Surprise me. That’s my mantra, my supplication to the birding gods, every time I go afield. It’s both a prayer of supplication and a prayer for illumination. It is the will of the birding gods, I believe, that we experience novelty, that we attain new appreciation for the world around us, whenever we are in nature’s realm.
Thus did I venture to a local hotspot, Boulder Reservoir, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, raw and rainy. If the weather is sufficiently “bad,” you don’t pray for rarities at Boulder Rez. You expect them. And I was half-expecting to find a jaeger that wretched morning. Two Sabine’s Gulls were auspicious, but I couldn’t conjure a jaeger at the rez. The birding gods had something else in mind, a surprise more felicitous than any jaeger: a Sprague’s Pipit.
The skies cleared, the pipit presumably moved on, and I still wanted to find a jaeger. So I went to Valmont Reservoir, another area hotspot, a few days later. You can probably guess the result: no jaeger for me at Valmont Rez. I should have known better: The weather was too nice that Indian Summer Sunday afternoon, Oct. 9. Too nice for jaegers, that is, but perfectly acceptable to a Laughing Gull, a complete surprise. Once again, the birding gods were smiling on me.
I have a confession. The Sprague’s Pipit and the Laughing Gull, county birds both for me, were pleasant surprises, but they weren’t the sort of surprise I truly seek when I go birding. You see, there was some context for those discoveries. I’ll spare you the S&D lecture, and simply state that neither species was unprecedented. Unlike the experience I had the next morning with a most wondrous blue jay…
Listen to this recording I made at the Lake Park Open Space, eastern Boulder County, on the morning of Indigenous Peoples Day, Monday, Oct. 10:
A straightforward Blue Jay, yes? Not so fast. Listen now to a longer cut:
That blue jay is no Blue Jay. It is a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. You can hear how it mixes in perfectly normal scrub-jay calls at the 16.3 sec. and 24.7 sec. marks. As far as I am aware, this is the first documented case of a Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay imitating a Blue Jay. This scrub-jay surprise came out of the, er, blue.
So did a White-crowned Sparrow the following Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Walden Ponds complex, also in eastern Boulder County. Long story short: It appears to be a pugetensis White-crowned Sparrow, a first for the region. Surprise me, I intoned, and the birding gods delivered, big time.
Here’s the deal with being surprised. It’s a state of mind. Being surprised is all about being open and receptive. If you pray earnestly to the birding gods for a surprise, you will be surprised. Surprises sometimes manifest themselves as rarities, birds like Sprague’s Pipits and Laughing Gulls. More often than not, though, surprises come in the form of commoners, birds like Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays and White-crowned Sparrows.
In my experience, avian surprises typically involve birds that are, at least in some objective sense, entirely unremarkable. Case in point: a Great Horned Owl my daughter and I came upon while on a run in the local park on Friday evening, Oct. 21. The bird wasn’t a rarity (pipit, gull); it wasn’t worth writing up for the state journal (scrub-jay, pugetensis). It was just there, sitting in a tree in the dark. This is the commonest owl species in Colorado, and it was doing what owls do, yet it was wondrously, gloriously, stop-you-in-your-tracks surprising. You can tell me that the owl wasn’t rare, that it wasn’t scientifically significant, and you’d get no argument from me. But you can’t tell me it wasn’t surprising—because if you said that, you’d be wrong. The owl surprised and delighted the two of us, and that’s a fact.
This past Sunday morning, Oct. 30, I was up dark and early, at a convenience store at a noisy intersection in a part of the county that is being rapidly developed. The oddest thing about this convenience store is that they blare obnoxious pop music from the gas pumps, 24/7. You can hear it over the road noise—of which there is plenty. Anyhow, I pushed the glass door open, headed out to the car, and could’ve sworn I heard the flight call of an American Tree Sparrow. I took another step, and heard it again. A second later, a presumptive White-crowned Sparrow called out in the dark. What on Earth was going on? I stepped away from the obnoxious music a bit, and could tell that an intense night flight was underway. In retrospect, it all made sense: low cloud ceiling, bright lights, and a bit of fog. But consider this: I’d gone shopping for a sack of Fritos breakfast, and come back with the best night flight of the season, indeed one of the finest night flights I’d ever experienced in Colorado. Surprise me.
Four Sundays earlier, Oct. 2, I was listening to nocturnal migrants in a somewhat similar venue: the noisy parking lot outside the Quality Inn in Beaufort, South Carolina. The whole affair was a surprise: a Carolina Bird Club field trip organized at the last minute; a gratifyingly large turnout; and an unexpectedly strong flight. And the best surprise of all: a gift, a bottle of Cheerwine™ presented to me by the Carolina Young Birders in attendance. It’s funny, I’ll remember that bottle of Cheerwine for the rest of my life, and I’m saying that as one who doesn’t like Christmas and birthday presents. Those things are so predictable. No, I’d rather be the recipient of random acts of kindness, like that lagniappe from the young birders. Surprise me.
One more anecdote, if I may. Friday morning, Oct. 28, I was awake, wide awake, in Jeff and Liz Gordon’s apartment in Delaware City, Delaware. It was nowhere near sunrise, yet my body was definitely telling me I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep. So I opened up the laptop and got to work. But not for long: A window was ajar, and I could hear nocturnal migrants. So I walked toward the window, raised the pane, stuck my head out, and saw something beyond lovely: straight east, just a few degrees above the horizon, the crescent moon and Jupiter rising together. Often I am aware in advance about these things: comets, conjunctions, meteor showers, etc. But not this time. I’d not known that Jupiter and the moon would be eerily conjoined for a short while that one, and only one, morning. Surprise me.
You may have heard there’s a presidential election coming up. And as utterly different as the two candidates are, there’s probably one thing on which they can agree: They didn’t like it when they were on the receiving end of an “October surprise.” We birders, though, delight in surprises—in October and at any other time of the year. I’ve shared with you some October surprises that brought me joy and wonder, and I’m sure you have stories of your own.
I’m not going to tell you whom to vote for in the election. But I’ll tell you this: I think we’re at our best—both as individuals and as a community—when we admit surprise and wonder into our lives. We’re at our best when we let go of old habits of thought, when we embrace new ideas and new ways of thinking, when we open ourselves to new hope and new possibilities—in our own lives and in the world around us. Paul of Tarsus, writing to a church in Corinth around 57 CE, saw it. He didn’t quite put it this way, but he might as well have:
“So if anyone prays to the birding gods, there is a new creation: Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Surprise me. Surprise us, everyone of us.