The first time I saw your face

A memorable little soccer ball of a bird, a Least Bittern. But also part of a wonderful field day with friends.
Mom gave me my first binoculars, and this book a few years later.

In the interest of science, I wandered into the past.

(This is my story and I stand by it.)

I try to be more consistent in using eBird; I recognize that it has become a very powerful tool for ornithologists who study the range of birds, their migration and many other elements of their life cycle. My little observations don’t do much scribbled in a notebook or on the back of an envelope, but they gain strength when combined with millions of others.

Part of building the habit more solidly was adding old sightings. Right now I’m working on adding lifers because I’ve usually recorded them with more details on dates, locations, and other field notes.

Some early sightings have no precise date – the blackbirds, blue jays and cardinals of my childhood – but from the late 1980s, when I received my first field guide, I began to write things, and in 1994 my mother gave me this book to record observations (some of those notes are included here). At first I was getting ten or more new birds with every Audubon walk I took. After a few years, it was rarely more than ten a year unless I was traveling. These days it takes a bit of work to add someone new to the roster, but that also means there’s usually an adventure to go along with it. And those adventures usually involve friends because extra eyes = better odds.

Worth a visit – LeConte’s Sparrow, Abbott’s Lagoon

Sometimes sightings are memorable because they’ve long been sought-after birds at the top of the list (like last year’s Montezuma quail). Others linger in memory because of the setting of the sighting – dawn at a sage grouse lek in northern Colorado; last light in a high mountain meadow in Yosemite when a great gray owl appears… or the mall parking lot where a dozen birdwatchers have gathered outside Home Depot to see a rusty blackbird. Sometimes it’s the effort involved – a two-mile hike (of which about half a mile is loose sand) to the end of Abbott’s Lagoon for a LeConte’s Sparrow, or the very first sighting during a pelagic journey. Or maybe sometimes it’s the lack of effort involved, like a sighting of Emperor Goose in a car… “wouldn’t it be funny if it was that bird sitting on the boat ramp?” Ohhhh…. it’s.”

Join me on the memory lane – and share a few!

Common Cuckoo in the tangles of Harkins Slough – 1 October 2012

This one was quite memorable because of the circumstances. He was only seen for a few days, and normally I should have missed the opportunity because he appeared mid-week. But I had lost my job a few days before that so… shit, I’m going to get the bird. Beats sat feeling sorry for myself. We managed to see it — not easy in this vegetation! (and I quickly found another job)

Greater Sand-Plover, a needle in a haystack find – found in a community of haystack experts.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of winter birdwatching at Bolinas Lagoon, you know that the mudflats can be home to thousands of shorebirds and the viewing distance can vary from half a mile between the high tide and low tide. If anything unusual pops up here, it would be easy to overlook, other than the fact that it’s reviewed by some of the best eyes in the business. And even those better eyes weren’t quite sure of the identity at first. When my friend and I went to see it, we thought we were going for a Mongolian Plover, but by the time we got there, it was rumored to be a Large Sandy Plover – a first North American record. It was my first experience with a mega-rarity, with hundreds of people lining the edge of the lagoon hoping to catch a glimpse.

Full disclosure – not my gyrfalcon in perpetuity (it was a juvenile) but if you think I’m going to pass up the chance to include a photo of one of these beauties… This is my second , from Skagit Flats, WA

My gyrfalcon in perpetuity was really memorable because it was really the only time I was the original discoverer of a rare bird (along with my good friend). We were on one of our favorite back roads for wintering raptors and saw a large bird on a fence post. It was the size of a redtail, but was overall tan and had a ridged front with no visible belly band. Ah! Prairie Falcon – this was a good place to spot them. We walked past but wanted another look. I had just spent a few days doing a portrait of a prairie falcon and it just didn’t feel right. He was so tall – even stocky – and he was missing his bright white cheek and eyebrow. When it flew towards a pole, it had a strong wingbeat very different from the brisk flapping of a prairie falcon. We scribbled down some notes and tried to take some photos, but that was in the days before digiscoping and it was raining too. Still, it was enough to convince the California Bird Records Committee that we had indeed seen a gyrfalcon, only the ninth sighting for the state and the most southerly at this time.

Location, location, location – I don’t live in an American black duck location

I had to include this one because it’s proof that location is everything in birding. My location on the Central California Coast means there are plenty of chances for rarities. It also means that some eastern birds are completely out of range. American black duck, for starters. I tried to see them for years while visiting my family all around the Great Lakes and finally got it after 20 years of trying. I saw both Baikal teal and sickle-duck before laying eyes on a black duck. And that makes sense because there are only two accepted reports of black ducks in California, but 10 each of the other two.

Nothing personal American Robin, but the Kirtland’s Warbler should be Michigan’s state bird.

Another midwesterner that I will probably never see in California is the Kirtland’s Warbler. My parents had a cabin in northern Michigan about 20 miles (as the crow flies) from Grayling. in 1994 i stopped over and did a state sponsored warbler ride. By then, their numbers were beginning to increase because the amount of habitat managed for them had almost doubled. However, with only about 1000 birds, it was not easy to find them. We were lucky and had some great views. I didn’t get any photos, but postcards were conveniently for sale. Seeing this little cutie brings back fond memories of times at the cabin – birds by day, northern lights in the evening sky, and spending time with my family.

You earn every bird you see on a pelagic trip. If they weren’t so cool, I would never do it again.

I still remember this trip for the fact that I don’t remember most of it. The seas were rough enough that they wondered if the voyage would even take place; the decision to go ahead was not made until we left port and they were able to assess the conditions. Worse still, I was trying another seasickness medication that day and it wasn’t working for me. (I’ve been firmly at Camp Dramamine ever since.) About 20 minutes after crossing the breakwater, I started mumbling rough and spent most of the day with my eyes closed, wishing everything (especially my stomach) stops moving. The only redeeming element of the day was seeing Sabine’s seagulls – so graceful, just a totally lovely bird.

Sooty Grouse, along the trail to Sentinel Dome in Yosemite – it let me pass within 5 feet

My husband likes to sleep late when he’s on vacation, so I normally get up and explore for a few hours before he moves. On a trip to Yosemite, I woke up very early and headed to Sentinel Dome; I really like sunrise in the high country and got to the trailhead just before first light. On the trail I encountered this sooty grouse also enjoying the sunrise. I didn’t have a field guide with me that morning, but it was easy enough to figure out.

The unfortunate Ross’s Gull of Half-Moon Bay. More than a one-day wonder, but not much.

One thing that told me to have a good boss: This Ross’s Gull showed up on a Thursday and all the local message boards were buzzing! Friday morning I asked if I could leave early for a “bird emergency” – thought it better to be honest than to make a doctor’s appointment or something. He said absolutely yes, and I was able to make it with about half an hour of light remaining. With dozens of birdwatchers on the side of the road, finding the seagull was not difficult. Unfortunately, a peregrine falcon also had no trouble finding him the next day, in front of hundreds of onlookers.

Lifers who stand out for you? Favorites? Hardest slogan?



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Elizabeth J. Harless