The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #5: Get Yourself a Nemesis Bird

Because every hero needs a villain.

My first nemesis was the Peregrine Falcon. I’d been birding for two years, and I wanted to see one so badly. I tried all the spots other birders were finding them, and scoured eBird for recent reports. Nothing. Why was everyone else seeing Peregrine Falcons except me? Did they know I was coming? Did they raise the alarm, like those crazy dogs from 101 Dalmatians? After a full year of searching, I finally caught up with a Peregrine—sitting on a snag in Scarborough Marsh. It was a triumph.

I quickly found a new nemesis. This time it was the Red Crossbill. After I came up empty on multiple-long drives to their “guaranteed” habitat, I couldn’t help but hold a grudge. It became personal. Again, my eventual encounter, this time in Aspen, Colorado, wasn’t just a sighting: It was a vanquishing.

You know how in the Batman comics every week there’s a weird new villain in town? Well, I’m Batman. I’ve had a rotating cast of nemesis birds my whole birding life (and that’s where the similarity ends). After Peregrines and Red Crossbills, it was Northern Goshawks, and then Cape May Warblers. It took me forever to find a Common Raven in D.C., and I’m still looking for a dang Purple Martin in the District. I’ve hiked up multiple mountain ridges searching in vain for White-tailed Ptarmigan. Connecticut Warblers snicker from their hiding places when I walk by.

For me, a “nemesis bird” is pretty much any species I’ve attempted to find many times but have always come up short. It’s the kind of bird that makes me use up a vacation day to drive all the way out to where it’s supposed to be or where it’s been seen most recently, but then doesn't show its dumb face to me. If that happens once, it’s annoying. If it happens twice, it’s a personal affront and I have a new nemesis.

Not that I pioneered this term or anything. Different birders have different qualifications for when a bird becomes their nemesis. It might have to do with miles traveled; it might have to do with how common the species is (for common ones, it's easier to make things personal). It gets even more frustrating when everyone else is constantly mentioning how they “just saw a whole flock of [insert evil bird]! It was right over there!”

I asked on Twitter, and most people agreed that going for a bird multiple times and failing could qualify it as a nemesis. About a quarter of people based their qualifications on miles traveled. Despite the variety of definitions, everyone’s got a nemesis:

 

I also asked some highly accomplished birders if they had nemesis birds of their own.

Rick Wright, Book Review Editor, American Birding Association:

“The Russet-crowned Motmot. It's not a rare bird, and it's not especially furtive, but for some reason I just can't see this creature. Local guides proud of their 100 percent success rates have to change their marketing campaigns after a day out with me. My friends are tired of going to the same canyons and washes, over and over again, to help me miss it, over and over again. My wife has started calling it the ‘notmot.’ It's been going on for so long now that I almost don't want to see the bird: it won't be easy finding something else to complain about for years and years.”

Drew Weber, Merlin Project Coordinator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“My current nemesis is the Red Phalarope. I've always been at the wrong place at the wrong time, or on the wrong trip to see them. I'm planning on going on a pelagic out of Bar Harbor, Maine, this September, which may finally get me my Red Phalarope fix!”

David Ringer, Chief Network Officer, National Audubon Society: 

“HOOK-BILLED KITE ARGHHHHHHHHH.”

Noah Strycker, Global Big Year record holder and author:

I have a nemesis in Oregon, and it’s an ugly one: the Common Grackle. They may be trash birds across most of the United States, but grackles are very rare in my home state. They always seem to disappear just before I arrive!” 

Denise Ryan, Deputy Director for Congressional and External Relations, National Park Service: 

“Top three: Barnacle Goose, Elegant Trogon, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Sedge Wren might be approaching nemesis soon.

Real birders are a persistent bunch, and you won't find your bird sitting at home. You've got to get out there, and be prepared to recognize that new bird when it appears at the highway turnoff, along the trail, the mall parking lot or in your National Parks. So please, get out there and #FindYourBird while you #FindYourPark.”

The point is, if a birder acquires a nemesis bird, they should feel lucky to have one. Despite how annoying it is to miss species that everyone else is seeing, nemesis birds drive you to become a better birder.

When you become obsessed with finding a certain species you start to think harder about why you might be dipping (another birding term for failure). To find my sought-after Northern Goshawk, for example, I needed to make sure I was able to identify it from the similar-looking Cooper’s Hawk, so I studied the minute differences between the two species in flight. When I was searching for Cape May Warblers, I needed to know their calls—which meant I had to learn all the warbler calls.  

Plus, it’s fun. Birding without a target is just a gussied-up walk in the woods; you need to have some sort of treasure.

I wish I could assign you each a nemesis bird of your own, but they need to come naturally. Think of a bird that you really want to see and then go try to find it. (Let me suggest the Peregrine Falcon—it’s the fastest animal on Earth.) Maybe you’ll succeed, in which case . . . congratulations! Now pick another one!

Maybe you won’t find it. Maybe you’ll look in the exact same place as everyone else, but it just won’t be there. Okay, try again. It's annoying, right? Good. Keep at it. Listen to the calls again. Study all the different plumages and make sure you’re looking in the right habitat at the perfect time. Also, learn a cool little endzone dance. You’ll need to celebrate when you finally beat your nemesis.

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