Bird-A-Day, Week 8. When it Comes to Birds, Expect the Unexpected

                                                 Credit: Frank Leung
Nature is full of surprises. Consider the winter we’re having. Yesterday the mercury climbed above 50 degrees here in the New York City area—certainly warmer than last year’s frigid February. But how quickly things can change. Today we awoke to a thin blanket of snow covering the entire landscape.

Another recent surprise came in a much smaller package, a three-inch parcel weighing less than a nickel—a rufous hummingbird. At this time of year most birds of its kind are enjoying a warm winter south of the border in Mexico. Even when these birds are summering up north, they're relatively rare here in the East. Yet here was this tiny rufous darting about the bushes outside the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History’s planetarium, where it has spent most of the winter.

The facts about this bird are astounding. When you take body size into account, the rufous hummingbird makes one of the longest migratory journeys of any avian species on earth—about 3,900 miles on a one-way flight from Alaska to Mexico.

The world record for miles logged during a migration continues to be held by the Arctic tern, known to fly as far as 11,185 miles. But to compare the two is not entirely fair because the tern is 10 inches longer than the hummingbird. The length of the hummingbird’s journey could be marked with more than 78 million rufous birds lined up beak to tail. Do the same with the Arctic tern’s pathway and you will count slightly more than 50 million. That said, both of these birds and their travels are nothing short of amazing.

While the rufous hummingbird was the highlight of my "Bird-A-Day" week, there were other marvels to behold, including a black scoter and a long-tailed duck near Connecticut’s shore, a fox sparrow in some scrubby bushes along the banks of the Hudson, and Day 52’s herring gull at the train station.

Why should a mere herring gull inspire awe? Because if it were the late 1800s you would be hard-pressed to find a single herring gull on the entire Atlantic Coast. These birds were nearly wiped out by hunters seeking feathers and eggs. To see it now in such large numbers is truly a testament to nature’s resilience.

Resilience, however, is not always enough. Few birds survive the complete destruction of their habitat. Case in point, the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker. It is implausible that any of us will ever witness an ivory-bill rapping in a woodland. There is, however, a good chance of seeing the next best thing. Only one inch in height and a slight difference in plumage separates the icon from its closest surviving relative, the pileated woodpecker. And that's what I heard drumming its beat on Wednesday morning.

So it was another great week in this Bird-A-Day adventure, crowned by one last happy discovery. I learned that a total of three other members of the magazine’s staff joined the Bird-A-Day Challenge in February. Thus Thursday’s lunchtime foray to see the rufous hummingbird was a group fieldtrip. And there’s no denying it—birds are even better when shared with friends.

Whether you started the Bird-A-Day Challenge on January 1st or yesterday, you can find additional info and updates here. The following is my latest Bird-A-Day List so far. Share what you’re seeing and your own Bird-A-Day lists here on The Perch, on Audubon Magazine’s Facebook page, and on Twitter using #birdaday.

January 2012
New Year’s Day: Red-Throated Loon??
Day 2: Greater Scaup??
3: Common Merganser? ?
4: Black Duck??
5: Red-shouldered Hawk?
6: Canvasback?
7: Northern Gannet?
8: Lesser Scaup?
9: Red-bellied Woodpecker?
10: Brant?
11: Fish Crow?
12: Hooded Merganser?
13: Northern Harrier?
14: Pied-billed Grebe?
15:Bonaparte’s Gull?
16:Horned Grebe?
17: Common Goldeneye?
18: Dark-eyed Junco?
19: Common Raven?
20: Hairy Woodpecker
21: Horned Lark
22: Snow Goose
23: Northern Mockingbird
24: Black Vulture
25: Great Cormorant
26: House Finch
27: White-Breasted Nuthatch
28: Northern Shrike
29: White-winged Scoter
30: Turkey
31: Bald Eagle

1st, Day 32: Golden-crowned Kinglet
2nd, Day 33: Northern Pintail
3rd, Day 34: White-throated Sparrow
4th, Day 35: Carolina Chickadee
5th, Day 36: Magnificent Frigatebird
6th, Day 37: Short-tailed Hawk
7th, Day 38: Reddish Egret
8th, Day 39: Roseate Spoonbill
9th, Day 40: White Pelican
10th, Day 41: White-winged Dove
11th, Day 42: Anhinga
12th, Day 43: Tundra Swan
13th, Day 44: Brown Creeper
14th, Day 45: Sharp-shinned Hawk
15th, Day 46: Gadwall
16th, Day 47: Bufflehead
17th, Day 48: Cardinal
18th, Day 49: Black Scoter
19th, Day 50: Fox Sparrow
20th, Day 51: Long-tailed Duck
21st, Day 52: Herring Gull
22nd, Day 53: Pileated Woodpecker
23rd, Day 54: Rufous Hummingbird
24th, Day 55: Blue Jay

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