Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Nemesis Birds Conquered...and Mourned

Sometime last year I first heard the term "nemesis bird" and thought it was a humorous description for a bird that always eludes its pursuer.  Then I got my first nemesis bird, and all the sudden it wasn't so funny any more. As a relatively new birder last spring, I ate up migration.  My life list grew by more than 400%.  Many days resulted in multiple life birds with one epic warbler fallout that resulted in over 20 life birds in a day.  But there was one that I just kept missing - one fairly common bird that should have been easily found in mixed flocks of migrating songbirds. The Blue-headed Vireo.

I wanted to see this bird bad.  It wasn't just some tick on my life list.  With that bold, white eye-ring, sharp blue head, and yellowish/greenish body, this was one sweet-looking bird that I just had to see.  No matter how many times I birded, I just never saw it.  One day last spring I was walking into a local birding patch as my buddy was walking out.  He said he saw two Blue-headed Vireos not too far away.  I scoured the woods and mucked my way through a tangled, swampy area to get to the right spot. Nothing.  

The fact that this was a "common" migrant that many other area birders saw regularly only increased the power of its nemesis status.  Day after day I would go birding just to look for this one bird, all the while feeling the pressure of migration's impending conclusion.  I was running out of time.  Would I get my bird?

Migration ended without an encounter with the vireo.  But I still I had hope.  I had a planned summer camping trip to northern Minnesota where this bird nests and can "easily" be found.  I saw many reports of it for where I was headed.  But despite finding another life bird that was approaching nemesis status, the Black-throated Green Warbler, and seeing a rare regular life bird for our state, the Black-throated Blue Warbler, I couldn't scratch out one Blue-headed Vireo.
The Black-throated Green Warbler at Minnesota's Temperance River State Park - an Almost-Nemesis Bird
The Black-throated Blue Warbler at Minnesota's Oberg Mountain - not even close to being a Nemesis Bird,
            but a dang-nice bird for our state!
I left northern Minnesota angrier at this bird than ever.  It had evolved into a diabolical nemesis bird. How could it be that in the past few months I had seen such great birds as a Yellow-throated Warbler, a Blue Grosbeak, and a Great Gray Owl but not one common Blue-headed Vireo?

Well, in the midst of fall migration, it finally happened. And on my birthday, too.  I caught a 3-second glimpse of a beautiful Blue-headed Vireo! A good photo always clinches a life bird for me, but I just couldn't get one. Now this bird had moved into photography-nemesis status.  Several weeks later I raced to my friend's house to try to photograph one in his yard.  Yes, we saw the bird.  But no picture.

Finally on one beautiful October day I bumped into another Blue-headed Vireo and managed to eek out a bad, albeit recognizable photo:

My nemesis no more - the Blue-headed Vireo
Because I crave a good picture, I still have a gnawing inside me to see this bird again. It still feels very unfinished.

I didn't have to wait long to get a new nemesis bird.  In addition to Blue-headed Vireos, I had also missed on Golden-crowned Kinglets last spring.  To my credit, though, they aren't common in our area during spring migration but can easily be found during fall migration.  Once again, though, I found myself being the only one who couldn't find this easy migrant. One friend said he had two in his yard and so the good locations should be holding birds.  I went immediately. No luck. 

Then I had to travel to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.  This was good news.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are much easier to find in this part of the state.  Facebook birders advised me to try a couple of locations in the Twin Cities, but they said I shoud be able to see them in most any tree. I went. I birded. I failed. This was getting frustrating.

From the Cities I had to go to northern Minnesota.  The famed Sax-Zim Bog was on my way, and Golden-crowned Kinglets had been reported there on eBird just a day ago. Though I hiked and drove for miles, I couldn't turn one up.  To aggrevate matters, my friend back home texted me saying he found some in our town. Great.

I birded that location when I got back home a couple days later.  It was dead.  I started to resign myself to having to wait until next spring to resume the search.  But the next weekend, I was compelled to make one last-ditch effort for this little bugger.  This bird was in my head - taunting me. I hopped in my car and went back to that spot where my friend had seen them.  No luck again.  I decided to go to one last location to pursue this aggrevating little bird. On my way, another birding friend texted me saying he just had two Golden-crowned Kinglets in his yard.  I was literally two blocks away from his house when I got the message.  I wheeled into his driveway immediately and hopped out to search his trees.  His yard was a ghost-town for birds.  You've got to be kidding me.  My timing was perfect this time, but I just missed.

I went to my last location, a cemetery, and was hoping for a spark of life.  I drove through this massive place slowly and stopped once to investigate what sounded like my bird. My ears (or my eyes) must have fooled me because I didn't see it. I was about to leave the cemetery, but I thought I'd do one more loop. I just couldn't give up, especially since my friend saw some kinglets this morning.  They were still in our area.

Then I spotted movement in a spruce tree.  The movement looked right. The sound seemed correct. The habitat was textbook. I pulled up the binoculars.  The Golden-crowned Kinglet! And there wasn't just one, but close to a dozen!
The Golden-crowned Kinglet!!

The thrill of victory was incredible.  I was on a bird-high all day.  I had conquered my nemesis, and it felt good. I never picked this fight, but I finished it.

Something happened later, though, that I never expected: I felt a sense of loss. My fights were over. That vireo and kinglet were a driving force that pushed me out the door to go birding.  Now the focus was gone. The intensity wouldn't be the same. I found myself missing the gut-churning that went along with the internal question of "Will I ever see this bird?" 

Currently I have no nemesis bird.  There are some candidates, but the search hasn't been nearly long or frustrating enough to classify them as that status. While I'm not eager to get a new nemesis bird, I will savor the next one because I discovered that the thrill of the hunt is just as much fun as the reward.

Josh Wallestad writes about his birding adventures with his 6-year-old son, Evan, on his birding blog, A Boy Who Cried Heron.  He also has created a national birding website, called Birding Across America, to help birders find their nemesis birds and other great finds wherever they go.


  1. Josh, this is a great read and what a great find! You and Chris Rohrer share some birding traits in common! How happy I am that you finally found your bird and that you also discovered that the fun is in the birding! Nice pics!

  2. We can all relate to this! It's interesting though that once seen the bird often seems to be everywhere after that. The good thing about bird photography though, is that there is always a better/different photo to be tried for so that hunt will remain.

  3. This sounds like me:) My nemesis birds were the Merlin(of all Arizona, it's not as easy to find) and the Elegant Trogon. And you're absolutely correct, after finding the nemesis, there's a sense of loss. However, there are so many birds out there that I have yet to see.....the Olive Warbler still evades me and is, I believe, the next Nemesis candidate:)

  4. I truly enjoyed reading this wonderful post, Josh! I can relate. Even though I have caught a couple of glimpses of three handsome Blue-headed Vireos, I have yet to get a decent photograph, so I am still yearning for a good sighting. So glad to hear you were able to find those two elusive nemesis birds. Currently, my nemesis bird is a Snow Bunting. I always seem to just miss seeing them. Tomorrow, I will search again. Pretty images!