As fun as it is to chase a rarity (and I’m a convert once again, it is fun, especially when you finally catch up with it) there’s always been an envy in my heart for the people who find their own. Chasing requires luck, persistence, and attention, but it does involve one advantage over regular birding – you know, not just what to expect, but more or less exactly what you are looking for. In this mad internet age, you may well have seen photos, even video of the specific, individual bird that is your target, in the specific location where it was last seen. And just wait until we all have Google Glass!
The precise joy of finding one’s own rarity, though, is the unexpectedness of it. The moment of unwrapping a gift, only you didn’t even know you were getting a gift, it’s not your birthday. Probably, if you are wise, a moment or an hour of self-doubt, but finally the doubt resolves and you have seen it. Seen something that wasn’t supposed to be there.
To deal less in lofty generalities, a few days after I finally saw the Baikal Teal I went birding on my usual, casual route along the riverfront trail near my apartment, accompanied only by my dog. And I saw a Lesser Goldfinch. I recognized it right away, having seen some in California in my time, but in the same moment I didn’t recognize it, because I knew I shouldn’t be seeing it. Green-backed and black-hatted, it casually picked seeds from a dried weed stem as though it were not a state north of where it ought to be. I didn’t have my camera. I didn’t know exactly how rare it was, although I suspected it was somewhere between the Baikal Teal and the Harris’s Sparrow at my feeder.
And yet, somehow, it was a greater personal accomplishment.
The Lesser Goldfinch, true to its name, is the smallest of the American goldfinches. This one, as is often the case outside breeding season, was hanging out in the general vicinity of a flock of House Finches, though I did not see them interact at all — the House Finches mostly kept to the trees while the goldfinch was in the tall weeds below.
When I went back with my camera I could not find the bird again. There will be no grand chases, no triumphant ticks for the nice people who kept me company at the irrigation canal while we waited for the teal. In fact, my cynical side doubts that the state records committee will even believe me.
It was still a good day.
Lesser Goldfinch photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service/David Menke