The excitement and adrenaline rush of observing a rare bird species is hard to beat. The purest thrill is when this moment comes to pass organically. Imagine finding an extremely unusual species in your "local patch" when you least expect it, for instance. But these finds are few and far between. This is especially true with those mega-rare species: birds which have occurred only a few times (or never) in your respective country, state or province.
For many birders here in Ontario, one of their most revered bird lists is their Ontario Life List. This is the summation of every bird species that they have ever encountered within Ontario. Like many birders, my Ontario Life List is one of my most cherished lists, sitting a rung below my World Life List and my World Photographed Life List, sharing a rung with my Canada Life List but sitting a few rungs above any other bird list.
(As an aside - I should mention that there are quite a few birders out there who don't really care about lists at all, and that's great! We all enjoy our hobby in different and diverse ways. While "listing" is not, in the least, the be-all and end-all when it comes to birding, it can bring a sort of deep satisfaction for those of us compulsive types. Birding brings me joy in myriad ways: by helping me gain a better understanding of ecology, animal behaviour and evolution, by showing me the beauty in the natural world, and by getting me out of a constructed, human-made environment and into nature (or at least, a reasonable facsimile of nature). But numbers and statistics have always been a big part of my life as well, and so keeping various lists is also a big part of my birding experience. I have no shame in that!)
It is becoming harder and harder to add a new species to my Ontario Life List these days. Last year I added two species, and prior to this month, I had only added one in 2020. However, I always look forward to the month of November since a few wacky, unexpected species usually turn up. Some of the rarest species that I have observed in Ontario have been "Novembirds". Species like Phainopepla, Black-tailed Gull, Razorbill, Great Cormorant, Elegant Tern, Bullock's Oriole, Thick-billed Murre, Crested Caracara, Anna's Hummingbird and Calliope Hummingbird.
There have been some good ones so far in November 2020: A Tropical Kingbird was a "one-day wonder" in Thessalon. Ontario's first ever bean-goose (either Tundra or Taiga Bean-Goose) has been sporadically observed in the Rockland area of far eastern Ontario over the past week-plus. And a Magnificent Frigatebird delighted a few lucky birders along the north shore of Lake Erie. The latest "mega" has been a Black-headed Grosbeak attending a feeder at a private residence near Batchawana Bay, which is just north of Sault Ste. Marie.
The Black-headed Grosbeak is a western species that has been documented on eight previous occasions in Ontario. Since my schedule was open and I had obtained permission to drop by to search for the bird, Barb Charlton and I drove up yesterday. Excitement ran high as night turned to dawn and we arrived in the area.
It was easy to see why a lost Black-headed Grosbeak might take up a temporary residence here. The homeowners, Bill and Susan, had several well-stocked bird feeders that were attended by a voracious flock of Evening Grosbeaks. Other seed-eating species like Common Redpolls, various sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals were also making quick work of the black-oil sunflower seeds. The Black-headed Grosbeak is a western species, and so presumably this bird flew across part of Lake Superior to end up north of Sault Ste. Marie. It likely followed the coastline, eventually finding this property and deeming that the buffet here was hard to pass up.
Bill came out of the house to join us in our search. He had seen the Black-headed Grosbeak already early that morning; this fact helped calm our nerves slightly while we waited. And the Evening Grosbeaks were wonderful to observe, as were the Bohemian Waxwings that flew around the property and the migrant Rough-legged Hawks overhead. Finally, I spotted a streaky, orange-breasted bird furtively sneak into a bush near its preferred feeder. It waited for a slight lull in the action, then parked itself on the feeder. Barb and I were pretty thrilled!
The Black-headed Grosbeak is basically the western counterpart to our familiar Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The adult males look quite different (they are patterned superficially like an oriole), but the females and young birds can be a little tricky since their plumage is similar to female or young Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I think this one is a young male. Some of the field marks that differentiate this bird from a Rose-breasted Grosbeak include the bicolored bill, the lack of streaking on the breast and the rich orange colouration down the front of the bird.
The bird would feed for a few minutes before disappearing for twenty or thirty minutes. We watched it on three separate occasions, studying the intracacies of its plumage. This was actually a new species for my World Life List as well, since I have not explored much of western North America. It was an exciting "rare bird twitch" and an avian highlight of my autumn so far. What will be the next rare bird found in November?