My Favorite Twitch: Michigan's 1st Green Violet-ear

“It’s February, we probably won’t see jack.” A good friend of mine used these words recently to assess his prospects for finding anything unusual during an upcoming day of birding. It is indeed the time of year when birders daydream about the approaching spring migration or in my case, let an idle mind wander to memories of enjoying a major rarity. It’s either that or head out to scour the local waterfowl flocks for the umpteenth time hoping that you and your local mates have somehow missed a Baikal Teal that’s been around all winter.

After a mundane day of birding today (it is still February), I began thinking about some of my favorite chases. My best “twitch” (a term used by British birders to describe chasing a rare bird) occurred more than a decade ago when I was living in Fairmount, Illinois. One evening in mid-July 1996, my friend Steve Bailey called to tell me that a Green Violet-ear (a large all green tropical hummingbird) was coming to a feeder in Edwardsburg, Michigan, which lies in the south-central part of the state just north of the Indiana border. Since the bird would be a lifer for both of us, and was a mere three-hour drive from home, this twitch was a no-brainer. At the time, this Green Violet-ear represented the northernmost occurrence in the Americas. I agreed to meet Steve at his home in Rantoul, Illinois around 3:30 the following morning.

With a bag of snacks and full travel mugs of coffee, we left Steve’s place at the appointed hour. We reached Edwardsburg around 6:45a.m., then set about finding our way to the semi-rural home where the bird had been seen. As we bounced down the final dirt road toward our destination, we realized that we both had full bladders. Anticipating that our soon-to-be hosts would likely not have a porta-potty in their yard, we pulled over. Returning from the roadside woodlot to the car, we noticed another vehicle rolling up on us. The personalized license plate P L O V E R told us that it was another birder, and in fact one that we knew. It was Bob Chapel who lived just a few miles to the south of Steve in Urbana, Illinois. During the four years I lived and birded in Illinois I came to know Bob well. It seemed like no matter where I was birding in the state, or in this case a neighboring state, I was sure to run into Bob. He stopped and I probably said something like… “Is there any place I can go birding where I won’t run into you?” But since this was no time for idle chitchat, we were quickly back in our vehicles.

Approaching the driveway of the house, it was abundantly clear that the news about this bird had spread like the common cold at a preschool. There were cars everywhere. As we walked up, another group of birders was just piling out of a sedan with Indiana plates. I noticed that their license plate had a “71J” prefix to the number. This prefix indicated they were residents of St. Joseph Co., where I had lived until I was 10 years old. Presuming that they were members of South Bend Audubon Society, St. Joe County’s only chapter, I introduced myself and explained that my family had been members of the South Bend chapter prior to moving to Oregon in 1970. One couple not only recognized my family name, but also knew some of the long time members I remembered from my childhood (26 years earlier).

When we finally entered the yard, a magnificently maintained cottage garden, we took our places among the 70+ birders already gathered there. Multiple hummingbird feeders and lots of flowering plants adorned the yard, which was abuzz with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the expected species in this region. There were at least 20 of them, with a half dozen or more attending the favorite feeder of the Green Violet-ear. “Is it here,” we asked. “You won’t have to wait long,” was the response. Almost immediately we heard the much louder wing whir of a large hummingbird rocketing in from our right. I was utterly unprepared for the sheer size of this emerald green hummingbird with a purplish-blue ear patch. Instantly commandeering the feeders, the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbirds scattered like jackals from a carcass when a lion returns to its kill.

We spent about 40 minutes or so in the semi-circle of humanity blanketing one side of the yard. Birders came and went almost constantly while we enjoyed the guest of honor. The shared experience of seeing a great bird with others who share your passion is part of the glue that bonds the birding community. I may never again encounter most of these people, but there will be others who will forever remember meeting me at the Green Violet-ear.

The Green Violet-ear was by far the least expected of many rare birds that Steve and I saw together. This episode was made even more special by encountering folks from my family’s first Audubon chapter (we’ve joined a few others since). I moved from Illinois to Oregon in December 1998 and sadly, have not been back to visit. Several years after I moved away, Bob Chapel was tragically hit and killed by a drunk driver when he stopped to look at a bird along a highway south of Champaign-Urbana. It’s hard to think that we will share no more chance encounters.

Michigan’s first Green Violet-ear remained at this home in Edwardsburg, MI 16 July-18 Aug 1996. In 2002, a second Green Violet-ear made it to Michigan and this species has appeared with increasing frequency in the U.S. over the past decade or so. Images of the beautiful Michigan Green Violet-ears can be seen at michiganaudubon.org.

Please use the “comments” section to share your favorite twitch.

1

My favorite twitch? None come to mind that can share that distinction. I have had many a successful twitch and those were far more enjoyed than most unsuccessful ones. A contender is the Sedge Wren that was on the North Spit of Coos Bay, Oregon in the March I think several years ago. This first state record was a bird initially found by Tim Rodenkirk and later seen by many. I had the time in my schedule and figured that this was probably my lifetime opportunity to see this what would be life bird in Oregon. I went alone on the three and half hour drive from Portland south through Eugene, west to Florence, and south along 101 to N. Bend. None were there when I got there and I never did run into any birders. I searched the spot where it had been observed by Tim for several hours with no luck. Eventually I need to walk back to my car a half mile or so to get some water on what was a fairly nice day. Birding the way back I thought I heard an odd march wren song, but only saw the expected Long-billed Marsh Wren when I entered the marsh in the direction of the song. When back at the car I endured the mental discussion of whether I had wasted my time and money driving down for such a skulker that probably was migrating anyway. I kept coming back to the odd song I had thought I had heard and decided reluctantly to revisit the spot again even though my time was running short and needed to be on the road again soon. This time when I walked out to the spot I heard the song again, and the songster continued to sing again and again. looking from the sand road I kept glimpsing a small wren from where the song emanated, but not well enough to identify it to species. Then it would disappear and then a well-marked Long-billed Marsh Wren would come into view nearby as it emerged from the sedges. Running out of time I headed out in to the patch of marsh vegetation and after some effort of persistent searching for the songster amidst Marsh Wrens and their incessant and varied songs I finally got excellent and extended views of this little marsh sprite. As soon as I started getting those good looks of the Sedge Wren, enormous and aggressive mosquitoes began swarming over all exposed patches of skin and extracting their visitor’s toll in milliliters of blood—especially from my hands, fingers, and face. I endured this unpleasantness out of necessity. To keep from loosing the wren as it danced amongst the stems I needed both hands to steady my binocular, fearing loosing the bird forever if I moved them to swat the bloodsuckers. I spent about a 20 minutes watching the Sedge Wren and talking notes and then had to go. I marked this new location with an impromptu sculpture of driftwood and plastic bottles someone had littered and left the area. Many, many others later saw the bird as it continued at this new spot through its several weeks stay. It was never observed again where Tim had found it originally. Many a successful twicher later thanked me for “rediscovering” the wren in the new spot, doubting that if I hadn’t relocated it, it would not have been seen again. I don’t know about that, but it was nice to receive the attention.

One thing Dave said in his story gave me pause. He said it was a “no-brainer” to go on a three hour twitch. For me, though this used to be the case in my earlier years of birding, and I have been birding now since I was 14 in1983, now I do have more to think about. I twitch birds much less frequently now, and when I do the target birds tend to be geographically closer to home. Today I have to consider my family budget both financial and time. Also, I am less competitive. Some of this is that several years ago I reached the knightly benchmark of having observed 400 species in the state. Also, with the advent of the internet, increasing digital networking of birders, and ease of digital photography and image-sharing that has evolved, the novelty of the new bird twitch is perhaps diminished. I also have been on many, many unsuccessful twitches. I long ago reset my twitch expectations to resignation that the target will very likely not be seen. With this thought, there then had to be more than the just the bird to drive me to twitch—would there be time for other birding; friends to share in the trip experience; good scenery along the way; would I enjoy the day regardless? Today I also consider the footprint of my actions. Given my moral and ethics can I justify burning the carbon just for the selfish reason of ticking a county, state, or life bird? Or can I have just as good a time birding more locally. I recently moved to Clatsop Co. on the Oregon Coast. My county list has grown substantially in the last 5 years here, but there are several “easy” species that have shown up that I have not twitched that in my earlier years of birding I would have without hesitation. House Wren comes to mind. Twice Mike Patterson has seen one on Saddle Mt. during Spring migration, but I figured I just didn’t need to drop everything to go tick a bird that I will probably find on my own one day soon. Bottom line is that if I am going to twitch a bird, it should be for fun and I shouldn’t have to put the expense on my credit card. If I can make it a family excursion all the better. Experience has shown me that I will find many rare birds on my own and get just as much enjoyment or more out of that as I would twitching birds others have found.

That said, if I find myself near Peoria any time soon, I will be highly inclined to try for the Pyrrhuloxia showing well there this winter. I never did make it to the Falcated Duck that showed for four or five winters in Eugene, or the Red-throated Pipit in the Cascades, but perhaps I will find “my own” sometime in the future.

2

I have a brother, who, when he was around 12 years old, thought my birding friends were very cool and so went on several twitching trips with us. He got to see Baltimore Oriole, Vermillion Flycatcher, Ruff, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Green Warbler & Tennessee Warbler (and the wintering Nashville that was with them), Lark Bunting, and McKown’s Longspur. On top of that he was lucky enough to happen across a Spruce Grouse in the Wallowa’s and bring a picture home for me to identify (someday I will see a real one…).

Out of curiosity, we tallied an Oregon state list for him when he was 12 and it came to 116 species (and it’s missing the Baltimore Oriole!). Unfortunately he’s never been interested in filling out the “gaps” in his list (the list is still in birdnotes, last updated on 1/11/03), but I am still amused at the collection he gathered all because a 12 year old thought twitching was fun.

3

i like this website

4

You’ve hit the ball out the park! Increidlbe!

5

- Bryan is a stud and I’m going to need to buy a print of him in the river! P.s. Joel, you look pretty good too . Glad you guys got to do this, I know it was a fun morinng for Bryan.

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