Stanley Tate

We value what is rare

We value what is rare. We can't help it: twentydollar bills are rarer than pennies, beautiful girls are rarer than plain ones. And it is one of the facts of life that there are more common birds than rare ones.

There is a popular notion that all birding is about rare birds. The reason for looking closely at a flock of sparrows is to see if there is some bird of indescribable rarity lurking among its common companions. If it isn't there, you ignore the sparrows and look elsewhere.

What is a rare bird? You could say that a rare bird is any bird that nobody sees very often. Or it could be any bird you haven't seen yourself. The Scarlet Tanager is a bird that eluded me for several years; but now I live in a place that Scarlet Tanagers like and I see them frequently, so Scarlet Tanagers have gone from rare birds to not exactly common birds, but certainly birds that are part of the routine of my life.

What about the Magnificent Hummingbird? You won't find it in your Sibley's Guide to Birds of the Eastern United States. But three years ago a Magnificent Hummingbird spent the winter in Georgia. The Magnificent Hummingbird is very rare in the eastern United States and it gave great pleasure and excitement to birders who saw it. I was not one of them - but I have seen feeders covered with magnificents.

Now ask yourself why. Is it because I am a very good birder? Do I know a secret place where these birds are common?

If you guessed that I am a very good birder you are wrong. If you guessed that I know of a secret place you are right. That place is southeastern Arizona. Magnificent Hummingbirds are common in southeastern Arizona and are rare here because they don't live here. They live there. And if you wonder what that lone Magnificent Hummingbird was doing in Georgia I bet the bird was wondering the same thing. He didn't mean to be in Georgia. He got lost, blown here by unsympathetic winds.

You can walk through the battlefield on Kennesaw Mountain in the late summer and fall and see almost all the warblers in Sibley's Guide: Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, Ovenbirds. Common birds but worth seeing.

Every year a few of these common birds get blown across the Atlantic, and some of them get spotted by European birdwatchers.

What happens to the birds?

They change in an instant from common birds to very rare birds. And then, mostly they die. They are on the wrong continent and exhausted by a journey they never wanted to make. And they are not equipped to make a living in Europe.

They don't all die. A Black-browed Albatross was blown from his circumpolar range in the extreme southern oceans to an island off the coast of Scotland. There he joined a flock of Gannets and has since spent over forty years flying with them between their winter feeding grounds and summer breeding grounds.

Such wind-blown vagrants are rare in local terms but not all that rare in global terms. You read about them in ornithology journals where they are discussed with passionless scientific fastidiousness. Which is fair enough, though the recording of lost birds isn't my idea of ornithology of the highest order. But it is an exciting collector's game that brings joy to some and anguish to others.

So as you come out of the closet as a birder, start with the knowledge that there are special birds out there waiting for you to find them - and also in the knowledge that the pursuit of rare birds has nothing to do with you unless you want it to. It is a specialized obsession.

To chase rare birds you must rise before dawn on weekends, take expensive vacations on desolate Alaskan islands and pray for foul weather, wait for phone calls in the middle of the night and rush to the airport for the next red-eye flight. To chase rare birds you must need to see and conquer. It is not a unique craving. Throughout history, others have responded to the same fundamental urge by sailing uncharted oceans, climbing tall mountains, or walking on the moon.

It is not essential to chase rare birds if you want to be a birder; you are free to choose how you enjoy your birds. Some of the very best field observers never chase rarities. Their satisfaction is their concentration on a single place where they observe the comings and goings of birds day by day, season by season, year by year. Casual birders do this informally; very good birders do this in minute detail and keep detailed diaries. They will observe and identify occasional rarities, but it is bread-and-butter daily observation that they love.

To me the notion of common birds and rare birds is meaningless. There is no hierarchy of birds that takes a birder from the lowest of the low - those sparrows - to the highest of the high: that first for Georgia that is hurled into a tree behind the Dairy Queen by a raging storm and is miraculously spotted by a hawk-eyed observer the second before the poor bird drops dead. Birds are like the wind; you just feel them.

There was a particular cold day last January and a feeble winter sun. The sun didn't do much for me, but it stirred the soul of a Carolina Wren - a small, brown, skulking, common little thing. And he was filled with a sudden excitement about the coming of warmer weather. In the cold of that day, he felt the tug of spring and there he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun; and he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely everything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird. A rare moment.

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