I usually take my boys out on Saturdays, but the dinginess of the day kept us home until later in the afternoon. At about 2:00 PM, we decided to give it a go. The gray skies and chilling wind would no longer deter us from at least trying to flip a salamander or two.
My phone dinged. As fate would have it, a fantastic Jersey birder sent out to the listserv that a phalarope had been spotted 20 minutes away. I didn't even notice what type of bird it was as EVERY phalarope has avoided me in my three years of focused birding. *It was a Red Phalarope - more on this later. I excitedly told the boys we would have to make a detour and we got on our way immediately.
When I pulled up 20 minutes later, there was already a dozen or more people there. The various human displays - smiling, looking through bins, heads down with an eye on a scope, laughter... all these told me that the bird was still there and my streak would be over within minutes of exiting the vehicle.
We stayed for about 15-20 minutes watching the bird across the pond. The views were satisfying and about as good as I could expect in the situation. A few much-better birders were in the mix, and I talked to them briefly. (I love the birding community.) Despite my best efforts my photos pretty much sucked, but stay tuned...
Ok, so there are many levels to the coolness of this bird. Let me explain for the uninitiated. First, it was my first phalarope - period! Second, it was a lifer (and a lifer that allowed me looks for more than 3 seconds)! Third, I wouldn't call it a nemesis bird but if we are grouping in all the phalaropes, yes I have chased them and missed multiple times. Fourth, and here's the kicker:
Red phalaropes breed way up in the Northern Arctic. This is the only time during their year that they even venture near land. The rest of the time they are out to sea... most of the time many miles. In fact, the only real way to observe them is to take a pelagic birding boat out to sea, vomit a few times, and hope your Captain can put you on the bird. I have not taken a pelagic trip and the one I just tried to sign up for was unfortunately booked solid. :(
But the beauty of birding are the rarities and vagrants. Accidents happen often in birding, allowing the birder to view birds he/she may never have a chance to unless going to extreme measures. With the preceding storms, rarities were popping up everywhere as a lot of birds were thrown off course.
The story for me gets better. My "satisfying" look was apparently not satisfying enough. I decided to get up early and spend a half hour before work this morning trying to refind the bird. Maybe it would be on my side of the pond; maybe the sun would be brighter; maybe it flew off the night before. - All possibilities for sure. I decided to lose an hour of sleep for the gamble.
I arrived as the sun was rising and nothing was active other than a lone Great Blue Heron. No problem, I had some time. I scanned the side of the pond where I had previously observed the bird. Nothing. A fish jumped... not the bird. The sun continued to rise and the clouds parted. The light was not perfect, but even at 7:10, was much better than Saturday's gray afternoon. A flock of tree swallows swooped in and at least the hundreds of them feeding off the water was enjoyable.
I decided to try from the other side of the pond where the grass had been mowed to the edge. I figured I could get a decent look at the bank on my first side, and back into a pocket of reeds I couldn't view. I walked to the edge and began scanning. I tried for better angles and worked my way down the shore line. I came to an opening in the reeds five feet in front of me.
Right there before me, less than twelve feet away, floated a little white, gray, and reddish bird. It looked at me and just floated back and forth, not moving away, as if I wasn't a concern at all. This bird that nests in the Arctic and lives on the ocean was practically at my feet in Allentown, NJ on a 50 degree October morning!
I ended up spending 15 minutes with it before I had to leave for work. It never once moved more than 20 feet from me. I literally crouched down at the water's edge and it swam right by me at arm's length. I could have reached out and grabbed it. Half of my photos were blurry because it was too close for the low end of my lens's reach - 150mm.
My gamble paid off. All I lost was an hour of sleep and I couldn't possibly get a better personal experience with a Red Phalarope without holding it in my hand (something I wouldn't do). I apologize for feeling poetic, however these are the experiences I live for. These are the experiences I will strike out for. These are the experiences I strive for. These are the experiences that would never happen if I had decided not to...
...Step into the outdoors.