Monday, August 26, 2013

Where there is a Nemesis, there must also be a Hero

When flocks of bird nerds get together, they fill the air with stories and tails, discussions of past sightings, future sightings, ornithological taxonomical distinctions and splits, migrations, and all manner of other things that involve the esoteric jargon that comes with any serious past time. One of the more common idioms, one with which even the most casual or greenhorn birders are familiar, is the dreaded "Nemesis Bird." Some of the best birding stories, even the best birding blogs, have to do with the big misses relating to a Nemesis Bird, a bird one has repeatedly tried and failed to see. In many cases birders have multiple Nemesis Birds, and they may spend many years and dollars trying to find them. The Nemesis Bird weighs heavily on a birder's mind, influencing trips and confidence, determining whether or not one has a successful outing even quite apart from any other birds that are seen.

Of course, every good story needs some sort of adversary, some sort of challenge, and the Nemesis Bird, as a concept, holds a high place in the birding lexicon and identity. Inversely, I want to posit that there is another bird, the protagonist, who may often be under-appreciated, who is less often mentioned in the stories or put on the pedestal.
Enter the Hero Bird, the stoic, tragic characters(s) in many birders' lives, who saves one birding outing after another and may never get the full credit it is due--certainly none of the attention and hype that Nemesis Bird receives.

The Hero Bird is more difficult to define. It's the bird that makes the trip when the lifers or nemeses don't show. It's not so common that it's boring or blasé, but it's still a reliable and delightful find when it judiciously reveals itself. Deciding on one's Hero Bird is tricky, because the rarity if the birds must be taken into consideration as well as the other circumstances and frequency of the sightings.

For example, Cardinals are always a pleasure to see, but I doubt many people would identify a Cardinal as their Hero Bird because in most locales where they're seen, they're so common that they don't serve as a singular, standout sighting. The Hero Bird must allow great looks, better perhaps than one might expect, or better than one has heard of other birders having. The Hero Bird makes an otherwise mediocre trip, one without lifers or super sightings, into a fulfilling adventure. The Hero Bird is not necessarily rare, nor necessarily common, but it feels like a blessing every time it's seen. Like a comic book superhero, the Hero Bird doesn't appear all the time and save the day, but it shows up often enough, or in the most desperate of circumstances.

Trying to think of my own Hero Birds, at first I speculated it may be the Le Conte's Thrasher. This is an uncommon bird, one not widely distributed, and I've been able to find it every time I've tried, including several trips with out-of-state birders who've gotten in touch specifically to find that bird.
It's not a guaranteed sighting and it's a local specialty, but I've always had luck with the Le Conte's. However, I've never seen this Thrasher anywhere but in the little Thrasher spot out in Buckeye. While it's a reliable sighting, it will never show up to save the day, or at least it never has, when I've been birding elsewhere in Arizona. Le Conte's Thrasher, you are a great bird, but you are not my Hero.

As I thought about it more, I realized that I probably don't have the greatest Hero Birds, in part because I'm not a great birder and haven't gone on lots of great birding trips. Then, on further meditation, I realized that my two probably Hero Birds are indeed great. Bird names never lie or mislead, after all.
My two Hero Birds are the Great Horned Owl, and the Greater Roadrunner.

These birds are big and badass, but that alone doesn't seal the deal. Neither the Greater Roadrunner nor the Great Horned Owl are rarities, but I don't see them every time I go birding either--it's vitally important that a Hero Bird isn't overly available, or else all the mystique is lost. But when I see them, I tend to get very close up views and good photos.
I walked under this Great Horned Owl after spending hours trying to turn up a rare reported sparrow at the DBG. I had no luck with the rare bird, nor did anyone else I talked too, but the Great Horned made the trip absolutely worth it. This isn't the only time a GHO has shown up and saved a failed chase. Owls already have a lot going for them, and a visual always has a big impact. I'd venture that many people could find the Great Horned to be one of their Hero Birds. They combine awe and availability almost perfectly.

The Greater Roadrunner also happens to be one of my favorite birds. I feel satisfied with my photo collection of it, and have had some amazingly crushing views, including when a Roadrunner ran across my feet on a trail in east Phoenix, and also massacred a Mourning Dove chick mere feet away at the DBG (pictured below). Roadrunners aren't regarded as particularly skittish, but many is the birder I've spoken too who bemoans their lack of good, prolonged Roadrunner sightings. I've got 99 bird problems, but quality time with the Greater Roadrunner ain't one of them.

So, do you have a Hero Bird. What bird has given you almost undue, face-melting looks, on multiple occasions? What bird has shown up, time and again, when it seemed the morning was  over, the afternoon doldrums were setting in, and the birding trip was a bust?
For many birders, finding and conquering our Nemeses Birds are some of the most defining and memorable moments. Let us also recognize the Heroes.


  1. This is a great question......Hero Birds. It's true that there are certain birds that make me stop and look everytime I see them. Great Horned(or any owl for that matter) always turn my head 360 degrees around:) As does the Lesser Nighthawk and Roadrunner. If I see one while I'm not birding, I still mark it down on the incidental reporting. I think the hero bird would be the Black-throated Gray Warbler and the Common Black Hawk or Zonie.

    1. Hey! Black-throated Gray Warbler is a good one. I don't quite seem them often enough for an overall Hero Bird for me, but within the western Warbler options I'd say it's the most heroic.

      Common Black spoiled : )

  2. Laurence awesome post!

    My hero bird would have to be the E.T. It saved us from Spotted Owl heart ache and me from my first day of Mexican Chickadee misses. The Elegant Trogon. And it really seems like an Extra Terrestrial hero from another planet, which is technically Mexico.

    1. Thanks for chiming in Tommy. You're totally right, the Elegant Trogon is like Superman, with a strong red breast/chest and other-worldly powers of shock and awe. I
      can't include it for myself, having only seen the birds on two occasions, but that sighting in Patagonia, and subsequent photo-op, is one of my best birding memories in the last several years, and you're totally right, it totally saved our failed Spotted Owl pursuit, though we did have lots of other good stuff.

      I must also add--and I hesitate to speak for anyone here--one of your Hero Birds must also be the Northern Pygmy Owls!

  3. What a great concept, Laurence! Like you, thinking about this I came up with several candidates.

    My too-common bird is definitely Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Every day is a good day with Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.

    The other side of that coin are Barrow's Goldeneye (I find them only rarely outside of the Bill Williams Delta, but they really make my day anywhere), and Golden Eagle (I don't bird their habitat often, but when I do they usually are just about the only highlight). Nutting's Flycatcher also comes to mind...

    So that leaves me with a list of birds that I don't have on every outing, but they're reliable in the right season and really make a day worthwhile. These include Costa's Hummingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat and Summer Tanager (which I can hear every day in the summer, but actually see much less often), Black Tern, and Lawrence's Goldfinch. Lawrence's Goldfinch, I think, is the winner.

    Also--if Northern Pygmy-Owl is Tommy's Hero Bird, then Tommy must be my hero! Or at least good luck charm! :)

    1. Hey Lauren!

      Seesh, having Nutting's Flycatcher as a Hero Bird...that's something you can lord over just about all the rest of North America : )

      That's a good distinction to bring up to, pertaining to habitats and the limitations they bring. I mentioned the Le Conte's Thrasher being a Hero Bird of sorts, and while it's always a highlight and is reliable, like your Golden Eagle, it's only one of 11 or 12 birds I'll see out there in the sage desert anyway.

      I don't see Yellow-breasted Chats nearly as much as I should. Lawrence's Goldfinch though...that sounds like a perfect hero bird, and a really solid one considering their small size and erratic movement.

      Tommy and the Northern's uncanny. He turns them up every time he's on Mt. Ord, and has nests pinpointed up in the white Mountains. Next time you're in Phoenix you'll have to team up with the King of the Mountain (Ord).

      Thanks for contributing.

  4. Laurence, nice take on an old problem. I don't let myself get too cuaght up in finding rarities or nemisis birds becuase I think there are always "hero" birds to make the trip worthwhile. Chris and I had just that experience a few days ago when we went birding at a local park. While we saw mostly the usual parkland species, we did find a pair of Spotted Sandpipers that made the trip extra special because they were my first sighting of them in Pima County this year! Later, on a drive down Woodland Road we spotted an unexpected female summer tanager. On that day they were my hero's, but it can be different birds for different location. On our trip to the White Mountains one of my heroes was finding a House wren on the Butler Nature trail. While not uncommon, it was the only one we saw on the whole trip.

    This post was a fun read with an interesting concept and gorgeous photos of the owl. I could do without the bloody beak on the roadrunner, however! ;-) (Can you say, Velociraptor?)Actually, it is a very good shot as well.

    1. Thanks for contributing Kathie.

      The similarities between Roadrunners and Velociraptors are shocking!
      That's an important point you bring up to, that even if we all have some general Hero Birds, there are also those who rise to the occasion on certain trips, either because they were unexpected, or maybe they showed some interesting behavior, or were new for the county or year.


  5. Laurence,

    Okay, so first of all, this line cracked me up: " part because I'm not a great birder..."

    Yeah, whatever.

    Second, my hero bird would be the Ring-necked Pheasant. Not always a guarantee but oh what a joy to always see. Especially when in bright green tall grass. And if he lets me get a picture before he scurries away.

    Yeah, that.

    1. Pheasant...nice one Accidental Birder.

      When that bird shows up in Arizona...people will go nuts!

  6. Hmm, in Utah I would have to say my hero bird is the American Kestrel but on Antelope Island it is Burrowing Owls. In Montana I'd have to say my hero birds are Red-tailed Hawks. I have seasonal heroes too.

    1. Ah, regional and seasonal heroes. That is an important consideration too Mia. After all, Batman can't be your hero if you don't live in Gotham City.