State firsts I have known (and one I haven’t)
There was a time, a few years back, when I had some really good luck getting on a run of first state records for North Carolina. There’s no denying the adrenaline pumping, heart pounding excitement that comes with the announcement – be it phone, or email, or text – of something that has never been seen before in your state. I’m not much of a serious twitcher, at least not statewide, but even I’m not immune to the pull, especially when a rare bird is regular and reliable. Fortunately for me, most of the recent new additions to the North Carolina list have been birds that have stuck around long enough for masses of state birders to get on. Of course, by the time I get to them just about every other big lister in the state has seen them two or three times. Their inclusion on my state list is no doubt a symbol of the sort of confiding rarities we get here in the Tarheel State.
First there was the Scott’s Oriole that showed up at the Catawba County feeder of the local bird store owner in February of 2008. It stuck around for about a week.
Then there was the famous Tufted Duck at a water treatment plant in Winston-Salem in February of 2009. Just under a week for this one too.
Then the amazing Cassin’s Sparrow in Scotland County this past spring that was a mere prologue to the astounding summer of the Cassin’s Sparrow in many places in the eastern US.
But for all these fantastic state firsts I’ve managed to drag myself to, I’ve never, in my 17 years of birding, found one myself. That’s rarified air, folks. You have to be good or lucky or, in most cases, both. At the very least you have to be informed and prepared. So when an apparent Violet-Green Swallow was reported by my friend and current student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ali Iyoob not more than 15 minutes from my house, I quickly jumped on the opportunity and headed out these to a remarkably unremarkable pond next to a sort of dumpy student apartment complex just about as fast as I possible could go (family responsibilities notwithstanding).
I made it to the pond to find Ali still excited, but sans bird, which had very recently (Like, 3 minutes recently. Like, a traffic light’s difference recently) vacated the premises. Instead, Ali, who for whatever reason had hauled along his massive camera, showed me the photo below.
photo (c) Ali Iyoob, used with permission
That’s about all you can say when faced with pretty clear documentation of North Carolina’s first Violet-green Swallow that you’ve missed by less than 270 seconds.
I’m more or less circumspect about my missed birds. You sort of get that way when you’ve missed as many as I have. Yes, Violet-green Swallow would have been a hell of a state bird. Yes, it would easily have been the best bird my ongoing Triangle area Big Year, but I have to say, I was as happy for Ali as I would have been for myself. He hasn’t been birding for just a super long amount of time, but I don’t know that there’s any birder in the area, maybe the state, that consistently works as hard to find birds. That’s a skill as much as recognizing vagrant peeps or putting a name to non-vocalizing Empids, and one under-rated by some would-be vagrant hunters. And this particular record, more than any of the other state firsts I’ve mentioned, speaks to a truth about birding that every should know.
Those rarities, those potential first state records, are almost always out there. They just need the right birder to find them. The birder that’s prepared, that’s always looking, and that’s always open to the possibility of a big discovery. If you had asked any of the long-time birders in the state for the next first state record, Violet-green Swallow might have been on the short list of possibilities. If you had asked them where that record would come from though, I guarantee none of them would say an apartment complex pond in the middle of Chapel Hill. And yet, that’s precisely where it was. You can say it’s luck, and luck cannot be discounted as a crucial element, but how many birders would have taken the opportunity to check out the swallows on this podunk pond? I’d like to think I’m a pretty contentious birder, but I don’t know if I would have done it.
So kudos to Ali, and congrats to the state of North Carolina for a new species on our list. And don’t forget to keep your birding eyes open. It can pay off in big ways.