On Not Chasing Grace’s Warbler
I got word of the Grace’s Warbler a bit late in the game. This is no one’s fault but my own; had I partied a bit less hearty on New Year’s Eve, I would have stuck with my original plan of going birding on January 1, which in turn would have led me to check the rare bird alerts before I went outside. All the philosophical ramblings that follow are entirely personal, the post hoc rationalizations of a birder inflicted with crapulence and cold-snap induced malaise; they are not grand pronouncements on the worthiness of listing, the pursuit of vagrants, or competitiveness in our beloved hobby.
But long story short, I did not go after the Grace’s Warbler, the first state record a mere 30 miles from my current location.
When I did hear about the Grace’s Warbler, finally, on the second, my first reaction was much like everyone else’s: “Wow!” My second reaction, though, was “crud.*” I immediately said to my gentleman friend “I hope this bird doesn’t stick around, so I don’t have to go after it.”
Selfish? Naturally. Illogical? No. From the vantage point of a car-free person in the depths of lower Brooklyn, Point Lookout is in the nebulous border region where “I am going to chase this bird” and “I cannot, logistically speaking, chase this bird” blur and meld into “I could, in theory, chase this bird, but it will be extremely unpleasant.”
Still, it’s not as though I hadn’t done unpleasant things to chase birds before. Why not this one, this time? A state first, a beautiful bird, a significant addition to my life list?
Two images kept coming into my mind. The first was an entirely hypothetical one – an image of a Grace’s Warbler as I’d always imagined first seeing it. The southwestern US is still undiscovered country for me – barring one trip to San Diego and a handfull of layovers in Las Vegas, I’ve never been – and I had imagined a Grace’s Warbler darting out of a treetop in Nevada or New Mexico to add a flash of color to my first real exploration of the region.
The other image was the memory of the Ash-throated Flycatcher I’d chased in Queens in December 2009. That trip had involved only one train, and the weather had not been particularly bitter, and I’d gotten the bird. Still, the tick brought me little pleasure. Not only had the setting been unlovely – I’m not stickler for the pastoral, but there’s a fine line between gritty and simply dull – but the bird itself made me sad. An insectivore trying to scrabble calories into its body through a New York winter is a stressed creature at best, and the line “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!” is a tragic one, is it not? The bird’s misery and my own much less life-or-death discomfort had melded in my head and made the day grayer and sadder in my memory. If seeing the Grace’s Warbler was going to be like that, I wanted none of it.
I’d rather watch happy pigeons.
Still, there was one strong indication that this was all a line I was pulling on myself: I did ask around to see if I could hitch a ride with anyone driving out to go after the bird. Bird PLUS good company MINUS the risk of an all-day fiasco if the warbler didn’t show might have tipped the balance, put Point Lookout back into “chase this bird” territory. But when this option didn’t materialize, I simply promised myself that future trip to New Mexico and got back to work.
Only time will tell if I made the right choice, or if I will be as emo about not-seeing the warbler as I was about seeing the flycatcher. I await the outcome with some interest, since it will influence my future birding decisions.
Readers: Have you ever deliberately decided not to chase a rarity? How did it work out for you?
*loosely translated from the original French
Pigeon photo by David Herr, courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service