In the Field

The Case for Chasing Birds That Don’t Count

Because birding is about so much more than just your list.

On February 2, I woke up determined to find a Red-necked Grebe in New York City.

Six hours later, I no longer felt the same way.

Here’s why I flip-flopped so fast. Early last month a Red-necked Grebe popped up on the Central Park reservoir in the middle of Manhattan. Mind you, this isn’t a rare species along the nothern Atlantic coast, but it's an unusual sight within city limits. It'd be well worth the pursuit, I thought, even without its breeding plumage and splendid rusty neck. I’d seen one Horned Grebe and more than my fill of Pied-billed Grebes—those adorable, moany buggers—but the Red-necked was a species that I still didn’t have on my small, unimpressive life list.

So I made plans to disappear from the office for an hour to patrol the reservoir. But an update in a local birding Facebook group that afternoon changed my mind. One astute birder noted that the grebe was likely a rehabbed individual, freed into the park by the Wild Bird Fund. (This was confirmed in a video posted by the group; it states that the bird was found stranded in Brooklyn, closer to the ocean.) The news prompted a debate on whether this intervention made the grebe untouchable for listing purposes. For some members of the group, even if the bird was captive for a short while, it was clearly wild and mobile now and therefore should be counted. Others confessed that knowing it had been plopped in the park by humans robbed them of the joy of the chase.

The murkiness of grebe-gate bummed me out; I decided to put off my sighting for another day. Soon, a day turned into a month. I went searching for Short-eared Owls and European Goldfinches around the state, but the Red-necked Grebe remained low priority.

Lucky for me, the bird hung around the reservoir for the rest of the month. Not only that, it seemed to be having grand old time. One day, a Central Park birder posted this video clip of the grebe singing. (It's a surprising show, given that the species is generally silent in winter.) Seeing this behavior for the first time reminded me that the bird was still exotic to me. As a new-ish birder, I have to spend more energy studying the creatures I spend a major chunk of my time on. I needed to get off my butt and take advantage of the close-up access.

Last weekend, I finally hit the reservoir to spend some quality time with the grebe. Confirming the ID was a fun challenge: I had to make sure I wasn’t looking at the Common Loon that had recently been reported in the area. They may belong to completely different families, but their non-breeding plumage is similar—fifty shades of drab. Instead of color, I relied on more subtle cues to identify the grebe: neck and head shape, beak thickness and color, and a weird behavior where the bird stuck its upper body straight out over the water, as if it were doing a Yogic chaturanga pose. Yes, this was the grebe. And if the intense chill and high-speed winds hadn't frozen my face off, I’m sure I would have expressed some joyful emotions.

In the end, I decided not to count the species based on the story of its arrival. But the encounter ranks up there with chases that made it onto my list: Whooping Cranes in Texas, Gull-billed Terns on the Salton Sea, and a Couch’s Kingbird also in New York City. I learned that even when you can't play the listing game, there's plenty of value in seeking out the bird and enjoying it for what it is.

Other birders have expressed the same sentiment to me. “If someone said I could listen to a Brown-backed Solitaire that I’ve already listed, or see five Empidonax flycatchers that I haven’t, I’d choose the singing solitaire everytime,” Sharon Stiteler, better known as Birdchick, says. Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman points out that hybrids like the Lawrence’s Warbler and subspecies like the Ipswich Sparrow are beautiful, one-of-a-kind birds, even if they don’t qualify as unique ticks on a competitive list. “Any time you get to study a bird like that, it forces you to think about details on the parent species that you wouldn’t ordinarily consider,” he says. In essence, these formative sightings make you a better birder.

In a few months I’ll be back on the Red-necked Grebe hunt, vying to catch its namesake plumage and fabulous courtship dance. This time I’ll know what to look and listen for, thanks to that windy, worthwhile morning on the water.

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