It’s not often that birding becomes an adventure sport, but some birds are worth chasing. And by chasing, I mean sliding through mud, crossing creeks and coming home slightly battered and dirty. But there’s a pride to showing-off the scrapes and bruises acquired in the pursuit of an elusive bird.
One doesn’t usually associate birding with an adrenaline rush, but believe me – it happens! When friends and I learned that a Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) was lurking in the Hamilton area one April weekend, we knew that a chase was in our near future. This visitor from the south rarely graces southern Ontario, and though it resembles our more common northern waterthrush, I couldn’t resist the chance to see a lifer.
We arrived to hear the Louisiana waterthrush singing enthusiastically – crisp whistled call notes – but couldn’t see the bird. All we could determine was that the sound came from deep inside the valley, down a steep hill, up another one, nestled in the trees across from us. Without saying a word, we all began moving in the direction of the bird. Careful walking quickly gave way to traipsing and slipping through muddy leaves and crossing a creek, some of us missing stones and stepping into ankle-deep water. Once we arrived on the other side, we realized that the bird had fluttered away, back to where we had started, and soon enough we heard its song on the other side of the creek.
Birding can sometimes be a perilous business, but we refused to give up. I’ll admit to questioning my sanity a few times, as my muddy, wet and cold feet creaked their way through tangled branches. But there was no turning back. We were on the hunt. And soon enough we caught sight and sound of the Louisiana waterthrush high up in a tree, singing operatically. I marveled at his creamy white eyebrow and the brown streaks on its belly.
The funny thing is that if had I seen this bird under ordinary circumstances – from the side of the road – I would have considered it to be a drab specimen, resembling every other thrush I had seen. The Louisiana waterthrush is hardly a show-stopper. It lacks the bright cachet of a scarlet tanager or even the severe chic of a black-and-white warbler. But because it had taken us the better part of two hours to find this bird, I considered it a splendid specimen and never tired of watching its brownish back glisten in the late morning sun.
Finding the bird required skill, faith and a tremendous amount of perseverance. Though I love getting to know the common birds in my midst, the opportunity to chase (and find) a rarity is nothing short of exhilarating.
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.