How to find a rare bird

How to find a rare bird

So, you want to find a rare bird, eh?

Find a rare birdLewis’s Woodpecker – a rare bird in New York State

Well, that’s easy enough to do. But first, a couple of questions:

What is a rare bird? And, why?

The answer to the first question is easy. A rare bird can be anything you want it to be.

Really. You can make any birding quest to be as engaging and challenging as you see fit. After all, it is your list.

And by that I mean that you can put a goal ahead of you and go for it. Nobody said it has to be an Olympic event. Many birders, like myself, keep various lists, such as a Life List, a Year List, State List a County List Yard List… should I keep going? Nawh, you get the point.

What you get out of all that is a personal challenge, the satisfaction of having achieved that goal, and some neat bragging rights – which unfortunately may be usable in only a select few circles.

The thing about lists is that they seem to generate a self-perpetuating series of “rare birds”. That one-more-species-for-the-day, the year, the yard, whatever, becomes the next rare bird.

The most popular of those bird list is the “Life List”. That is the record of each species that you’ve seen – ever – no matter where. The greater lists usually require a lot of travel, around the state, country, and the world. Sometimes you get lucky and a foreign bird species will show up somewhere near you (and in this context, near is relative). This is usually the result of someone else finding it and the word getting out in time for you to get there before it disappears. And that’s good since it will often add not only to your life list, but also to your state list, or even county list – if you’re keeping track of such things. This just recently happened to me when I got word of a Grace’s Warbler down in Nassau County. A first for New York State, and naturally, a first for me; one more for both the state and Nassau County. It wasn’t a “Life” bird for me however, since I’ve already seen one down in Belize a few years ago.

The ultimate rare bird around these parts is the first record for the state. Now that’s a good one. With more than three-hundred years of bird records for New York State, new ones are becoming harder to find. And if you happen to be the finder – well…. now you’re talking bragging rights big time. You might even be entitled to bring it up at the next dinner table. A while ago, while scouting a section of the Catskill Christmas Bird Count circle, I noticed a “different” profile of a bird high in a tree off in the distance. I went for a closer look, and voila’, a Mountain Bluebird – never before recorded in New York State! A First. Bragg-in rights.

Well, I guess that pretty much answers both those questions.

Now the How part.

If you want to find a rare bird – go out and look for one. Sounds simple, eh? Well, it’s actually simpler that that. You really don’t have to go out at all. Just be watching from your kitchen window. Going back to the definition of rare bird, the next bird to show up at your feeder could be your rare bird. It could be the first Cardinal for the day; the first Towhee for the year; the first Indigo Bunting for your yard, or the first Sage Sparrow for New York State. All qualify for bragging rights – depending on the audience. Actually, probably the greatest number of rare birds in New York have been found in someone’s backyard, visiting a feeder.

a rare bird in New York State

This Bullock’s Oriole was found coming to a backyard feeder in Phoenicia, Ulster County

So, if waiting for your rare bird to come to you is not your game, the next thing to do is up the ante: to find a rare bird – go out and look for it.

Where do you go? Well, that would depend on a number of things. You could stumble on the distinctive silhouette of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sitting on a wire fence just down the road from you. Really, just about every Scissor-tailed Flycatcher found in New York State was just down the road from someone. It might as well be you.

Find a bird

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – a rare bird anywhere in New York State

Or, visit rare bird habitats. A friend of mine made a regular practice of making a list of probable species, then searching suitable habitat for a particular rarity. It worked. He has quite a number of notches on his binocular straps. Being from Scotland, he explained that’s the way they do it over there.

The next thing, and probably the most important, is to become very, really very, familiar with the common species around you. It really helps if you can scan through a flock of birds and be able to notice the one that’s different. Many times the difference between a common bird and really good bragging rights is in a minor difference in plumage, or shape, or call. The more readily you can sort through the bunch, the sooner and better, and more likely you will be able to pick out the stranger in their midst.

birds habitats

Townsend’s Solitaire – We took a second look at this rare bird in Berne, Albany County. It looked like a Bluebird, but not. A second look confirmed the ID of this rare bird.

See? Easy, just like I said it would be. Now, go for it.

And let me know what you’ve found.

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