There’s a time, when you’ve been standing in the rain in the middle of a cow pasture in western North Carolina, amongst mud and cow dung and the unholy combination of the two, staring for the better part of an hour at an impossibly dense stand of brambles and shrub for a smallish streaky brown bird, that you begin to question your dedication to this birding thing. When you ask yourself, as the rain pelts you face and runs into your eyes and you shuffle your feet to get a better vantage point on this bramble only to track into a particularly large, particularly runny pile of muddy cow dung, why is it that I put myself through this for what amounts to a tick on a list.
A list, or course, that is in no way competitive with others who keep a similar list. A list that is at worst a meaningless collection of 1s and 0s on a computer server somewhere and at best is a collection of memories, some of which are vivid and some of which are fading. And then you think to yourself that you really should have worn rain pants instead of the cotton denim that is currently sopping up rain that runs into your your socks and pools in your boots, boots that you realize are just as waterproof from the inside out as they are from the outside in.
But you persist, because why not? Your companions may be thinking the same things, but they keep it to themselves because who wants to be that guy, and you’ve already driven more than 2 hours together, looking up at the sky and the radar with increasing concern and convincing yourselves that it’s really not that bad, so turning around isn’t really an option.
And then, something moves in this tangle of vines and briers. A small, streaky brown bird with an impossible evil yellow eye. You see parts of it. The eye. The breast. The sandy back and longish tail. It creeps along, seemingly as frustrated with the rain as those 10 feet away who rapidly attempt to focus binoculars on it and curse at the tangles tripping up camera autofocus mechanisms. It creeps to a branch hosting a few glossy red berried, picks one, and disappears back into wherever it goes when it’s not where you can see it.
The North Carolina Sage Thrasher on a less challenging day. Photo by Nathan Gatto.
So it seems worth it, this ten second glimpse. But no one got a photo, so you stick around for another 20 minutes until it comes back, this time higher but no more accommodating to viewers and photographers. So now you wonder whether this 20 minutes thing is part of a pattern, and you have to stick it out to see if it comes back and what’s another 20 minutes when you’re already soaked and cold and hungry. This bird, this smallish, streaky, weird bird has your brain turning. And suddenly the rain and the cold and the wet socks don’t seem so bad.
So let’s wait and maybe set a timer and check your clock and hold on it’s been just a little past 20 and whoa, there it is again! And the look is better this time, not so good for photos again but that’s not so bad. This is one of those memories you can’t really see fading. So it’s been a couple hours and man, we’re hungry, so let’s head back to the car and did you see that burrito place on the way in?
So, Sage Thrasher in North Carolina! Couldn’t have expected that one. Man, birding is the best.