In the past, I’ve been fairly hesitant about taking my two young children with me on longer birding excursions. I don’t want to burn them out on long car rides to less than exciting locations, but mostly i don’t want to have to deal with crabby kids begging me to go home when I’m busy seeking out a new state bird. If I want my children to be birders, or at least to appreciate birding, I need them to have good experiences doing it with me. Charging off to a mudflat or sewage treatment plant, or staking out a location for hours, doesn’t measure up. Heck, even I wonder why I do this thing when faced with an uncooperative bird. So since having children, the meteoric rise of my state list has plummeted to earth. I’ve taken them on twitches before, but it’s always been a dicey proposition.
But sometimes the stars align perfectly, as they did a couple weeks ago, in the form of North Carolina’s first record of Townsend’s Solitaire.
The species has been on my personal radar for North Carolina for years. Until it was usurped by the massive influx of caracaras and Neotropic Cormorants in the east, it was #1 on my personal “Most Likely Next” list for the state. So there was more than simple lister anxiety coursing through my body when word of one sitting atop Grandfather Mountain came out, and birders began making plans to head west.
Grandfather Mountain, if you don’t know, is not only the second highest mountain in the state, it’s also one of North Carolina’s top tourist attractions. For years it was a privately held nature museum and attraction, featuring animal enclosures, a fudge shop, and a “Mile-High” Swinging Bridge. Now it’s run partly by the state in the form of a State Park, and partly bt a non-profit organization that maintains the attractions side. In short, it’s exactly the sort of place that a family would visit even if there weren’t a state first record at the top of the mountain. And it just so happened that the solitaire had set up shop right under the swinging bridge. It truly does not get more convenient than that.
So the plan was as follows; pack up and head west, find bird, visit attraction. come home. I’d get my bird, and the kids would have a fun day out in the mountains. I suppose it would be more interesting from a narrative perspective if something went wrong, but it all went to plan. We rolled in about 10:00 and were soon on the bird, precisely where it needed to be, in the spruce trees to the left of the hanging bridge. The light wasn’t ideal and my camera’s autofocus was acting up a bit, but I managed to squeeze off a few record shots of the bird of honor.
The view was spectacular, rolling Appalachia to one side and piedmont plains to the other. The Swinging Bridge lived up to its name, but I managed to keep my feet, even with my daughter riding in the backpark behind me. And I ran into several friends who’d also made the trip to see the bird, which is always one of the best things about these sorts of twitches. After we’d looked at this plain gray bird long enough, we headed to the nature museum and gawked at Black Bears and River Otters and search unsuccessfully for the Mountain Lion. We stuck around to look for Red Crossbills and I was fortunate to be in the parking lot when a small flock flew over. The looks were short, but the pug-billed finches were obvious even in flight. These birds were a long-time nemesis that I was finally happy to put to rest, and almost more satisfying than the solitaire given the number of times I’ve looked for them when I’ve been in the mountains. We climbed rocks and ate lunch at a picnic table with a view of the mountaintop, and then headed home.
It was a good day. We all thought so. Except maybe the little one.
Does this mean I’ll take them with me on other twitches? Eh, I don’t know. This one was certainly a perfect storm. But I can guarantee that the next great bird that shows up at a major attraction might be enthusiastically chased. I’m banking on a Neotropic Cormorant at Carowinds.