23 December 2008

Top Ten Birds

One of the most frequent questions I get about my Cache County big year is, "What was the best bird you saw?" That question is hard to answer, but when I think of the best bird several things enter in to the decision. Rarity is of course a big one, both rarity in the state, rarity in the county, and rarity to me. The quality of the look also contributes - a beautiful adult male in breeding plumage that poses nearby on top of a rock will score higher than a drab juvenile skulking in the weeds, and both will score higher than a call note from a bird I never saw. There is also some pride involved - birds found by me will score higher than those that were first found by others. Finally, there's a completely ambiguous "coolness" factor. My coolness scale might not match with yours: for example, I love gulls. With the caveat that it's all subjective, of course, and with those vague criteria in mind, here are the ten best birds of 2008. When I have them available, I've also shown photos that have not appeared on this blog before.

10. Snow Bunting. This is a species I'd heard a lot about but never seen before this year. It was quite a treat to be able to pick a couple of them out of a distant flock very early in the year.

9. Northern Waterthrush. I don't know why, but this bird had attracted my attention for a long time. I just thought it was so weird to imagine a warbler running along the side of a stream. And when I finally saw one this year, it was as exciting as I thought it would be. I got decent looks when I found it, but got much better looks the next day. It was nice to be able to share this one with some other local birders. This was a lifer for me and one that is seen only once every few years in the county.

8. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. This is another species I had often dreamed of seeing before this year. I think they probably occur in the valley in some small numbers each year, but they're not seen each year. The looks were distant, but the birds were cooperative enough to get some good looks and it was neat to pick out at least two subspecies in the flock. I had tried for this species elsewhere several times, and missed each time, so this was also a lifer.

7. Band-tailed Pigeon. This is a rare species in the valley, but not a rare species for me, as they are relatively common in Washington. This one was special for several reasons. It is rare in the valley, being seen only once every five years or so. I also saw/heard what was probably the same individual twice, once was great looks with my friend Craig Faulhaber, who has since moved away, and the second time I heard it on a very special camping trip with my girlfriend a week or two later in the same area.

6. White-winged Crossbill. This was a hard-earned lifer. This species probably occurs in the county each year, but isn't seen each year. I had to search through hundreds of Red Crossbills to finally find one of these, just when I was about to give up hope. This was also the species with which I tied the previous Cache County year record, adding a certain something to my memory of the sighting.

5. Mew Gull. This was the first really big find of the year, although certainly not the last. I was photographing gulls so that I could practice identifying them at home from the photos, and I snapped a few shots of this bird as it circled around and landed in a small pond. The photos didn't match any gull I was considering a possibility, so I sent the photos to some birding friends who told me that I had photographed the second Mew Gull ever seen in the county. This sighting was later highlighted in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, and featured one of my photos!

4. Glossy Ibis. Craig and I had been joking about finding this species in Cache County. This species had only been seen twice before in the county, and both sightings may have been the same individual. At the time it was also the first record for the state. This species seems to be expanding its range in the United States, or at least there are more and more records of vagrancy, so maybe it shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. But it was certainly a surprise, and finding this bird made it worthwhile to have been carefully examining all the White-faced Ibis I had been seeing all summer.

3. Iceland Gull. I wish I had found this bird, but at least I can claim to be the first one to identify it, which counts for something in my opinion. Jason Pietrzak emailed me photos of this bird for me to help identify, and I could tell it was one of two species, either a Glaucous Gull or an Iceland Gull. After some studying and thinking, I thought it was probably an Iceland Gull, but it wasn't until I found it the next morning that my thoughts were confirmed. If this is accepted by the records committee, this will be a first state record.

2. Whip-poor-will. This species was a first state record, and it was almost mine (kindof). Craig, Stephanie, and I were on our way up to the end of Green Canyon on a random Thursday night because we weren't hearing many owls lower down the canyon. On our way up, we passed Ron Ryel racing down to notify us of this great find. He found this bird about a half hour before we almost certainly would have. I don't mind, really. It was great just to hear it, and I'm glad I got to share it with those three people. This loud and persistent first state record claims the number two best-bird-of-the-year spot.

1. Mississippi Kite. Because this was a first state record and because I found it, this bird takes the top spot. It could've been better, if I had gotten photographs or if more other people had found the bird after me, but it also scored bonus points for being a raptor and a lifer. It was a big year for wandering Mississippi Kites. Several states had first records, I believe, and New Hampshire's first record ever included a successfully breeding pair!

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