These are not the birds you’re looking for

As a biologist who enjoys spending time in nature and chasing after birds, there are inevitably moments where the feathered creatures become elusive in an effort to confound me. On other occasions, birds make no attempt to hide from me, but instead color my car and binoculars with a beautiful white paste. In any case, searching for particular bird species has its ups and downs, with the downs often involving thrashing around in the thorns of multiflora rose or wandering around in dangerous areas. Sometimes the bleeding is worth it, other times the birds just laugh at me.


Sometimes I risk my life to find dumb birds.

In 2011, I spent the summer running after beach-nesting shorebirds throughout the Gulf Coast. This was one year after the major oil spill, so I saw numerous beaches where clean-up crews were still working to remove dried oil mats. My position with the Coastal Bird Conservation involved marching 8-11 miles a day across beaches in hot and humid conditions and no shade. At least I can put that I like long walks on the beach on my Tinder profile. The focal species of interest included two species of plovers, American Oystercatchers, and several species of terns. Terns are easy to find as they tend to nest in such large colonies that you can see one everywhere you tern. Once you focus in on the clues to a nesting site, it’s hard to tern it off. I’m sorry, this is really bad. Let me tern this blog around and write about something else.

Caspian tern vocalising, with chick

“Stay away from my children! Tern around! Make a U-tern!”

Wilson’s Plovers were the primary species of interest in my surveys. Plovers are similar to sandpipers, but tend to have larger eyes and shorter bills. There are also behavioral differences, as sandpipers are very tactile and tend to probe their bills in the sand in search of food, while plovers are more visual and often use a run-stop-run-stop strategy when foraging. Anyway, when I was trekking across the dunes of Tatooine the Gulf Coast, Wilson’s Plovers would often run ahead of me in the sand. As I moved closer, they would continue to keep just enough of a distance so that I had to keep chasing them to confirm the ID and record their position with GPS.

Wilson’s Plovers make “whip!” calls and race across the sand without regard for my data-collecting techniques.

During my fieldwork as a point count technician in Indiana, there were a number of times I was hoping to find certain birds based on calls or movement, only to discover tricksters that I wasn’t looking for. Many of my adventures involved chasing after Wood Thrush and searching for nests.

During spring migration, other species of thrush move through the area, hopping around and pretending to be Wood Thrush. I would see the silhouette of a thrush in the early morning hours and engage in hot pursuit, only to be disappointed by the realization that it was a Swainson’s Thrush . . . or a Hermit Thrush . . . or a Gray-cheeked Thrush . . . or a Veery . . . well, you get the point. On other occasions, I would be recording birds by songs and calls. Some birds, especially warblers, can sound very similar to one another. If that’s not enough, there are regional dialects in bird songs and calls, just like there are in the human world. There’s nothing like getting excited about hearing a new song or call, only to discover that it’s just an ordinary titmouse or warbler that decided to be creative.

Swainson's thrush

This is not the thrush I was looking for.

The message from this blog? Birds will actively try to elude you and deceive you, except for terns, which will scream and attack you. Even though there have been moments where my hopes of seeing a new or rare bird were crushed by an ordinary songbird, I still enjoy spending time in nature and watching birds. And try as they might, the birds cannot always escape me.


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