Recently my son Jack and I were exploring some areas of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a place I’ve been birding for some 15 years. There is a place called the Manatee Observation Deck positioned along Haulover Canal. It’s not a frequent stop for me during my usual romps, but the drawbridge over the canal was going up. Happy to delay the end of our trip instead of waiting for the boat traffic to pass, we opted to have a look around the M.O.D.
We wandered onto a short trail adjacent to the parking lot where some usual suspects (northern cardinal, northern parula and a white-eyed vireo) were flitting around. The white-eyed vireo was coming in closer. Although it’s a common species here, I don’t take them for granted, and we waited to see if it would appear for a quick photograph or two. A few minutes had passed when I noticed a warbler up high in an oak. It was pretty breezy and the bird was 30 feet up, so I put my binoculars on it for a look. I gasped with excitement, and Jack was eager to know why. I whispered, “It’s a Kirtland’s Warbler!”
I quickly lifted the camera for a few shots to preserve the moment, switching to manual focus just to catch even a quick identifiable shot in between all the quivering leaves. All the while, natural instinct kicked in and the little voice in my head started to question, “What else could it be? I’m not that lucky….” and so on.
Upon returning home and after the obligatory inquiry to a trusted birder to further compound my self-doubt, subsequent postings and phone calls to let others know about this exciting find, I was explaining a bit about Kirtland’s warbler to a neighbor when I chalked it all up to dumb luck.
I thought about that comment for a bit afterwards, feeling uncomfortable about that derogatory term. I’m not the best birder in the world or even in my town—not that I actually know what “best birder” even means! But I’ve been birding for 25 years or more, and even on my worst day I couldn’t call myself a slouch.
I’ve since rescinded that “dumb luck” remark. My son and I were where we wanted to be, appreciating birds that we’d fully expect to hear or see, but prepared to recognize something different. The moral of this story is to know your local patch well enough to recognize something different. Granted my local patch is the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. But after 15 years, I’ve traversed it enough to know it very well. So well, in fact, that I’veoften endured some teasing for not traveling much to other areas. I enjoy seeing the daily, weekly, and even monthly changes, seeing how they fluctuate from year to year. It’s that very dedication to my “patch” that allowed me to finally find a Kirtland’s warbler after 15 years.
Dumb luck? Not a chance!
About the Author
Always inspired by being outdoors since I'm a child I became a full fledged (pun intended) birder in 1985 when my future wife bought me my first field guide. Also always involved in the arts, painting and drawing all through my teens, playing music (bass) for well over a decade and now my passion is my photography. I moved from NYC to Florida in 1995. That has certainly enhanced my obsession with birding, currently residing in Titusville which is home to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is here that my amazement for all things feathered grows stronger every day.