The other day I was reading a review of a book called,” Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds.” The author was reliving pivotal experiences in his life after encounters with birds. For instance the author recalls the memory of seeing two turkey vultures hovering over a wounded gull, which brought back recollections of his father’s death. Being a birder myself, when I read the title I didn’t expect a book equating bird sightings with personal events but bird sightings that were the personal events. But the author is a psychologist and I am not.
Currently we are participating in Project Feederwatch for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology so we have been paying close attention to the birds visiting our yard and feeders. These events combined got me thinking back to stand-out bird sightings that we have experienced in the 30 odd years we’ve been birding.
The first one that came to mind happened just last year when we were out on our New Year’s Day bird trip. Every year, weather willing, we get a start on our yearly bird list by hitting the road early. We go over to the bay of Green Bay, the mouth of the Fox River, Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary…covering various back roads and side streets as we go. After checking those areas we drive east toward Lake Michigan. Manitowoc, Two Rivers and Kewaunee have docks and inlets with sheltered open water that usually provide us with our first water birds of the year. This year we had a GPS so instead of taking familiar roads, we set a destination and let the GPS guide us. Between county road AB and Sleepy Hollow Rd in Kewaunee Co., we came around a corner as a very large bird swooped across the road and into the field on our left. My son, who has the bird guide memorized ( I swear, he does.) yells out, “That’s a Golden Eagle!” Of course my husband and I are immediately skeptical because we just don’t see Goldens around here, especially at that time of the year. But the bird makes another pass, this time we all get a great look at the field marks and also realize the bird is hunting on a flock of turkeys who are frantically scurrying around in a field full of corn stubble. The stubble is tall enough to prevent the eagle from completing his mission. The hunt, the nearness to the eagle and the unlikely sighting made it one of those “Wow!” experiences. A thank you goes out to the GPS that took us down a road we probably wouldn’t have chosen on our own.
Over the years we have had seen many unusual and wonderful birds but the best times are when you get that very first look at a bird. A first look at a variety of water birds happened in an unlikely place, at least to our way of thinking. In 2003, we were on our way back to Wisconsin from a trip to Mt. Rushmore. Instead of taking Interstate 90 back we went north to check out Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge which is very close to the border between North and South Dakota. On our way, probably on highway 12, west of Aberdeen, Curt notices lots of birds congregating in mudflats on either side of the road. We pull over, get out our binoculars and bird guides, and start calling out field marks and identifying birds. Baird’s Sandpiper, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Phalarope. And not just one of each but flocks. Back in the car and on to Sand Lake but just east of Aberdeen, a pond yields Willets, Pectoral Sandpipers and a Red-necked Grebe. By the time we got to Sand Lake, we didn’t think there was anything left but we ended our run that day with a Western Grebe, Snowy Egret and a White-faced Ibis. These are the events that take us back out into the field, highway, mud-flat and pond, year after year.