arrive where the sparrow is supposed to be. And needless to say, my jaw drops almost to the ground when the Lark Sparrow flies down into the street no more than twenty feet in front of me and hops around with no regard to my presence. I have no idea why the universe loves me so much. All I know is that I am practically skipping as I take its picture and absorb the complexity of its face pattern. I shake my fist in frustration at the two motorcyclists that scare the bird off into a tree, but it is really just for show; I am way too happy to feel any sort of derogatory sentiment. I feel as though I am being hugged by this tiny little corner of the universe as I sit atop my haystack with the Lark Sparrow and the swallows and the Turkey Vultures winging around me. 

Lark Sparrow, " Chondestes grammacus." The white tips on its tail made it distinct even when in flight. 

Lark Sparrow, "Chondestes grammacus." The white tips on its tail made it distinct even when in flight. 

A few days later, the Waterman Bird Club begins to post photos of another rare bird, a Merlin, claiming that it has been frequenting the exact same roost multiple days in a row. The photographs that have been taken are beautiful: they show an aerodynamic falcon covered in black stripes, its face hooded with a black mask that rings golden eyes,  glowing auburn in the evening light. In all of the pictures, it is perched atop a snag located behind the pizza parlor in Stanfordville. I am enraptured by it. I have an idea of the area from when I twitched to find Purple Martins the previous summer, and so I calculate the best time to leave so that I can arrive in Stanfordville with enough light to get a picture as the sun sets.

At 6:05, I am in my car and en route. The fields around me are filled with goldenrod and purple loosestrife. The clouds turn pink, then purple as time elapses. I pull into the pizza parlor at 6:50. I hop out of my car and look up into the snag- and it is empty. I try not to feel too disappointed. Despite its consistency, the odds of it being there at exactly this moment are still not in my favor. It could have left completely, or it could just be hunting. Either way, it was a long shot. Since I have already come this far, I decide to walk along the road to kill time with the desperate hope that it might return to its snag before the sun sets. 

There are almost no birds anywhere. Oh well. As I continue to walk, I am so happy to see any sort of avian life that I am completely absorbed by the pair of mourning doves perched atop a telephone wire. There is one further back, on a dead tree right in the trajectory of the setting sun that is about to completely sink beyond the horizon. It might make a nice picture. But as I raise my camera to compose the shot, I notice that this bird has a thicker head than a mourning dove, and no real visible neck. My prior disappointment erupts into adrenaline as I race forward to get closer to what I know in my heart is the Merlin. It is so much smaller than I expected. When I look at the bird through my binoculars, I can see the sharp points of its wings and tail that classify it as a falcon. There are only three falcons found in Dutchess county-the Peregrine Falcon, the American Kestrel, and the Merlin- and now that I have met this one I have seen them all. 

I lower my binoculars and look through the lens of my camera at the Merlin. This "lady hawk," so nicknamed because Merlins were often used by medieval noblewomen to hunt Sky Larks, is still playing hard to get. Its back is toward me, and I cannot see its face. I feel like I am racing against time as I silently beg it to turn its face and look at me. The shadows lengthen. Please, please... I fire away, stepping this way and that to try to at least get a glimpse of its head. Please...

And then, as though sensing my presence, the lady hawk turns to look at me and I can see, in the sun's final beams, its golden eyes gleaming fiercely. I cannot make out what emotions they hold-contempt? Curiosity? But in the folds of its black mask that glows with sunset, I feel as though I can see it acknowledge me, and my heart leaps. I continue to watch it until the sun goes down. As I walk back to my car, I become aware of the sound of bagpipes (how long have they been playing? I was completely oblivious to them in the hold of the Merlin) and as I walk by the fire station next to the pizza parlor, I see a single man just standing there, blowing at his instrument. He is quite good. A nice touch to a perfect twitch. 

Merlin, "Falco columbianus"

Merlin, "Falco columbianus"

New Birds: 234, 235

Lark Sparrow, Merlin