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The 5 Stages of Bird List Grief

June 17, 2008

I got back from a trip to New York City about a week ago. It was a cultural trip with my non-birding wife, and we mostly took in the big tourist sights like the Empire State Building, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge, Katz’ Deli on the Lower East Side, the Natural History Museum, and even a couple TV show tapings. Great fun actually.

On the 3rd, we spent a good portion of the day in and around Central Park. I knew going in that there was some decent birding to be had in a few of the areas, so I brought my binos, “just in case”. And I’m glad I did – even though I had to do my usual hemming and hawing to my wife about why I had them and why I wanted to go this particular route through the park. Fortunately, she’s pretty accommodating, and I don’t have to debase myself too much to get what I want.

We took a route through an area called “The Ramble”, and just as we started to enter, I heard a sound that I’d never before heard in the field. But it was one that I had heard frequently on my “More Birding By Ear” recordings by the Peterson’s Guide. It was an unmistakable thrush song, Bicknell’s Thrush! Quickly I scrambled over to the area where the song was coming from, and not long after I got a few views of the bird in question. How exciting! I wasn’t at all expecting to find this species on this trip, so what a great bonus to add to my newly-formed New York state list, which would only have a couple dozen species on it, but at least one new life bird!

One thing bugged me though – how did I know it wasn’t a Gray-cheeked Thrush? Come to think of it, I had no idea what their song was like. Is it similar? Would either of these species be singing if they weren’t on territory? Lots of questions, and few answers to be found in my NYC guidebook. Well, I had to wait until I got home to look this stuff up. I eventually got home and began my investigation.

And if you are a knowledgeable East Coast birder, you can probably imagine my disappointment when I realized that Gray-cheeked Thrush does indeed sound a lot like Bicknell’s. In fact, there’s only one really helpful sound trait you can use to separate them in the field. And I probably heard it too – the problem is, I didn’t remember it! I wasn’t even paying attention to those crucial notes at the time, because I hadn’t bothered to study the two species before I left for the trip. Who’da thought I’d be hearing any thrush songs in Central Park?

At this point, I should have known that I wasn’t going to be able to count this as a Bicknell’s. But I wasn’t ready for that. I had to go through the Kübler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief first apparently.

(Denial)

Well, I tried ruling one or the other out, based on the likelihood of singing away from their breeding territories. I thought maybe I could just eliminate Gray-cheeked just because it was much further from its usual breeding grounds than the Bicknell’s, which breed in upstate New York. If only it were that easy – Birds of North America as well as a couple different comments over email from knowledgeable East Coast birders informed me that either one could well sing during migration. And as far as field appearance goes, as good a look as I got, it wasn’t nearly enough for me to see any clearly distinguishing traits. I knew it wasn’t a Hermit or Swainson’s, or even a Wood. But that’s as much as I could say.

(Anger)

I felt annoyed that I may not be able to count this as a life bird after all. (I already have Gray-cheeked in Colorado and Florida.) The supporting evidence I had used so confidently to call this a Bicknell’s was falling away, leaving only uncertainly and ambiguity. I had already gone to the trouble of adding it to all my lists! Like hell if I’m going to take it off again!

(Bargaining)

So, given that Gray-cheeked generally occurs on more days in May and June than Bicknell’s, it’s likely that I heard the former instead of the latter. Of course it isn’t ruled out completely – part of me still thinks I heard a rising note at the end. So maybe it was a Bicknell’s! How about if I take off a different species from my life list, like Robin or something? Wouldn’t that balance things out?

(Depression)

Bummer.

(Acceptance)

Well, in the greater scheme of things, I’d rather add a life bird to my list knowing without a doubt that it was that species, instead of scurrilously adding a bird with doubt, just to pump up the list. I’ll just have to make a dedicated trip up to the Northeast some day and look and listen for Bicknell’s properly. Dang it.

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