If birding is life, I haven’t been living much lately. Various projects and the day to day grind of being the father of two young children have sapped my time in the field. This fall was a total wash and, aside from an upcoming Christmas Bird Count and a bird club meeting, this winter might be too. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been seeing new birds in my county, however. It’s just that my birding has taken on the characteristics of a hit-job. I’m a birding mercenary. On the road at a moment’s notice to track down reported birds but not doing anything to find them myself. It’s a cruel and somewhat unsatisfying way of getting my fix, but I can’t say it’s not productive.

My part of North Carolina doesn’t have a ton of birders, but those it does have are skilled and thorough. Winter mostly means waterfowl, and these folks are out every single day checking the local reservoirs for anything unusual or notable. Despite my recent rarity-finding lull, I’ve managed to get on the email/text tree for the county which means I’m notified immediately if anything “good” is found. As you might imagine, this is a pretty privileged place to be.

A couple weeks ago, it was a flock of Surf Scoters at the local reservoir. A county bird, but I was at home with my not-yet-one-year-old daughter. The solution? Pack her up and take her along. I pulled over on the causeway so that she could see me through the rolled down passenger winder and set to scoping. Fortunately the report was fresh and the birds were easy to find. I picked them up well-before my daughter started complaining.

Just last week, a friend found a Common Goldeneye on a different arm of the lake. I had a spare 30 minutes in the afternoon so I booked out and quickly got on the bird. Again, fresh report, quick news, and one new county bird richer.

My recent notable birding hasn’t all be poaching other people’s birds. I still needed some winter finches and was fortunate enough to have a pair of Purple Finches arrive at my feeder, poorly sited as it is. Attempts to get photos failed as they happened to arrive just as I was looking out the window, soon left, and have not been seen since. But having the bird come to me has been a nice change from chasing birds other people have seen.

Purple FinchA Purple Finch at my feeder, but not the Purple Finches I saw this time. But the feeder is the same. Does that make sense?

I have some friends who are not a fan of chasing other folks birds. Some birders are so serious about it that they keep a “self-found” list, and there’s really nothing like finding a good bird. Nearly every single one of my good birding “war stories” centers around a good bird that I found myself. I love seeing unusual stuff, and I certainly love adding to my home county or state lists, but there’s a weirdness about chasing if it’s the only kind of birding you’ve been doing. It feels a little like cheating, even if re-finding a bird you know is around isn’t always as easy as you might thing.

Birding culture depends on reporting good birds. It’s the source of our all-important reputations and an act that builds camaraderie. But I’ve got to break it up soon with some real birding, and maybe a good self-found bird, or my guilt is going to eat me alive.
But not before I get permission to see that Rufous Hummingbird reportedly in town. Hummingbirds are a special case anyway, right?

Written by Nate
Nate Swick is a birder. He grew up in the midwest but currently makes his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife and two young children, who are not yet aware that they are birders too. He has a soft spot for Piping Plovers and loves pelagics even when his stomach doesn’t, which makes him the quintessential Carolina birder. Nate is the editor of the ABA blog, host of the American Birding Podcast, and author of two books, Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.