Believing in the Impossible
by Blake Mathys
Imagine heading out to Hawk Mountain for a day of watching hawk migration. If you've ever been to this well-known migration spot, it will be easy to envision the hike through the trees and the anticipation of what avian wonders might pass by over the course of a day's vigil. This site is known for its importance in the history of hawk conservation, its beautiful scenery, and the often spectacular raptor migrations. Now, continuing in your imagination, you may be hiking up the ridge with a birding acquaintance, perhaps someone more familiar with Hawk Mountain's migration patterns.
As you both pause to catch your breath, you ask your birding friend, "What are our chances for a goshawk today?" This is a species you've always wanted to see, the big Accipiter of the forests. Always a favorite during fall migration in the eastern United States. Your friend replies, "We're a little early, but still a decent chance. Keep an eye out for a stocky Accipiter, moving fast. Let me know if you see something that seems like a good candidate." You continue up the trail a little farther, until you gain your first view of the valley below. "I'd love to see a goshawk," you say, "but I was also wondering about something else. Any chance for a Pterodroma petrel?" Your friend looks at you in disbelief: "Do you see an ocean? What are you thinking?"
Hawk Mountain: Perfect Petrel Habitat?
If the day in your imagination was October 3rd, 1959, your ridiculous question would have seemed prophetic. On that day, a dark Pterodroma with white in the primaries was seen for about 5 minutes at Hawk Mountain. Unprecedented and nearly unbelievable. There is still debate as to its identity, but the fact remains: a petrel, master of the ocean winds, was more than 100 miles from the closest ocean, flying where hawks would be expected, not seabirds. No one would have predicted or expected that to happen.
What does this mean for your everyday birding? It means you must expect the unlikely, never discount something because it seems unreasonable or improbable. Even when you've had a slow day of birding with few birds and poor conditions, don't give up. That Pterodroma is far from the only outlandishly unexpected bird to be seen in the ABA area. Lesser Frigatebird in Michigan (2005) and a dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger at Fort Huachuca in Arizona (2006) immediately spring to mind. And it isn't just seabirds, of course. A relative newcomer to birding photographed an unusual shorebird in West Virginia in August 2007. It looked different than the others he was seeing and he couldn't figure out what it was. The pictures he took clearly showed a Great Knot! I could go on about this, and I'm sure many of us could come up with similar stories and examples of very unexpected birds where they shouldn't belong. However, how do we prepare for the unlikely?
The first rule is to trust yourself. If you see a bird that seems impossible for your location or time, don't tell yourself you must be mistaken or confused. Remember, these things happen! When I see a rare bird, the first thing I think of is documentation. Pictures or field sketches are invaluable when reporting your sighting to others. Take notes about why you think it is unusual. In fact, you may find a bird that you've never heard of before and don't recognize at all. Don't say: "Oh, I don't know what this is, I need to be a better birder" and give up. Take notes and pictures and make careful observations; even if you can't identify it in the field, someone may be able to recognize it based on your documentation.
The second rule is that previous knowledge can go a long way in the field. The more time you spend studying birds (in the field and in the field guides) the better you'll be able to recognize something unusual. I've noticed over the years that many rarities are found by people having previous experience with the species. This means that the more your study, the better prepared you'll be when an impossibility flies by you. The final rule is that you should never give up. You never know what exciting bird might be right around the corner; always take that extra scan of the ocean or sweep of the horizon, because the possibilities are there, you just have to look for them!