Ah, nemesis birds. We crave you. We hunt for you. We make up elaborate theories as to why we haven’t seen you.
And then, sometimes, we do see you.
Take the Golden Eagle. This massive, magnificent raptor is not uncommon ’round these parts, and it is known to frequent roadsides and utility poles. I should have seen it ages ago. But between the fact that I don’t drive and plain cruddy luck, I just hadn’t run into one of these baddest of birds yet.
That changed last Sunday, on the road from Helena to Missoula with my friends Deana and Megan. The drive is an incredibly scenic one, so much so that I probably seemed antisocial on the trip since I basically had my nose pressed to the window glass the entire way. Black-billed Magpies, Common Ravens, and fascinating geological formations were all along our route. A pair of Tundra Swans flew in parallel with us for a while, and a single pronghorn grazed by the side of the road. And, what I’d most hoped for and given up on seeing – above two of the ravens, finally, a second-year Golden Eagle circling the sandy-colored post-snow-melt fields.
Normally a nemesis bird demands long looks, but birding from a car forbids such indulgence. Still, my brief view of the eagle showed it worthy of its name, and put me in a good mood for the rest of the week. Not only did I have a tick, and see a great bird, but now in the finest nemesis bird tradition I can anticipate seeing Golden Eagles everywhere, all the time, as nature intended.
Besides that happy upside, there is of course the other post-nemesis-spotting tradition — drafting a new one from the roster of near-nemesis contenders that have been nagging the back of my mind by their persistent absence from my life list. And that is where you, my beloved readers, come in. Help me pick between:
Gray-crowned Rosy Finch: It’s plain embarrassing that Corey and half the other birders in New York have seen one, and I haven’t, despite hanging out in much more appropriate habitat.
Red-naped Sapsucker: I found one dead from a window strike my second month in Missoula. Not hide not feather of a live one since. That’s just perverse.
Golden-winged Warbler: An old foe that I should have seen back in New York. But I’d have to go back to New York, or at least back east, to see it.
Native grouse or other gallinaceous bird to be named later: Speaking of embarrassing, the only such birds I’ve spotted in the state are the introduced Ring-necked Pheasant, Wild Turkey, and Gray Partridge. On the other hand, I have a solid if secret plan to change this, and unless that somehow falls through it seems unfair to set a nemesis up just to knock it down in a month.
Great Gray Owl: A worthy successor to the Golden Eagle in terms of butchness. But is a bird that’s hard for everyone really a personal nemesis? I could just as easily pick the Black Rail, and everyone knows that no one has actually ever seen a Black Rail.
Vote now, or pick your own suggestion!
Golden Eagle photo by Kent Miller, courtesy of the National Park Service
Red-naped Sapsucker. Has to be the bird you’ve only seen dead in your own yard.
I think the rosy-finch works for you. How have you not seen one yet?
As for me, I am without a current nemesis bird though Green-tailed Towhee is approaching nemesis status.
From that list, I’d pick Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch or Red-naped Sapsucker since they should be there, and you haven’t seen them yet, with a slight edge to the sapsucker since you found a dead one. I usually count birds that I’ve missed despite repeatedly looking for them in the right places. Birds that I’ve missed despite other people seeing them in the same place on the same day get extra credit. Current nemeses include Ruffed Grouse and Little Gull.
The rosy-finch definitely seems like your best candidate. It’s best to alternate your nemesis between passerines and non-passerines to keep things fresh.
As for me, I have a candidate list. I think you have to make a certain number of trips where the effort is focused on a particular bird (and fail) before it can be crowned a nemesis. I’m not sure what that number is, but Black-backed Woodpecker is certainly approaching it for me. I’ve made many trips to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (where even non-birders see them constantly) and spent more time in fresh burns than Smokey the Bear, but I’ve yet to see one of those *******s. Golden Eagle is probably third on my list behind Connecticut Warbler.
I’d go with the Red-naped Sapsucker. They are only casual in my area and I’ve seen 3 or 4.
My current nemesis is Little Gull. I’ve chased them about 8-10 times over the years and I always miss them.
The sapsucker is the clear winner here. If you find a dead specimen of a species before you see a live one, that automatically gives that bird a high nemesis ranking. I’ve had that happen a few times…Poorwill, Snowy Owl, Barred Antshrike (Mexico)…luckily, these have all been resolved since then. It’s too soon for the Great Gray, I still can’t claim that as Nemesis-status yet, despite the fact that I’ve been birding since 1994 and not seen or heard one. What exactly do you mean by butchness?
My current nemeses are a bunch of owls that I have heard and not seen…it’s a sad state of affairs..
Well, sorry but I just don’t think you’ve been to Missoula long enough to consider a local species you have not seen yet a nemesis. Especially so as you don’t have a car and probably haven’t been to the prime hunting grounds of most of these species all that often. Therefore, I’d pick the Golden-winged Warbler from your list. You’ve spent nearly your entire life within its regular range, after all! And not a single encounter? Geez, that species must actively void you, right?! There you have it: NEMESIS!
But don’t take my choice as a suggestion to move back east just yet! You still have Rosy-finches to see, right?
I hear you on nemesis birds. Got a Greater White fronted Goose recently by sheer dumb luck. This one evaded many a determined hunt for years. Now I am looking for a new Nemesis – Elf Owl is the next one. Allegedly “abundant” in New Mexico (where I live) but evaded me for 25 years.
As for your next one. The Red-naped Sapsucker is clearly taunting you and deserves the honor. As for the Rosy-finches – all three species appear on Sandia Crest near Albuquerque every winter. A pleasant drive up the back road to the Crest – sit in the Crest House with some cocoa and look out the window. Its almost too easy to really call it birding.