Christie’s Chronicles: In search of a birder’s holy grail

The scarlet tanager is my all-time favorite bird. Seeing it is a real treat. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

If you’re a birder, there’s no shortage of holy grails.What is a holy grail, you ask? In medieval legend, it was said to be the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and sought by knights during the Middle Ages. In recent legend, it was sought by members of the Monty Python comedy troupe.

More generally, a holy grail is something pursued relentlessly, but not always obtained.

If you want to know how that feels, enter the birder’s world.

Many avid birders keep a life list, which is just what it says: a list of all the bird species seen during the individual’s lifetime.

I keep my list on index cards separated into two boxes, since my list is so plentiful all the cards won’t fit into one container. I could put the list on a flash drive or digitize it somehow, but old habits die hard. In fact, I used a manual typewriter to list some of the birds.

Before you become too impressed, consider that many birders travel, are way more adept than I am in identifying species and spend more time on their avocation. This results in life lists of 500 or more species. I’m not sure how many species I have, but it sure isn’t 500.

My latest foray into the wilds of Marquette had to do with my search for a yellow-throated warbler, which would have been a new “lifer.” This warbler has a yellow throat — duh — as well as a black triangle marking below the eye, a white eyebrow and black streaks down the side.

Do not confuse this species with the common yellowthroat, which is far more likely to be seen in the region. It a distinctive black mask. Why the birds have similar names is a mystery to me.

The yellow-throated warbler, best I can tell, is rarely found in Michigan, being more of a southeastern species. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have found it except for a notice on Birdnet, an email notification system that alerts birders to notable sightings. How else would I know about the warbler? It’s not like I hang out in the cattails by the Dead River all day long.

Finally encountering this little bugger on Attempt No. 4 was worth it. A local birding expert said the warbler previously made an appearance when the sun came out to catch insects on the move. As it turned out, the sun emerged ever so briefly when I saw the warbler, which then made its move.

I walked back to my car, my heart filled with delight. I might have even strutted, although walking on uneven ground would have made that difficult. That evening, I took out my ballpoint pen and wrote down my last addition to my life list on a new index card.

Because of Birdnet, I have added other species to my life list since I moved to the Upper Peninsula in 2011, which include the crested caracara, gyrfalcon, swallow-tailed kite, varied thrush, northern hawk owl and Connecticut warbler.

Possibly one of the great regrets of my life is not traveling to Grand Marais a few years back when someone saw a berrylline hummingbird, commonly found in Mexico. It would have meant at least a four-hour round trip — to Grand Marais, that is — and there was no guarantee I’d see it.

My decision not to try is a cause of shame I have tried hard to overcome.

I had not purposely sought out birds such as the caracara and kite; someone else saw them, posted them online and off I went in search of these newbies to my list.

So, maybe they’re not really “holy grail” birds. However, I do have a bucket list of species I really want to see during my remaining time here on Earth.

One is a harlequin duck. Truth be told, this is already on my life list, but it’s “only” a hen. As with many species, the male, or drake, is bolder in color, hence the description at allaboutbirds.org: “Breeding male Harlequin Ducks are a spectacular slate blue with white stripes and chestnut sides. The head is elaborately marked with a white crescent in front of the eye, and chestnut highlights on the brow.”

Compare this with the female’s description: “Females are overall grayish-brown, with white around the bill and eye, and a neat white spot on the rear of the cheek.”

Drake harlequins are “spectacular” and “elaborately marked,” while the hens’ claim to fame is a “neat white spot.” I won’t hold it against them, though. I did see this “sea duck” at MooseWood Nature Center, and last I checked, there is no sea at the center, so it was a notable sighting.

One of my holy grail birds is another sea duck, a king eider, the male of which is described at All About Birds as having “ornately colored blue, green and orange head and a black-and white body. Note orange bill.”

I promise to note the bill when and if I see it.

An adult male king eider also has a large plate above the bill that creates a forehead bulge.

Forehead bulges always intrigue me.

Perhaps my most treasured holy grail bird is the male painted bunting, a southern bird. It has “painted” in its name for a reason: It’s blue. It’s green. It’s red.

And, unfortunately, it’s usually not seen in Michigan.

What you will see in this state is my all-time favorite bird, the scarlet tanager, although I don’t encounter it all that often. My last sighting, in fact, was in spring 2020 at Peninsula Point.

I developed an affinity for this bird when I chose it for an elementary-school craft project after perusing a Golden Nature Guide. My affinity for the species, though, doesn’t mean I’m going to see it all that often, so when I do, it’s like I’m seeing a holy grail bird all over again.

It might not be the Last Supper receptacle, but it makes my day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christie Mastric is a staff writer at The Mining Journal. Contact her at cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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