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Thursday, January 18, 2007

That's Not a Chickadee!

Imagine yourself sitting in this office, talking on the phone, enveloped in the middle of an average January work day.

You're very focused on your work, but being the ardent birder you are, you're always watching that single remnant of natural habitat outside your window, a Red Pine, on the off chance that anything remotely bird-like will find a reason to stop there. So far, you've seen only a handful of species in that tree: Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, House Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee; you know, the regulars. But all of a sudden a small, chickadee-like bird alights in the pine foliage. Nothing abnormal about that. But this "chickadee" doesn't look quite right. It seems a bit overactive, and the black and white on the head isn't quite right. And those very white outer tail feathers- what's going on with this bird? As you attempt to keep up the phone conversation you struggle to extract your binoculars from their case. When you finally get them focused on the bird, this is what you see:

"That's Not a Chickadee" is right. A Black-throated Gray Warbler! In downtown Grand Rapids! After a few expletives, I gathered myself enough to develop a game plan. I decided to watch the bird just long enough to be sure what I was seeing, then sprint for my car, where my camera and scope awaited. Had to get a photo to convince everyone else I was for real. As I got the photgraphic equipment ready, I could still see this little bugger flitting around, high in the tree. Once I was finally ready to shoot, however, he was nowhere to be seen! I could not believe it. I searched anxiously for 2 more hours around the building but was not able to refind this guy.

The next morning, I knew that there was still a decent chance this bird was in the area, but I wasn't sure where to look. This bird was, after all, an insect-eater, so it would probably be attracted to open water - bingo! Got it. Maybe it was down along the river? So I began my morning search in the wooded corridor along the banks of the Grand. Soon, I located a flock of chickadees. Hmmm. Getting warmer, I thought. (It is commonly known that migrating and wintering warblers often hang out with chickadee flocks). Within 2 minutes, I had spotted him. Eureka! He was foraging on the branches overhanging the open water of the Grand- vigorously gleaning insects from the branches. Now, the challenge was to get a photo.

As luck would have it, my camera decided today would be a good day to break down. The battery compartment door would not hold shut; thus, I had to hold the batteries in by pushing really hard on it. If I let up at all, the camera would shut off. As if digiscoping a hyperactive songbird wasn't hard enough already... Fortunately, although the bird would not sit still for long, it did allow me to follow it for a long time, eventually allowing me to snap several digiscoped shots.

It was a major relief to snap these photos, especially after yesterday's frustration of losing the bird seconds before I was ready to snap. Fortunately, I was able to get the word out to other birders and at least 7 or 8 other local birders were able to come see this bird. Here are two of them.

In hindsight, I believe this must be one of the statistically least-likely bird sightings in my entire birding life. For a western bird with only five recognized Michigan records to show up within our borders is one thing, but to show up in Grand Rapids, and then position itself in the ONLY tree in which I could have seen it, seems astronomically small! I wish some statistician could calculate for me the amount of money which could be won in a lottery with the same luck. I will bet you it's a lot higher than my annual salary.

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