Nemesis Birds

“Nemesis,” when used while referring to birds which do not cooperatively reveal themselves, is a euphemism for an opportunity for swearing. Well, at least for some of us.

Some birders are patient. Me, not always, but I can be. A driver took me to a riparian forest along the Indus River in Ladakh, a predominantly Buddhist prefecture within Muslim-dominated Kashmir. I was hoping to see the magnificently beautiful Old World thrush, the bluethroat. Quietly creeping through the bushes and leaves, I spotted the bird perched on a low limb, facing away from me. This was my last day in this habitat, and this bird would not turn around. I crouched soundlessly for hours, well, minutes actually, but a lot of minutes. The word “nemesis” went through my head, along with some unprintable ones.

I communicated telepathically with that bird. I made promises to deities which don’t exist. I made pledges to bird-favoring organizations — anything to get that bird to turn around. I waited and waited, despairing, knowing that it was just going to fly away. It hopped into the air, time slowed down, it flapped its wings, I held my breath. It turned a perfect 180 and landed on the very same perch, facing me in acceptable light. The striking alternating red and blue throat and chest were unmistakable. I could cross the bluethroat off my nemesis list.

But there are others which have eluded me: dickcissel, McCown’s longspur, five-striped sparrow, black-billed cuckoo, among others. These are not rare birds. I should have them.

Two well-known Wyoming birders with much more knowledge and experience than I, Bruce and Donna Walgren, recently posted an invitation on the Wyoming bird listserv for birders to post names of birds they had not found, or stories of birds they had found. This invitation elicited a lot of response, and with Bruce and Donna’s permission, I am mining this material.

Like me, University of Wyoming faculty member David McDonald has not found the black-billed cuckoo in Wyoming. But while searching a Michigan forest for the extremely rare Kirtland’s warbler, to his great surprise, he found the cuckoo. Plus he found the warbler. He’s two up on me.

Noted Casper trial lawyer Pat Dixon confesses that most red and green birds are his nemeses; he is red and green color blind.

Others listed: bushtit, MacGillivray’s warbler, Virginia’s warbler, dusky grouse, American three-toed woodpecker and great gray owl, all of which can be found in Wyoming and none of which are rare. But they are not reliably easy to find.

New Jersey resident Rollin Deas contributed Connecticut warbler, only to stimulate this response from McDonald:

“Seeing a Connecticut Warbler shouldn’t really be any harder than snowshoeing solo across Antarctica. Here’s how. Go to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in June or July. Look straight up for several hours (you can visit a chiropractor and osteopathic surgeon later). Continue to gaze steadily upward until the pain has mutated to numbness. Disregard the thousands of mosquitos that are rapidly depleting your blood supply (you can eat iron-rich foods later, if you survive). That little yellow spot you see in the canopy of the giant pines, just before you pass out is ….. maybe …. a Connecticut warbler. Since any sense of shame or guilt, and most of your brain function, will be unlikely to return in the event that your circulation does, you will be able to add it to your life list in perfectly good conscience.”

This was followed by news that a Connecticut warbler had been spotted by several birders at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge right here in old Wyoming in 1988.

Stacy Scott, longtime renowned birder whose day job as a rancher restricts his perambulations, keeps missing Ross’s goose, a diminutive cousin of the Snow goose, even though people keep reporting them at Soda Lake just north of Casper.

Fred Lebsack wants a harlequin duck. Hard to find in Wyoming, but someone is reporting a long-tailed duck on the Bighorn River near Thermopolis as of April 2. (I would be suspicious of an April 1 report of this usually pelagic species.)

While people are confessing which birds they have not seen, biologist CJ Grimes from Worland lists three species which I have not seen either:  black-backed woodpecker, McCown’slongspur and Baird’s sparrow.

Elwood Bracey of Maryland replied to the invitation, naming Harris’ sparrow, a bird I have seen only a couple of times in Wyoming. I asked if he had any anecdotes, and this is his reply:

“My wife’s great-grandfather, Edward Harris, funded and accompanied JJ Audubon on his trip up the Missouri River in 1843. Audubon named this sparrow for his benefactor Harris. Actually this species had been first collected in Missouri in 1834 by Thomas Nuttall. Our daughter lives in Ten Sleep, WY where we’ll be visiting in May and I thought it would be nice to find this lifer with Edward Harris’ (1799-1863) great-grand-daughter along in Wyoming. I understand it sometimes winters in eastern WY but is not common. It was one of the last NA passerines to have its nest and eggs described and has managed to elude me all my adult life but admittedly I’ve never been in its wintering area at the right time of year. In spring it should be in easily recognizable plumage and I’d like any help I could get finding one.”

If anyone has advice, please let us know.

The discussions sparked by Bruce and Donna led a lot of people to participate, including several from out of state. I hope none of them mind that I reported their posts here, but I don’t think anyone posting on the listserv has an expectation of privacy.

Maybe next, Bruce and Donna could collect stories of the most exciting birding moment in Wyoming, or the most dangerous birding moment in Wyoming, or the most beautiful or ugly bird sighting…There’s no end to the possibilities. What a great way to build community participation in shared interests.

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  1. You should be able to see a McCown’s longspur south-southeast of Laramie in May — in the vicinity of where I once saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher.