I’ve mentioned before that birding is a favorite activity for me. While I don’t pursue it with the passion of ‘professionals’—traveling globally to chase rare species—I’ve always tried to take advantage of opportunities such as RV vacations that took us near nature sanctuaries to add to my list. Bird Counts, like the Christmas ones that I’ve participated in for over 30 years in my local community, are easily accessible and challenging. Over time on the same route, you get to know what to look for in a particular spot. It’s interesting to see the trends; in Saskatchewan, we knew where we’d likely find a Snowy Owl, and for years, a Townsend’s Solitaire awaited us at the nearby BC provincial park. Sometimes there’s a prize: a new species or at least a rare one.
On my second Bird Count of this winter season, in the Enderby area in early January, a friend and I covered almost 100 km of rural roads. It was a brilliant day, about minus 8. Little wind. On those quiet roads, we cruised along picking up a few Black-capped Chickadees here, small flocks of Eurasian Collared Doves there, and a predicted Red-tailed Hawk posing in the morning sunlight. Magpies floated across a clear sky, Evening Grosbeaks gossiped at a backyard feeder and the hammering of a few woodpeckers caught our attention: Hairy, Downy and Pileated. Nothing unusual or unexpected. Sadly, no owls like the Northern Pygmy Owl we’d hoped to find. But you never know….
By mid-afternoon, we’d despaired of having an exciting story to relate to the group at our rendezvous point after the count. We’d just about run out of designated roads, finding ourselves approaching the small town for our meeting rather early. But we’d misread the map and made one wrong turn, missing a short section as a result, so we decided to backtrack to find it and correct the map for next time. That took another half hour or so, until we once again found ourselves pointed in the direction of our meeting place. We had two options to reach town, but the first looked uncertain on the map (which we no longer trusted!): did the road go all the way to town or not? Rather than take the chance, we returned to the original road, now driving along it for the third time, and still a bit early.
“Let’s stop and add up the numbers,” I suggested. “Find a spot where we can pull over and sit in the sun.” We stopped on a wider section of the road and I began the tally.
“What’s that bird on the snowbank?” my friend said. “I don’t think it’s a species we’ve seen yet today.”
I couldn’t see a bird at first, but when I did, a long look through binoculars left me puzzled. It was a bit larger than a song sparrow. Paler underneath, it had a dark cap, and dark mask below the eye and down the side of a yellowish throat. A distinctive small black breast band was a good field mark. It looked somehow familiar, but my memory couldn’t pin it down.
We started guessing: not a sparrow species, but surely a variety of songbird. A ground feeder. A quick scan of the list we were using of usual species for the area showed it clearly wasn’t among them. I began to flip through the pages near the back of the bird guide. Then some distance memory emerged. Of course! It was a bird I’d often seen on Saskatchewan roadsides searching for bits of grit in the dead of winter. A check in the book confirmed it. A Horned Lark! The tiny ‘horns’ are barely visible. But this bird was not a likely one in this area of the BC Interior in winter. We’d struck gold: our birding moment of the day!
So here’s the evidence, albeit of not quite sharp focus.
I’m sure serendipity played a role in our day, as it does in so many aspects of life. We were finished our count, we were making a third pass along the same bit of road, and we’d picked that spot to stop by chance. We could have easily driven right past the driveway where those 2 little birds hopped about. What were the odds of seeing a fairly rare species? It is these prized moments of excitement that make birding so much fun.