Earth Journal

Vol. 9, No. 5
Feb. 1-7, 2001
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by Audrey Y. Scharmen

It is said that the great hope of a birdwatcher is to see an "accidental," a foreign species - like the yellow-breasted chat that made a Christmas visit to Fairhaven this year - that has strayed into your region. I once knew a woman whose pet peacock ran off into the Maryland woods with a flock of wild turkeys. He wore a red bandanna around his neck. Might he be classified as an accidental? Certainly uncommon, I would suppose. Perhaps rare?

Anyway, he is one I would really like to see; he would have top billing on my life-list.

I suspect most accidentals are migratory males of the species who simply refuse to stop and ask for directions when they become lost. Thus they are found in unlikely places, wandering aimlessly and wearing that expression of unconcern that says 'Of course I know where I am!'

Here in Bay Country I have come across such birds: A glossy ibis flew low over the bow of our boat one summer day as we cruised the lower Chesapeake. A flock of yellow grosbeaks came to my yard one snowy day, and pink pine grosbeaks stopped by in autumn to dine on wild grapes beside the lane. During a stormy February, a rare blue grosbeak was seen here on the creek shore, where he lingered for several days. Near Point Lookout on the lower Potomac, a variety of glorious warblers often come ashore in an autumn storm and remain for a while to feed amid thickets of goldenrod and myrtle in the marsh. They are quite tame: I once watched a lone cerulean warbler feed there just a few feet away from where I stood.

One winter when my roomie and I traveled South, we had many close encounters with uncommon birds: In a Florida swamp we saw the parula warbler a ranger had reportedly spotted there a few days before. We had no witnesses; thus our sighting was met with condescension back at the visitor's center. Were we not properly rumpled? Were our shoes too white? Perhaps we lacked the look of credibility, but the thrill of seeing such a bird in the wild lingers still.

In the Everglades, wood storks were not where they were supposed to be; instead they were slogging around in a mud puddle next to a rest stop, behaving like commoners despite their great celebrity. Overhead was an enormous spiraling cloud of purple swallows that darkened the sky: an unusual occurrence, we were told.

Over on the Gulf Coast the roseate spoonbills we had looked for in the wetlands wandered instead over the elegant grounds of a private residence beside the road. We found a trio of wood ducks in an artificial pond just outside the door of a cocktail lounge and mute swans (quite scarce back then) in a grubby lake of a housing development. A great horned owl cavorted at dusk in a tall pine beside a busy restaurant near a shopping mall.

If those southern birds kept a life-list of sightings, the description of me and my companion might have read thus: 'A rare pair. Neat plumage inconsistent with the usual ragged olive-drab vest markings of that species. Female has pointed silver crest, skinny long legs and very white feet. Male is short, rotund and in a molting phase. Accidentals?'

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly