Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mar 19 (Day 78) - BUDGERIGAR, late-arriving special guest, thoughts on obsession

You know that feeling when you're walking down the street and you find $100,000 in large bills on the sidewalk? Well, neither do I. However, if I were to find a stack of 100 $1,000 bills on the street, I imagine my heart would skip a beat or two before my disbelief vanished and everything suddenly became real again. That's exactly how I felt when this guy flew into the feeder array this morning.

***Click to enlarge, its worth it***

I have actually never before photographed House sparrow.
A new species for my collection - seriously!

After an unsuccessful 4.5-hour afternoon feeder-watch yesterday, I returned to the same place today with hopes of squeezing out Budgerigar before I had to head north. This trip represented a near 30-mile detour in the exact opposite direction that I was headed, so another miss would be very costly both emotionally and physically. I arrived at 9:15am. I did not have to wait long. At 10:05am or so a single bird appeared. He made two cycles through the feeders in the next 30 minutes. During his second cycle, I hid behind a big potted plant to grab the above shot. I normally take all pains to avoid feeders in my shots (they look unnatural), but that rule went out the window with this bird. I am willing to bet my 500mm f/4 IS lens that I will NEVER see this bird in the wild in the ABA area again. I am very happy with this shot considering I'll likely never get a do-over. This was an amazing find. Special thanks to all those folks that helped me tick #247 for the year! I hope this population is able to hang on, but, given the recent downward trend, I am not optimistic.

Since I had found my only target bird for the day, I really took my time riding in the afternoon. I altered my route so as to explore the Croom tract of the Withlacoochee Forest. This area looked nothing like the other areas of Florida in which I have birded. It had some swampy cypress areas, some open pine areas, and, most surprisingly, mixed deciduous woodlands that I more typically associate with my Northeast roots. I was able to locate in these woodlands several flocks of warblers, vireos, and gnatcatchers.  It actually felt like spring as I hurt my neck trying to identify small, fast-moving warblers at the tops of huge trees! It will be nice to make the transition from the waterbird-heavy Florida birding to the passerine birds I expect to find in Lousiana and Eastern Texas. It will also mean another big bump to the year's species list. During my ride through the Croom tract, I saw a number of areas that look perfect for Bachman's sparrow. I am going to return to this area very early tomorrow morning to see if I can find some singing birds. This will, again, represent a 20-mile detour, so I really hope this works out. In the afternoon I plan to ride to Ocala where I will spend tomorrow night watching college basketball.

67 miles total with some unmapped riding

Actual big trees in Florida - who knew?!?!?

HOLY @#$%^&*! An Eastern whip-poor-will (#248) just called outside the house where I am staying! This is a bird about which I was starting to worry as I am migrating north faster than they are at the moment. Bill Pranty said that the areas along side of railroad tracks can often be good for this species. As luck would have it, the bike path on which I finished my day was built on an old railway bed. I thought the path looked perfect for Whip-poor-will, and I was going to make a predawn run down the bike path (en route to search for Bachman's sparrow at the Croom tract) to look for Whip-poor-will tomorrow morning. It is nice to know that they are around, and I am even more motivated now to go out and see one. While I originally counted many birds as heard ("H" on the running bird list) when I first encountered them in 2014, I have now seen all heard birds minus this Eastern whip-poor-will and King Rail. Yes, "heard only" birds are a bit of a disappointment compared to species actually seen, but this feeling is lessened by the fact that they are on on the year list nonetheless. 

I now want to turn to something about which I thought much today: when does passion turn into obsession? One of the reasons that I returned to look for the Budgerigar today is that I personally cannot stand leaving anything unfinished. For those that have been reading this blog for the last few weeks, you will recall my behavior during my Mangrove cuckoo search. I rode many, many extra miles to find this one bird (which I never did, at least by my own standards). The problem in the birding equation is that the diligence of the birder is only one of the two main variables - the sought bird being the other. Scientist Louis Pasteur once said that "Chance favors only the prepared mind." Basically, you have to put yourself in position in order for something fortuitous to occur. To some degree this is certainly true; Zero rare species will be observed from you sofa. However, even infinite time in the field cannot guarantee a sighting of a rare bird; It's not how probability works. There is always going to be a degree of uncertainty in birding, and no mater how hard any individual "birds", this amount of uncertainty will never reach zero for those most desired species. Knowing then that there is such a large amount of chance in birding, why do I (and many other birders) take it so personally when desired species were missed. Why do we get upset about outcomes over which we do not have total control? This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just a critical point about which I spent a lot of time thinking today.

To go one step further, I realized that my previous career in science is much like birding. I would spend hours upon hours in my lab doing experiments that would hopefully permit me to conclude something meaningful and novel about the cellular processes which I was investigating. The problem, again, was that much of this was dependent on chance. Given a list of 50 genes to investigate, how does one pick the 1 or 2 that are ultimately going to be at all interesting? 90% of scientific investigations are uninteresting dead ends, so how does anyone know to work on the interesting 10%? Pasteur's postulate here holds water as well, but surely chance cannot favor every prepared mind. That only happens in that fictional place where all children are of above average intelligence. I spent nights in the lab, gave up my weekends, ignored friends, and eventually drove myself crazy trying to produce meaningful and interesting data. I eventually became so frustrated with the inherent chance that dictated success in science that I left altogether. Birding is also driven by large chance, so why have I not hung up my binoculars as well? Driving 13 hours round-trip (in snow!) to Montreal only to miss Ross' gull is actually unlikely to deter me from doing it again for the same bird. Why is this?

The only answer at which I could arrive is that birding, unlike scientific research, isn't only about results; The process is as important as the results. At the end of the day, the story of the bird chase has to be enough since we acknowledge ahead of time that there is a very distinct possibility that desired bird will not be found. My scientific obsession really hurt my mental health and my outlook on the world. My birding obsession has done exactly the opposite. Each bird I chase is not just another tick mark, but also another potentially interesting story and set of personal contacts that I might make. Ultimately, the real rewards reaped from birding materialize without feathers, and this is why I permit myself these crazed indulgences that others might might see as completely overboard. My current obsession is opening many more doors than it is closing. For that reason, I'll continue on the path that I am currently riding.


  1. Great post, Dorian, and congrats on the budgie! That's definitely an older bird (as you can tell by the fading lines on the crown). So awesome you saw him.

  2. Congratulations on your lifer Budgie! You've got to love a photo where you can see each feather clearly. As you speak of vanishing species, obsession, and the thrill of the chase even against long odds, it begs the question: will you search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? In a few days, you will pass by the Choctawhatchee River, where the team from Auburn University had several sightings and many recordings of (putative) Ivory-bills a few years ago. Since you are doing a big year, I think it is a moral imperative that you make an attempt to find the Holy Grail of American birding while you are in the neighborhood!

  3. Hi Dorian, awesome photo of the Budgie! Like almost all other recent records, it's a male (note the bright azure cere), so hopefully he has a mate that is incubating or brooding. Time will tell; on 20 January 2013,during a random visit to Leslie's yard, I was surprised and pleased to photograph a juvenile male Budgie (the birds breed nearly year-round).

    As for the above,suggestion, the Florida Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports were not definitive and have not been accepted by anybody from outside the search group.

  4. WOW!!!! Congratulations on your life Budgerigar and what an awesome photo. The difference between research in a lab and chasing your life bird is that while outdoors you are reaping the rewards of the miracles of Mother Nature. I'm sure you are encountering the beautiful spring wildflowers along the way. If you really want to challenge your photography skills try taking some closeup photos of some of them. Especially if you can get a butterfly, bee or hummingbird in them.

  5. Just got back from birding on my lunch break.... I started birding 6 months ago, once I got married and caught onto my husband's fascination with birds. I have followed your blog for the past few weeks, ever since it was mentioned in one of the birding newsletters I get. I make sure not to miss any of your blogs! I could talk about birds all day and I don't meet many people who would enjoy that as well, so I love reading your stories. Your line: "the real rewards reaped from birding materialize without feathers" is beautiful!!! My husband and I live in the Inland Empire in California if you need a place to stay in that area! Let me know and I'll email you our contact info.