Last weekend, for the first time ever, a young male Kirtland’s Warbler turned up in New York City’s Central Park. The endangered little songbird was just a few hundred miles off its typical travel route between the goat farms of the Bahamas and the dew-doused jack pines of northern Michigan. But there it was, strutting about a turkey oak in a metropolis of millions, making birders and photographers go berserk.
I got news of the warbler in real time on Friday, thanks to the @BirdCentralPark Twitter feed and the state’s birding listserv. It was spotted by New Yorker Kevin Topping around 5:30 p.m.; his photo confirmed it was the real deal. Step-by-step directions and numerous subway options meant the Kirtland’s was an easy chase for area folks. Travelers with layovers cabbed in from city airports to get a peek at the celebrity, body-bag-size luggage in tow. A rainy forecast also meant the warbler would be grounded through the weekend.
The bird was damn near unmissable.
Emphasis on “near.” While the chaos was unfolding, I was across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. To be fair, I’d gotten to spend the morning with scientists from the College of Staten Island, learning about Bank Swallows. But a Kirtland’s Warbler? I’d never seen one. After staring at my calendar and convincing myself that I couldn’t skip my college roommate’s bridal shower (sisters before listers), I realized that Sunday morning was the only shot I had at this rare species. So, come the Christian Sabbath, I headed to the park, resisting the urge of many a good bagel shop to make it for the Kirtland’s show.
Turns out I’d missed it by half an hour. The bird was seen in the same area foraging at around 8:30 a.m., but after that, it was crickets. Dozens of birders crowded the running path, heads scrunched back in the agonizing “warbler neck” position, waiting, watching, listening for a sign. There was plenty of activity in the trees overhead. Magnolia Warblers showed off their mascara-tear-streaked chests, Black-throated Green Warblers hopped from catkin to catkin, and Black-and-white Warblers tangoed around the wet branches.
But of course, no Kirtland’s Warbler. There were zero sightings throughout the rest of the morning, and by Monday it was assumed that it had continued on its migration. Even in its absence, though, I couldn’t get the bird out of my head—literally. Pals kept sharing photos, videos, and virtual high-fives to celebrate. And while I was happy for them, I could also feel the spite inside of me grow. Hello darkness, my old friend.
What's worst, not only had I dipped on the warbler (the birding term for missing a rarity), but I was also experiencing fomo, aka fear of missing out. The subject of my ire wasn’t the birders or the warbler; it was the arc of the universe, which made me skip such a memorable experience in a city I love. Days later, I could still feel it tearing me up inside. To prevent further self-destruction, I needed advice from the experts.
The first person I turned to was Audubon field editor, and our office's favorite birding dad, Kenn Kaufman. He’s been obsessed with birds since he was 6, set a Big Year record when he was 19, and has a lifetime of fomo experiences to share.
“The feeling really strikes when it’s a near-miss,” Kaufman says. He remembers taking three pelagic trips in a row off the California coast without seeing any milestone species. The next day, when he was firmly planted on land, the same boat found a dazzling White-necked Petrel. While on the phone, Kaufman and I held a moment of silence for all the scientists who tried and failed to get the Red Warbler in Arizona earlier this year. (It showed up just a few miles away from where the American Ornithological Society conference was being held, but couldn't be refound.) A Golden-crowned Warbler in Colorado this week likely sparked similar frustrations.
The greatest comfort in talking to Kaufman is that he’s an eternal optimist. His advice? Tropical warblers like the Red and Golden-crowned may be more migratory than we realize, so we should always be on the lookout. “Even if we don’t think of them as migratory, they have the last word,” he says. As for the Kirtland’s, its numbers are steadily increasing, thanks to tireless conservation actions. A decade ago, the odds of finding one in New York City were barely one in a billion; now, they’re up to one in a million.
When it comes to rarities like these, Kaufman says to use them as inspiration to go out and find other surprises. For example, if he hears about a Curlew Sandpiper in the Midwest, he might visit the mudflats near his Ohio home to check if there’s a larger, undetected movement. Choosing a similar habitat to where the species has been sighted helps, but it’s not essential. “Migratory birds will drop down wherever they are,” Kaufman says. With Kirtland’s Warblers, it’s best to scan any forest edge. And hint: The birds migrate north through the end of May.
So, you’re saying I still have a chance? Before I got my hopes too far up, I checked in with three additional birders. Here are their insights on how to move on after missing out.
Nicholas Lund, The Birdist: “Don't get over it. Let it piss you off. Let it fester, but only as a motivation to get out more often. Envision yourself years from now, the next time a Kirtland's shows up in Central Park, and think about how happy you'll be then in finally scratching this itch you feel.”
Joanna Wu, Audubon scientist: “Everyone has nemesis birds. I spent a summer surveying in Central California, yearning for condors [to no avail]. The only trip I didn't go on, my partner saw one. It makes for a good story to this day and will make the eventual sighting that much more exciting.”
Jason Ward, host of #TrickyBirdID: “Remember, this is what we signed up for. The unpredictability is what keeps us addicted. We never know what will pop up next. You’ll miss a Kirtland’s Warbler and next year be the first to see a Magnificent Frigatebird in Jamaica Bay.”
They reminded me that birding can be an emotional and a rational pursuit. And in the scheme of things, missing the Kirtland’s is a tiny heartbreak compared to the many highs I’ve had in the field these past few years. If you want my advice: Wallow, cry, find a friend to swap curses with, and learn as much as you can about the bird, so you can still appreciate it in the mind’s eye. At least until the next time you almost cross paths with it.