Loners warrant our attention, have greatest potential to be special
I had never heard of a Sinaloa wren. I have now. On August 25, two individuals birdwatching in an area of southern Ariz., happened upon this creature and recorded its image as well as its voice. Making this find so spectacular is the fact that it had never been seen in the U.S. before. Immediately the word spread via the Internet to the delight of rarity seekers across the country. From this episode, remember one thing. This was a lone bird.
Stumbling upon a rare species is an infrequent side benefit of the hobby most bird enthusiasts treat with giddy anticipation. It's akin to catching that 28-inch walleye or bagging that 14-point buck. It doesn't occur all that often. But when it does, it's extremely satisfying.
My personal definition of a rare bird is one that falls into one of three categories. First is a species whose overall population is very low, such as whooping crane, which numbers around 300 birds in the wild. Second, a bird out of place like the Sinaloa wren mentioned above. Finally, and not everyone recognizes this, a bird out of season. The house wren you see in your back yard every summer would be extraordinarily rare in January for instance.
With this in mind, I took a cursory glance at the list of birds I've seen in North Dakota I would consider very uncommon to extremely rare. Roughly 35 species made that roster. The overwhelming majority of these sightings - 31 to be exact - were lone birds. That means 89 percent of the rarities were singletons. Garganey - lone bird, scissor-tailed flycatcher - lone bird, Henslow's sparrow - lone bird. You get the idea. I'm confident my personal ratio would be similar to other birders around the state, perhaps even the country.
"Birds of a feather flock together." So says an old English proverb in use since at least the middle of the 16th century. Its used today to mean those of similar taste congregate in groups. Like most of our old sayings, this one is based on fact.
Waterfowl are the classical example of this. Just before the recent freeze-up it was possible to see almost pure flocks of mallards in the thousands. Blackbird species of all kinds are known to darken the sky with gigantic flocks. There are myriad other examples.
Flocking behavior like this usually coincides with migration, the time when entire species are moving from one area to another. This is also when most rare species are encountered. Whether it's an individual bird caught up in the hubbub of it all or merely a specimen bumbling to find its way, this is the time to pay attention. While we gaze in awe at the huge gatherings of birds, perhaps our eyes should be focused on the outcast, that bird standing out from the others, the one that seems to be somehow out of place, the loner. That's not to say rare birds cannot be found in numbers, they can. But the overwhelming odds - 89 percent in my case - favor the single bird.
A word of advice to beginning birdwatchers: Yes, observe as many birds as you can when encountering them. But keep a watchful eye out for the one by itself, the one on the edge. In my experience, this is the one with the greatest potential to be something special. This even applies to backyards. We're all familiar with the usual visitors at our feeders. Every once in awhile there will be an oddball. That's the one to check out.
As this piece goes to print, I am in Arizona on company business. The Sinaloa wren is still here. I will have made a stab at seeing or at least hearing the bird by the time you read this. Like a siren's song, the temptation to see a first American record is just too great to ignore. I know what to look for, I've seen the photos and listened to the recordings. It won't be in a flock either. It will be a single, solitary bird from Mexico.