Today’s topic is failure. Failure is the constant companion of birders. If this column ever gives you the impression that all of my adventures are successful, let’s squash that notion right now.
For instance, last Saturday’s Finch Fest was finchless. This Maine Audubon day trip to the working forest west of Baxter State Park was the reprise of a similar trip exactly one year earlier. Last year, birders enjoyed many hundreds of white-winged crossbills, scores of red crossbills, and at least a thousand pine siskins. At times, the finches were so numerous that the cacophony was deafening. The mix of finches varies from winter to winter. In some winters, our resident American goldfinches and pine siskins go south. Sometimes they stick around. In some winters, common redpolls come down from the north and join them or replace them. The point is, there are usually lots of finches in winter.
But not last Saturday. Where last year there had been thousands of finches, this year our total number of finch sightings during Finch Fest was zero. Failure.
For better or worse, I could see failure coming. For instance, most crossbills left the state last autumn after their food supply was exhausted. Crossbills are cone eaters. Cone production is cyclical. In some years, spruce trees produce big cone crops. In a subsequent year, conditions are good for growth, poor for cones. Crossbills react by just wandering to wherever the food is. Last year was a bad cone year and the birds departed for greener pastures, so I knew I had one strike against me.
Then, on the morning of the trip, I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of a howling wind. The sound tormented me for two sleepless hours before it was time to rise and face the truth: birds are quiet, less active, and harder to find in high wind. Strike two.
By the time our group of intrepid birders arrived in Millinocket, it was clear that winter was still in charge. It was cold, lakes were frozen, and the woods remained full of snow. We would have a limited range of places to explore. Strike three.
Even despite unfavorable conditions, I expected we’d see a number of finches. I just didn’t expect that number to be zero.
Fortunately, failure is my friend. We get along well together. Failure has taught me how to be a better birder and I’ve taught failure how to soften its blow. The finchless finch fest still delivered some good sightings on the day. We spent more time searching in good spruce habitat for boreal chickadees and gray jays, and we were greeted by active pairs of both.
Cavorting eagles entertained us, hooded mergansers intrigued us, and common goldeneyes were, well, common. On one stop, we were just disembarking from the van on the Telos Road when a rough-legged hawk flew over. A scant few of these Canadian breeders steal into Maine each winter. I only see one or two a year. Upon seeing this one, I immediately cried, “red-tailed hawk.”
See, that’s something else I’ve learned from failure: don’t be afraid to be wrong. It took me only a moment to realize the true identity of the hawk and correct my first impression. Meanwhile, my cry had alerted everyone that there was a cool raptor overhead. I have a set of rules for all of my trips, and my first instruction is: “Be wrong fast.” I’d rather risk embarrassment and get everybody looking in the right direction, then delay too long for a confirmed identification and have everybody miss it. There’s always time to correct a first impression but often not enough time to get a first glimpse.
Failure teaches us to be better birders. For instance, you might see a large nocturnal raptor and tell me that you’ve seen a great gray owl. I will doubt that, because barred owls are very common and often mistaken for great gray owls by inexperienced birders. I will ask you what color the eyes were. You won’t know because you didn’t look. Barred owls have black eyes, while all other owls in Maine have yellow eyes. You didn’t know that before, but you do now. You will also learn to look for a little white bowtie under the chin of the great gray owl.
Birding authority Pete Dunne once said, “The difference between a beginning birder and an experienced one is that beginning birders have misidentified very few birds. Experienced birders have misidentified thousands.”
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.