For the better part of the past 25 years of bird watching, I have had one pretty common eastern wood warbler that has eluded me: the Connecticut warbler. I've been on the wrong side of the bush from one or more during fall migration at Higbee's Beach in Cape May, NJ. I've rushed to spring reports of these birds in Columbus, Ohio's Greenlawn Cemetery. I've driven the back roads of the North Woods looking and listening in vain.
It had become a joke among my birding pals here in Ohio, especially within the friendly confines of The Ohio Ornithological Society. Jim McCormac, one of Ohio's best, most avid birders has not done a newspaper interview in the past five years where he failed to point out that "one of my very accomplished birding friends--the editor of a major birding magazine--has not seen a certain bird, the Connecticut warbler." He even included this in his board member bio for the OOS website. I have met dozens of beginning birders who have seen the Connecticut warbler. Julie has seen or heard several on our farm here in SE Ohio! But not me. The Connecticut warbler is MY JINX BIRD.
Well those days are OVER, baby!
On Monday morning, June 12, at about 5:50 am, eight miles north of Roseau, MN, I saw my jinx bird and officially broke the jinx.
This sighting came at the end of five days at the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival in Jamestown, ND. And when I found I could not fly out of Fargo, ND on Sunday (nothing affordable available) I picked a Monday afternoon flight and promptly set my sights on breaking this birding curse. I contacted my pal Dave Lambeth, ace birder of Grand Forks, ND and he made some inquiries on my behalf. All the info I needed came in an e-mail from a MN birder named Peder. Check Highway 310 about 8 to 10 miles north of Roseau before 8 am when the bird quit singing.
Well I got to Roseau and to the magical Hwy 310 late in the afternoon of Sunday, June 11 and began looking in all the suggested spots. Lots of great birds in this pine-spruce bog habitat: purple finches, least flycatchers, many wood warblers, but no sign of my jinx bird (other life bird possibilities for me here included great gray owl, spruce grouse, northern three-toed woodpecker and American black-backed woodpecker). I drove my pimped-out rental car to the end of the road, just south of the border crossing into Manitoba. A dirt road lead off to the right, past a sign for a gun club. There were no shots echoing from the club, and no No Trespassing sign (something I always obey when birding) so I drove in.
Thoroughly frustrated with my own "buck fever" for new life birds, I decided to head south to Beltrami State Forest for the remaining three hours of daylight, with a plan to return to this meadow at dusk. I spent a lovely three hours in Beltrami and saw loads of great things (gray jay, veery, black-throated green warbler, white-throated and Lincoln's sparrows, sandhill crane short-eared owl), but none of my quest birds.
Driving back up the gun club road as the sun was setting I noticed some pink-tinged clouds to the north, like a celestial beacon calling me to visit Manitoba, if only to say I'd been there. I made a deal with myself that if I did not see the great gray after scanning the meadow, I'd cross the border and then come back. The fact is, I'd already been there. Earlier in the day I blundered across the border in the middle of the woods, while chasing down a weird flycatcher call note (turned out to be a yellow-bellied).
I climbed back up the shooting bench hill on the rifle range and a bit of motion in a distant tree caught my eye. A large raptor had just flown up to a perch and was struggling to get its footing. I looked with my 10x binocs and could see that it was huge and gray, but the dim light and the distance kept me from an identification. I sprinted to the car for my scope, cursed the engineer who designed the locks that LOCK when the car is put in drive but don't UNLOCK when the car is put back into park! Fumbled for my keys, precious seconds ticking away.....
Grabbed the scope, twisted my ankle sprinting back up the hill, and cursing the pain and the lock engineer, set up the scope on a GREAT GRAY OWL LEAVING THE PERCH! I mumble the species' name over and over something like this: that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! that's a *&$#^@ great gray owl! Then I danced a pathetic sort of jig on my one good leg. Oh the joy, But the bird was gone, into the woods at the end of a meadow, perhaps 500 yards away. I knew I had to go after it. This was a look but not a LOOK. Plus my digiscoping trigger finger started itching....
Down a rutted ATV path I went, half limping, half running. This ankle had been bothering me since a Saturday field trip for the OOS in late April, and so far no one has been able to tell me what's wrong. It's an annoyance rather than debilitating so I was not going to let it prevent me from trying to see this bird of a lifetime. One additional problem...the path went through the scrubby woods, and there was no wind in there--what was there was an army of mosquitoes like I have never encountered. Of course I had no bug spray. Again an annoyance, not reason enough to quit on this owl. Four hundred and fifty yards later, the owl flew past me heading in the opposite direction. I lost sight of it for the next 10 minutes, giving the encroaching night just enough time to finish off the remaining daylight, rendering digiscoping a nearly moot exercise.
Then I saw the owl. Perched not 50 feet from my parked car. Back over to the path, which offered me a defilade approach--I could get closer to the bird without it seeing me. Back down the path I went, huffing, puffing, saying my transcendental meditation mantra to keep myself calm. And finally, at the edge of the path, I emerged and there was my bird, looking me dead in the eye from 50 yards away. I set up the scope and took some hopeless digiscoped shots. I gazed at the bird, its eyes looking right through me. It was not interested in me, it was interested in food for nestlings. Several hunting plunges yielded nothing, so the great gray flew to the edge of the woods, and I snapped a few more images. My God what a creature! And I'd found it myself.
And then the bird was gone and no amount of scanning in the foreclosing dusk could reconjure it. I sighed a satisfied sigh, slapped aimlessly at my neckful of mosquitoes, and decided to drink a toast to this owl. I raised a bottle of beer in its honor, then headed for my hotel, satisfied that the day was mine.
It gets dark late and gets light early in the Great North. I was out of the hotel by 4:45 heading up Hwy 310. At the 8-mile marker I heard my bird, a male Connecticut warbler in full voice. I stopped, I scanned, I slapped at more mosquitoes. The bird sang on, unseen. Peder, the helpful MN birder had said "the bird will most likely be perched 20 feet up in a jack pine right next to the trunk." If this bird was singing from where he sounded like he was singing, he must've been dressed in his pine-cone costume from last Halloween. I could not find him.
So I decided to go after him. Problem was there was an eight-foot wide creek with very muddy banks between us. I found the narrowest point and made a leap, remembering in mid-air my bad right ankle. What fools we birders be. I am still shocked that my scream of pain did not scare away every bird within a mile. But I was across and I pulled my boots out of the sucking mud and scrambled up the bank. The ground between me and my singing jinxster was bog at its finest. Treacherous footing, many downed trees, deep sinkholes, and isolated islands of ferns and grasses. Slowly I made my way toward the loud, persistent singer and as I did I realized that the birds I thought were just across the creek were actually singing really loudly from back in the woods about 50 yards.
Yet I was not to be denied. I got to where the bird seemed to be almost overhead and scanned intently while I caught my breath. A tick crawled across my neck, shooing mosquitoes from their intense work. I let them have their way with me. This was a crucial moment in my bird watching life. And there he was. Or at least there his beautiful back end was. The first part of the Connecticut warbler to help me break this jinx was his, well, ass. I could not see the head and this bird wears all its field marks on its head.
So I had to move. And that was hard. I did not want to lose the bird, spook him, and be left with only the ass of a Connecticut warbler for my life list. That would hardly lift the jinx. I could only imagine what Jim McCormac would say: "Yeah Bill is a birding pervert, he only looks at the asses of life birds...." No that would never do.
And so I tiptoed through the boggy woods, around to the left, where the angle and light would be in my favor. I refound the perch and the bird was GONE! I said a bad word and then another. Just then a movement caught my eye and there was my guy, just feet away. And the eeriest feeling came over me: He's come to say hello!
I was overcome with joy as I watched this hooded sprite cavort atop the moss-covered logs. His eyering a perfect white circle, his huge (for a warbler) proportions perfectly Oporornis. Thank you, my tiny friend! He flew halfway back up a tree and perched for ten (10!) minutes singing and looking at me. I snapped off some pretty poor digis and said my second prayer of thanks to the birding gods in the past 24 hours. Being before 6 am, I did not toast this lifer with another beer, though the thought did cross my mind.
It was a moment to savor. I only wish I could've shared it with Julie, Jim, Dave, Tim, Patti, and so many other great bird watching companions.
Two things happened to me on the way back out of the bog. I fell and twisted my right ankle between to fallen trees that were buried under thick grass. And for a few minutes I thought I'd have to shout for help, though there would be no traffic on the road for two more hours, when the border opened at 8 am. I even checked my cellphone in case I needed to call someone--no reception. After about 15 minutes, the pain and throbbing subsided and I started moving slowly toward the creek. Getting back across proved more of a chore. Because I could neither push off nor land with my right ankle, I had to build a bridge of stepping stones across. For stones I used pieces of logs. For balance I used my tripod and scope. I made it, only sinking once up to my shins in the mud. On the other side, I made it to the car and sat for a spell.
For the first time in 25 years I was without a jinx bird. It felt weird.