Recently I visited Utuana Reserve in southern Ecuador, home to several rare and highly localized species of birds, including the Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, Gray-Headed Antbird, and Piura Tanager. I had great looks at the first bird, which responded nicely to playback despite it being a hot and sunny afternoon; the other two birds went unheard and unseen by me. In other words, I "dipped," as I've learned birders say.
Missing the bird prompts me to wonder why the opposite is just so important for birders to experience. I'm not going to pretend that not seeing a target bird is satisfying, but it means a lot to visit the reserve and to witness the specific habitat in which the bird dwells. To wit, I've now been to distant Utuana and crouched low next to a bamboo thicket, peering around in the semidark for the Gray-Headed Antbird. Other birders have seen it there on occasion, so it's not much of a leap of imagination anymore for me to believe it's there. Considering the transience of memory, ten years from now I might recall actually seeing it.
And what exactly constitutes not missing the bird, anyway? Does it count if you hear the bird but don't see it? What if you only saw part of it but didn't get a clear look at the whole bird? What if you only saw the bird because of using playback? Certainly the purest form of not missing the bird is to see it whole in its completely natural state, not partially or responding to a sound recording. Also, does it diminish the experience somehow if a guide has pointed the bird out? What if you saw the bird without knowing anything about it? Surely not missing the bird must include knowing its specific habitat, coloration, call, and behavior.
All these qualifications of not missing the bird demonstrate that the issue is not black or white. In fact, not missing the bird might even include missing the bird, if this is construed as being present in its habitat and knowing its coloration, call, and behavior, but not actually seeing the bird.
Target birds provide birders with an impetus. They call us to places, sometimes to very particular places like a bamboo stand in a small patch of forest on the Peruvian border. Whether or not we miss the bird once we're there is missing the point.
July 24, 2008