Yesterday I realized, once again, that what I think is a “good” bird often changes. I suspect that is true for many of us.
When we first became birders, any bird, even if we could not figure out what it was, was a good bird. The birds became even better when we could put a name to them. If we were listers, adding them to our list as a new birds was the best.
Now, when I haven’t been birding for a while, any bird is a good bird, with the possible exception of the untold numbers of pigeons and starlings and House Sparrows that frequent my yard. Sometimes, however, even among the relatively common birds, some of them are more welcome, and thus seem to be especially good birds. This weekend there were two Northern Flickers drilling and eating on my lawn where the snow had recently melted away. They were intent on their tasks and only interacted a couple of times. They were good birds just by being interesting, and close, and not all that common in my back yard, where there is only one tree, and that one is not a very large tree.
Most of the time, what makes a bird seem to be particularly good is whether the bird is doing something that is noteworthy and whether I get a close, clear view of it. If it is also an unusual bird for the area that I am in I am much more likely to be delighted by seeing it. In my undergraduate studies in zoology, my two favorite courses (other than ornithology) were the two animal behavior classes that I took during my senior year, one in the zoology department and one in the psychology department. If I could have figured out a way to make a living just watching what animals do, I probably would have done that.
Many times, however, my views of birds are brief and/or obscured by branches or distance. My excitement then tends to depend primarily on whether I can be certain of the bird’s identity and how rare the bird is. When it is rare, whether or not I’m doing a big year, it is a good bird, even if drab and sitting still, doing nothing and even if my view of it is not the best.
Everything changes when I am doing a big year. When I see a bird during a big year in my chosen big year area (e.g., Texas, the ABA area, South Dakota or Pennington County, SD) that I have not yet seen there during that year, it is by definition a “good” bird. That is true even if it is a common bird there. During a big year, however, there are different levels of “good”. The more rare that a bird is in that area, the better it is. As I am sure that most of you know, in the ABA area, every bird that has ever been seen there is assigned a code that is intended to correspond to the likelihood that that species will be seen in the ABA area. Code 6 birds are those believed extinct or extirpated from the area, so of course those birds would be even better than good – they would be miracles (think Ivory-billed Woodpecker). Code 5 birds are the rarest of those one might possibly find, and the lower numbers progressively identify the more common species. So, during an ABA big year, the very best birds are Code 4 and 5, and the biggest chases are after those birds. Of course, by the end of a big year, if you are missing any Code 1, 2 or 3 birds, you are likely to be very embarrassed by that fact. I was, and still am.
Sometimes, even during a big year, a bird that has already been seen that year can still be a very good bird. That is particularly true when the first sighting of the year was brief or otherwise unsatisfying and if the later sighting is a very clear, well-seen sighting. That occurred yesterday for me. Earlier this year, a friend reported a White-winged Crossbill (rare in Pennington County) at his feeder in a small flock of Red Crossbills (less rare in the county). Two of us spent a morning scanning his feeders, waiting for crossbills. Finally, they arrived. But they were difficult to see, high in a tree over his house. Finally one of the birds was clearly seen to be pinker with light striping, a very different color than the other, redder crossbill males. We could not see its wing at all, however. I decided that it had to be a White-winged Crossbill, but was not happy with the sighting.
Yesterday, in our weekly Canyon Lake survey (in Pennington Co.), we found a small flock of crossbills, all White-winged! Although they stayed in the tops of the spruce trees, munching on the cones, we could see them well. Of course, due to the cold morning (about 8 degrees), I had left my camera back in my car, so I had to race back to get it and hope the birds would not leave in the meantime. They did stay, and although the view was not as good as earlier, I did get a couple of pictures. A very good bird!!