Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Bird Stakeouts Yield Varying Results
October 25, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     I have had my share of “staking out” birds over the years, though I do it much less often now. A bird stakeout is a specific location where a certain bird (usually a rarity) was seen and searching for it, or waiting for it to appear. I performed a couple of stake outs in the past week.

     The first was actually a bird that I first discovered at the Nahant Stump Dump – a LeConte’s sparrow. I had good looks at this skulking bird, as did Margo who was close by when I first discovered it.. But our friend, Linda Pivacek, was a few minutes away and the bird disappeared before she could get to where we were. We spent the next few hours waiting for the bird to reappear in the small weed patch where we found it. Only I got another view of the bird in the hours that we spent there.

     A similar incident followed when Margo and I decided to look for another skulking bird, a sedge wren, at Dunback Meadows in Lexington. We spent several hours waiting for this small wren to show itself in the extensive grasses along the path. This time, only I caught a brief view of this bird and it disappeared before others could get on it. Frustrating! Further time searching and waiting proved fruitless. 

     Doug Chickering of Groveland is another birder with similar experiences – some successful, some not. Here Doug tells of his search for a grasshopper sparrow (which I failed to see) on Plum Island:

     “I arrived at the wardens shortly before dawn. I am usually not so determined to find a specific bird as I was this Grasshopper Sparrow; and that is a little odd. It’s not like I haven’t seen one before. It has been a long time, but it is not the first Grasshopper Sparrow I have seen on Plum Island and if I were so moved to find a Grasshopper Sparrow elsewhere, I know where they can be found. I suppose it’s a combination of things. I had already came out here to find this bird twice and failed. It was surely not going to be around much longer and it seemed as if I was the only person I knew who had not seen this bird. And those who have seen it described a very beautiful bird. 

     “All in all I didn’t want to miss it so I arrived early. There were two people there before me. One, a photographer told me that he had just had the bird. It was perched in a small bush at the far left end of the Wardens area; a place where it had been perching habitually. He was disappointed only in that the light wasn’t good enough for a picture, so he waited for it to return. I was glad to hear that it had been there and I also waited for it to return. It wasn’t the first time I had waited for a bird. But this was one of the more frustrating waits. 

     “I have gone and waited for birds that have never shown up and I have gone and waited for birds that left and never returned. That was frustrating but acceptable. This is the first bird I have waited for – and waited for – and waited for – that was there: but not for me, Three and a half maddening hours. Several people came and went’ Some got it, many didn’t. 

     “It’s over here.” I would hear the announcement and quickly go over to find it gone. The place at the marsh end of the warden’s area; the area by the pine trees, the overgrown pile of dirt, the deep grasses and the gravel had an abundance of sparrows, and in the course of the warming morning I had them all. “There were at least a dozen Savannah Sparrows; a like number of Song Sparrows; a few Junco’s, a single Field Sparrow White-throated Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow and Chipping Sparrows in three different stages. A Chipping Sparrow pretty much in alternate plumage; a clear juvenile and one in basic. A veritable cornucopia of Sparrows. But as time dragged on; no Grasshopper Sparrow was seen. At least not by me. 

     “Then around nine o’clock the quiet searching group was joined by Dave Adrien. He had already seen the bird but wanted to see it again and get a picture. Dave is a fairly new birder but quite good and reliable for his experience level and has one attribute that is pretty much irreplaceable; he seems to be lucky. He wasn’t there ten minutes before he announced he had found it and directed me to a tuft of grass. His directions were good and succinct and I honed in on the tuft of grass and saw some movement beside it — a Chipping Sparrow. Dave assured me that he also saw the Chipper and the Grasshopper was just beside it. I strained my senses to see movement in the grass – nothing. 

     “I seemed to be snakebit on this bird and was contemplating packing it. Some birds are just not meant to be. I had made the good effort and wasn’t going to be haunted by the possibility that I hadn’t tried. I had. I had put in my time and could simply resign myself to my fate. And just as I was thinking over giving up Dave called out again. “Here it is in the bush.” He indicated the bush that the Grasshopper Sparrow had been frequenting. 

     “Even though thoroughly skeptical by now I walked over, looked and saw three birds. Instinctively I turned my binoculars on the middle bird for it was the smallest of the three. Grasshopper Sparrow. The small sparrow stood right out in the open and had a bold bright eye-ring, and a big bill that gave head a particularly flattish appearance. It had a grayish pattern to the head and the upper body was nice subtle ochre, a color understated but beautiful. Success! 

     “It was worth the frustration and the wait. Sometimes there are those birds you seek to find that are not meant to be. Part of birding is disappointment; it is known and accepted by birders. Sometimes you arrive too late and sometimes you leave too early. It’s not all triumph. If it were easy and if you always succeeded it wouldn’t be fun. The missed birds are character builders and learning experiences. These are moments we should expect and even embrace. Fortunately this was not one of these moments.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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