Friday 31 August 2007

Genesis Of A New Nemesis: the one St. Louis bird that got away

Here we go again - on this last part of my St. Louis travel account - and talk about the Nemesis bird, the one we always miss when all around us they show such a massive presence that other birders are annoyed by them.

I don't think I have a North American Nemesis Bird, yet. I mean, this is a difficult thing to define when you've never seen so many of the region's species.
But now, after my trip to St. Louis and a few birding outings here in Michigan, I have a certain feeling deep down in my guts that maybe, just maybe, I am just experiencing something each birder dreads:

The Genesis of a Nemesis!

For a species to qualify as a Nemesis Bird, two criteria need to be fulfilled:

A) It must be a bird we know from the book and that somehow fascinates us, so we are particularly aware of the fact that we haven't seen it yet and we would really appreciate an encounter.

B) This encounter never comes.

Within the context of this post, here in North America, I am talking about no other bird then the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Here's a bit of a historic background:

When I was a 16-year-old birder, I went to New York City and there I visited Central Park, where I sure got two lifers, Northern Mockingbird and Tufted Titmouse but no Yellow-crowned Night-heron.
When I returned to North America in May 2005, my wife and I went to New York City, this time though we didn't have the time to visit Central Park but had a short look at it from its Southern end.

No harm done...

However, about a year later, I found this post that disturbed me quite a bit.
I had missed it. I had been twice in an area where the species occurs and hadn't realized it. Otherwise, I might have searched for it specifically and - who knows - seen it!

"Oh well", I thought, "there will be other times".

Wait a minute, there had been other times!
In May 2005, while staying at Ontario's Point Pelee, there were reports of an immature Yellow-crowned Night-heron from nearby Hillman Marsh.


Of course I went there a few times and saw a huge array of great birds, ranging from a multitude of shorebirds to a flock of majestic American White Pelicans, but despite looking for it specifically, I never located the Night-heron, although it was reported on and off during my whole stay there. I didn't consider this incident to be very significant as there were so many new impressions to be gained, such great birds to see, that missing out on one particular species was something that just happens.
But looking back now, I can't help but wonder...

Then came my trip to St. Louis and of course by now, the Yellow-crowned Night-heron had gained a more dominant presence in my thoughts and wishes. It was not one of the specials I was particularly keen on seeing, as it occurs widely in other parts of the world I hope to one day visit on birding trips, but nevertheless I had decided that I wanted to see this bird this time.

Yes, I did!

The book "Birds of the St. Louis area" had something very interesting to say about the Yellow-crowned Night-heron:

"Yellow-crowned Night-herons ... are most reliably found near Holten State Park..."

So on my second day in St. Louis, on the road to Horseshoe Lake, I payed Holten State Park a visit, just to find it was nothing more but three ponds with a very small rim of trees and vegetation embedded in a Golf Course. To me this looked more like the habitat of European Starlings, House Sparrows and Killdeer than anything else, but hey, I tried.

For about two hours.

In vain.

There was nothing there, not even other species of note.

I didn't even write down anything in my note book.

Too bad.

But then, I thought, I had been there around noon in bright daylight, with the sun blazing down from blue skies. And although Black-crowned Night-herons have a wacky sense of humour, Yellow-crowned Night-herons might not. They might indeed take pride in their name.

It seemed I had missed out once again on seeing that species.

But on the last day, after the Bewick's Wren incident, I unexpectedly got another chance:
My wife was attending the final feast at the end of her meeting, you know, these happenings where everyone is celebrating themselves with lobster and champagne (except for my wife who is a very humble person and just went there for the food and company).
She asked me to pick her up and take her back to the hotel around 9 p.m. (21:00), which was after dark.

Well, I could also have gone for the lobster, but somehow - strangely - decided that this was my best chance yet at seeing Yellow-crowned Night-herons, and off I went yet again to Holten State Park.

I parked my car at a spot that allowed for easy scanning of the ponds and waited for the appearance of the herons.

And waited.

And then decided to wait some more.

But not after I had done some additional waiting.

And then finally decided it was no use and that I just had to wait.

Finally it was too dark to see and I knew another shift of waiting would likely produce the same results: zilch. No Night-herons of any sort, let alone the ones sporting a yellow crown.

I returned to the highway that was to take me back to the city and drove towards the bridge crossing the Mississippi when suddenly I saw three Night-herons crossing the highway, coming (roughly) from Holten State Park heading North.
Now, I don't usually try identifying flying birds when doing 50 miles and hour myself, but these night-herons were strange.
I have seen probably a few hundred Black-crowned Night-herons, many of them as silhouettes in flight, but these looked remarkably different. Although clearly being Night-herons, they showed a stronger curve in their neck and the legs appeared longer, just like a hybrid between a Night-heron and an Egret.

Funny, in a very peculiar way.

Back at the hotel, I checked the Sibley guide and found, to my utter frustration, that the differences I had noticed were exactly what differentiates the flight silhouette of a Yellow-crowned from a Black-crowned Night-heron.

Well, terrific!

I finally got to see likely Yellow-crowned Night-herons and wasn't able to pin down the identification with an adequate amount of certainty. Just what I needed, and thank you very much I am fine, how about you?

Sadly, this is how the last of my St. Louis lifers got away, just before it could be turned into just that: a lifer.

If some of you who are reading this are not entirely convinced yet that the Yellow-crowned Night-heron is starting to evolve into a Nemesis bird, I have one more thing to add:

There have been reports of one hanging around Point Mouillee, a nice wader and shorebird area on Michigan's part of Lake Erie.
I have been there twice now and seen plenty of ... Black-crowned Night-herons. In bright day light.

These are black(-crowned) days ... the rise of the New Nemesis.


Larry said...

For me it's been a Blue Grosbeak-I've chased it several times with no luck.

Anonymous said...

I actually have two that keep eluding me, the Evening Grosbeak and the White-eyed Vireo! All around me other Birdfreaks are finding these gorgeous guys, but alas! not me...yet!

Nate said...

Canada Warbler, it's reported in my area every year but always eludes me no matter where I go and how hard I try.

Tyler Rodgers said...

Thanks for this blog poost