As beginning birders, my younger brother and I were primarily opportunists. That is, we especially did not know how or when to find new species, the prize of our venture. Yet we became fairly successful, growing our life lists simply by getting out into the field often enough to bump into new types of birds.
The early rewards were humble, of course. It took a few trips to distinguish, for example, the difference between common species and those tagged in our minds as "better" birds. We sat in our 1965 Buick Wildcat with our two older brothers handing binoculars around in puzzlement over the appearance of an especially ochre-toned female red-winged blackbird. Such is birding for beginners. But as time goes by you quickly learn to use familiar species as checkpoints on a birding trip. Your mind engages at a different level then. The "jizz" or shape and behavior of familiar species becomes rote. Then when an unusual species shows up you know right away it is different.
There is not a birder on earth who will tell you that there is not a bit of luck required in finding truly rare species. And certainly beginning birders press their luck in claiming to have found something particularly rare. Experienced birders excel, in fact revel in picking apart poorly founded identifications. Birders may seem like a daft and friendly lot, but a scientific instinct and coarse competitive lurks just beneath the surface of many khaki-clad birders.
In our early days were rarely encountered other birders, so our discoveries were private matters. Our father questioned our finds out of a general cynicism toward his son's ambitions. Our friends meanwhile made fun of the fact that we were birdwatchers at all. This combination only inspired a private determination among the Cudworth boys to find more and better birds. Birding trips were the rare occasion where all four of us got along, for the most part, sharing a big, honkin' set of 10X50 Sears binoculars. Our father was kind enough to purchase them for use one Christmas. They really kicked compared to the threadbare 7 x 35 set with foggy optics we'd been using.
Our family lived in the small town of Elburn in the early 1970s when my brothers and I began birding. The town was slapped down next to the railroad tracks. Its primary features were a smelly meat-packing plant on the south side of the tracks and a large farm service operation with grain bins inserted right in the center of town. But fortunately the county forest preserve district had set aside about 300 acres of woods west of Elburn, and that's where we often headed by foot to find birds.
Through benefit of hindsight I now recognize the diversity of this little preserve was quite conducive to finding birds. There was a small wetland that snuck beneath the railroad tracks, and prairie plants growing along the railroad bed. The preserve was situated on a rise in the landscape that was probably a gravel glacial kame, now covered with 150-year-old oaks. These trees attracted all kinds of birds, from woodpeckers and flycatchers to warblers and thrushes. In spring the groundcover was rich in trout lily, trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit. The rare whine of wood ducks could be heard from the vernal pools in spring and the hooting of great horned owls in January meant the birds were about to set up nesting operations. I remember showing my mother the owl sitting on the nest with snow covering its head. "How do they do that?" she marveled.
But it was spring migration that pulled us most frequently to Elburn Forest Preserve. Often those spring days were windy, wet and cold, but we still tried our luck and found yellow-bellied sapsuckers, cedar waxwings and eastern phoebe in quiet copses around the preserve. Our life lists had long since topped 100 species even at age 12 and 8. We were hungry for more and different birds, and determined to find them.
One morning in late April, 1971, my younger brother and I decided to go birding despite a deep fog. We walked out the railroad tracks and were about to enter the forest preserve when out of the trees flew two birds landing on the tracks at our feet. One species was a white-throated sparrow. The other was a Myrtle (now yellow-rumped) warbler. The striking combination of black, white and yellow on the warbler was startling even in the fog. And the white-throated sparrow's white patch of feathers below the bill seemed outrageous on an otherwise brown bird. This was true luck, we realized! Never had we hoped to see two such prized, new species at once, and on so dull a morning. We each studied them with binoculars, trying desperately to take in the coloration and patterns for future reference, then suddenly the birds flew off into the fog and were gone.
The moment was so revelatory we broke into an awkward dance right there on the railroad tracks. "How lucky was that!" my brother said, or something along those lines.
Years later when I was the father of a 12 year old son, I stopped the car on the way home from a soccer practice to show him what I thought to be a bluebird perched on a fenceline along a country road. My son studied the bird through the binoculars I always keep in the car and muttered,"Dad, there's no blue on this bird."
I took the binoculars and stared at the bird on the wire. It was a bird like none I had ever seen, and my life list now tops 450 species. I swore aloud and made strict mental notes on the appearance and behavior of the bird before me. "Evan," I told my son, "This bird is not from this country."
He was impressed, but had not inherited the birding bug. Still, as I described how important the find could be, he was impressed. Then the bird flew away and I rushed home to grab a camera and contact my local birding partners to get out in the field to corroborate the sighting. I still did not know what the bird might be.
But I had taken good notes and made a sketch of the bird as soon as I got home. Several birders identified it as a European Stonechat, a species that had never been seen in the Lower 48 states. But alas, no one else could find a trace of the bird. So it remains my private triumph, a life-changing experience shared with a son, but no one else. At least not in the birding community.
I would get ripped by a few birders online for my description of the bird, and by a few others who disparaged the idea that the bird was wild at all, insinuating it was an escaped cage bird. Birders are like that. They love to castigate the luck of others.
But in ensuing years I have heard and seen enough other rare birds to realize that the Stonechat probably was a chance sighting never to be repeated. In other words, I got lucky. I would have loved to share that luck with experts in the field and be affirmed in what little glory a rare sighting brings, but I have long since moved on, happier to study the common species near our home and try to appreciate the complexity of their existence. Because the truth of the matter is that we're lucky to have the birds we have, considering all the ways the human race has conspired to make it more difficult for birds to survive. In the end, we're lucky to have any birds at all.