It’s a feeling worth chasing. But the longer your lists get, the less likely you are to find something new on a typical outing near home. So how do you get your fix? You turn to the internet. When a rare bird shows up, word spreads quickly online, and birders descend on the spot from far and wide. They stand a solemn watch for hours if necessary, waiting for one precious glimpse. If the bird appears, some are truly elated, others merely relieved. Still others appear completely stoic, muttering “Got it,” checking a box on a checklist, and promptly driving away, in a hurry to proceed with what must be joyless, burdensome lives.
Even for those of us who aren't dead inside, some of the joys of regular birding - of exploring the outdoors, not knowing what you might find - are lost in this sort of drive-thru list-augmentation. One wonders whether this sort of behavior gradually turns genuine nature-loving birdwatchers into the sort of drones who put their lists above all else. (I appreciated Maeve Kim's treatment of the subject in BirdWatching magazine.) Not to mention the awful possibility of moving mountains to get yourself there, only to have the bird fail to appear. It's all enough to give pause to any (sane) would-be rarity-chaser.
Such was the case for me this weekend, when someone found a White Wagtail – native to Europe, Asia, and Alaska – in Los Angeles. I had seen one before, but never in North America, which meant it was absent from my most doted-upon list, my ABA Area life list. I don’t often go chasing reports like this; generally I'd rather find lots of "old" birds near home than try to see just one new one that was already found. But this time, the coolness of the bird (really rare in the Lower 48) and the convenience of the location (under 40 minutes away) were compelling. Early Sunday morning, I decided to skip my tame little neighborhood stroll and make a run at the White Wagtail instead. It was on.
I cruised down the 110, reliving my Guitar Hero glory of the night before with a spirited rendition of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” this time in a scratchy morning-after baritone. I was giddy with anticipation and making great time. Anyone who saw me then would’ve been convinced that I was happily living in the moment. And yet, even then, I couldn’t help wondering what it all meant. At the end of the day, if all goes well, what will I have gained exactly?
Tough to say, but the thought-clouds parted as I arrived. I practically ran down to the beach, following the precise directions always demanded by the birding community in times like these. Sure enough, there were birders. I saw four people with big fancy-looking scopes and cameras, and charged right up to them, bearing a huge grin that said: “Hey! We’re all birders, isn’t that great?!” For whatever reason, they were having none of it. Though my business there was obvious, they volunteered no information, and wouldn't even make eye contact. (Occasionally, birders are not cool.) But I could tell they were not looking at The Bird anyway. I looked around and quickly spotted a larger group up the beach. Phew.
And of course I also had the pleasure of presenting the proverbial mammoth (i.e. new bird) to my family (database). But I still can't fully explain my own feelings vis-à-vis rarity-chasing. Anyway I guess you shouldn't spoil your own fun by trying too hard to understand it. Amirite?
Bottom line: Would I make the same choice again? Absolutely. Just not for a White Wagtail. That box is checked.