Outdoor oddities always pique a birder's curiosity
Just by happenstance - I call it luck - I live in the same West Fargo neighborhood as North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist, Doug Leier. Not only have we watched each other's children grow through the years, but we've shared many outdoors stories. They're often a little unconventional; such was the case just last week.
Leier recounted a recent episode near my home where an American bittern had taken up residence in the yard of a neighbor for a few days. I was out of town and missed the excitement, but this medium-sized, slough-dwelling, secretive bird had somehow arrived in this particular yard and, to some degree at least, found the circumstance to its liking.
I'm not exactly sure just what it is about the different, the weird, the offbeat, the not-quite-right that attracts so much of our attention and interest. Is it because it gives us a break from our boring lives? Is it because it gives us something new to talk about at home or work? Or might the answer be as simple as instinct? That is, are we hard-wired to notice out of the ordinary things as a sort of survival mechanism?
I'm no behaviorist but I suspect there's something to this idea.
Blithely stepping out of a cave and not noticing a nearby lurking lion is detrimental to longevity. Likewise, if a person were on a lengthy unprotected hike and ignored the visible and growing risk from a large thunderstorm, life-threatening consequences become very possible.
No, I believe we innately call attention to elements in our surroundings which don't fit normal patterns. It's what helps keep us alive.
Modern peoples don't typically deal with immediate dire threats from their refined suburban landscapes. Yet still we notice the different. When a neighbor trims a few branches off a tree we notice. When a strange car passes by we notice. When we hear an odd noise at an unusual time we notice.
Apart from threats to our existence, however, the unusual also acts as a source of entertainment; or, at the very least, a source of curious interest. Once that oddity fails the immediate threat test, it becomes something we seem to want to watch, to touch, or to share in a story, as in, "You guys will never guess what I saw today on the way to work." There isn't any other way to explain a kid's drawer full of shiny rocks. On some level we crave the peculiar.
I'm positive this lust for the remarkable serves as a backdrop (if not the foreground) for so much interest in rare bird sightings. There was a time some years ago when folks would communicate via rotary telephone once an out-of-place bird was located; today it's much more immediate. We have streaming video from cellular phones connected to online accounts making an instant around-the-globe shout. If something strange moves in the bird world, those keeping tabs know of it instantly. Yes, it's technology shaping our lives certainly, but without the desire for the exceptional, the yearning for the irregular, it wouldn't be happening.
I would love to have seen that bittern in my neighbor's yard if for no other reason than it represented something so strangely different. American bitterns are not rare if you happen to be standing in cattails but within the city limits of West Fargo I would consider it very odd.
Many years ago two horned larks appeared beneath my backyard feeders. Brought into town on blinding blizzard winds, these two field birds were way out of place. Common birds to be sure, but because they were so alien to a suburban landscape I still consider them the rarest birds I've seen at my home.
For me, episodes such as these will forever hold personal interest given the obvious double-sided appeal of satisfying my appetite for the unorthodox while speaking of the outdoors. Until one of us moves away, Doug and I will continue to witness the aging of our kids and I'm confident we will share the occasional outdoors story too. And it'll likely be at least a little weird.