American Birding Podcast



The Unlikeliest Twitch

This little tale is a perfect storm of a rare bird (or two), a joke, the craziness and power of social media, and a kind benefactor…

Saturday, August 16, 1:11 pm

John posts to Facebook:

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At 4:04 pm, I reply: “Wait … I want in too. It will be so much better if we are together again.”

The expected snarky jokes ensue, and it’s all good fun. I’ve been sitting at our corner pub with my wife Erin all afternoon, drinking beer, catching up with the neighbors, and following this on Facebook via my iPhone. At some point, people were asking how to donate (with pictures of change on the counter, stamps and such) so, I provided a link to my very real PayPal account. I mean … what the heck, right?

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Shortly after that, John Posts again:

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Again, more snarky comments (which was the idea … it was a dull afternoon), which included things like:

Now I feel kinda dirty. More than usual.”


Greg and I will talk in British accents. People give money to PBS and they show lots of programs with people with British accents, so I think that’s a good selling point.”

 Is the money rolling in now?”

Then, this happened:

An hour later, I checked my PayPal account—just to see if anyone tossed in some change for fun, that I’d have to refund—and there was $1500 there!!!

Words like “stunned”, “speechless”, “shocked”, or “gobsmacked” don’t begin to describe our disbelief and confusion. On his own Facebook timeline, our benefactor posted:

So some may know this, some may not, but I have a basic life rule about doing one ‘random act of kindness’ each day (all I ask is that people pay it forward). Might be putting a $100 bill in a homeless guy’s cup (or some poorly dressed hipster’s coffee cup – they get soggy apparently and they don’t seem to appreciate it), or seeding some charity or business, getting someone a job, or answering a wish. Basic core operating code – life has been incredibly good to me – ‘pay it forward’ is the right way to live. Very curious to hear how yesterday’s gig worked out though – requires some basic effort on the part of some seriously shady bird-bums …

And there was more to it. He was calling our bluff. Fine, you cocky boys want to play around? I’ll play…now JUMP!

Well, here’s how we seriously shady bird-bums made out…

Saturday, August 16, 6:00 pm

After a couple of frantic phone calls, and texting our benefactor to make sure that’s what he really wanted to do—we had to face the biggest challenge of the day: getting our spouse’s permission. Erin and I had scheduled our first vacation together in over a year, a 3-day getaway, which was to begin the very next morning. John’s wife is a marine biologist that spends extended time at sea, her mother was coming to visit, and they have a child. After an hour or more of negotiations, we were cleared for departure. But we hadn’t looked into airline tickets yet…

Saturday, August 16, 9:00 pm

We had flights booked, a room at the Motel 6 in Harlingen, Texas and rented a car. I had to be at Midway Airport in Chicago at 8:00 am Sunday. It just worked out that John and I were scheduled to land (he coming from Seattle on United, me from Chicago on Southwest) 10 minutes apart in Harlingen … at about 4:00 pm. That would be perfect. The Collared Plover was at an irrigation lake about 45 minutes from the airport.

Sunday, August 17, 4:30 pm

I get a text message from John saying that he’s on the ground in Harlingen. I’m still in Houston. Southwest’s scheduled flights that day were seriously snafued by a severe thunderstorm in Dallas that shut down DFW for 4 hours. But Houston is only a 45-minute flight from Harlingen, so there is still time to make our schedule work. maybe.

Over the next hour, I receive 5 text messages from Southwest Airlines, alerting me to a departure-time change. The 3:10 flight was bumped to 3:45. Then 4:15. Then 5:15. Then 6:15. Then 6:45.

I’m doomed. There’s no way I will make it to Harlingen before sunset. I send John a text message telling him to go get the bird, and then come back for me.

At 5:00 pm I get another text message from Southwest: my flight time has been changed back to 5:15 pm, and is now departing from a different gate. Stampede.

At 5:19 pm, I text John that they’ve closed the doors and we’re cleared for takeoff. While I’m in the air, John gets the rental car, drives out to Hargill, and has about fifteen minutes to look for the bird before returning to the airport to get me. There, with several local birders, he’s unable to find the Collared Plover. Chatting with the locals, he mentions that he’s from Seattle, and waiting on me coming from Chicago.

Sunday, August 17, 6:50 pm

John picks me up at the airport, and we race back out to Hargill, trying to beat the setting sun. We arrive at 7:45 pm to find the very kind couple who were chatting with John waiting for us. They found the plover right after he left, and wanted to make sure that we got on the bird as soon as we got back. They put us on the bird, and then left. We were now alone, watching an ABA mega. Here’s my first photo of it, at 7:46:37 pm:


Sunset was at 7:52 pm. We stayed with it, watching it chase and tear apart little sand crabs, and get chased around by the local Snowy Plovers for 22 minutes. I took 125 images of it, by then it was getting too dark, and we sauntered back to the car … very happy.

Our plan was to head up to Corpus Christi the next morning to hopefully find the Bar-tailed Godwit that had been seen there for the past few days, and then come back to Hargill that afternoon to spend more time with the Collared Plover, in better light.

Monday, August 18, 5:30 am

We leave Harlingen headed to Corpus Christi, and arrive at the Suter Wildlife Refuge at about 8:00 am. We checked out the flats there, and scoping across the small bay, noticed a flock of 100+ Marbled Godwits on the other side. We parked near the Texas A&M student housing (where it had been seen on and off) and began working the the shorebirds. After about 40 minutes, we decided to walk south toward the inlet of Oso Bay—the only place we couldn’t see from our current vantage point. Following a paved trail to a nice gazebo overlooking the bay, we spied:


John yawned, and mentioned that he once had Bar-tailed Godwit as a yard bird when he lived in San Diego. Whatever. We spent 4 minutes with this great bird, and then it flew off to a rather inaccessible spot in the northwest corner of the bay. Again, we got lucky.

High on that success, we drove around a little bit trying to find a Brown Booby (no luck), and then headed back to The Valley to meet Tiffany Kersten. Tiffany is the Birding Education Supervisor at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center in McAllen, and was going bird with us at Bentsen State Park, and then go with us up to Hargill to hopefully see the plover again.

Monday, August 18, 2:00 pm

Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. It is hot. Really hot. And quiet. But there are a few birds about, and we have an enjoyable stroll with Tiffany, finding Lesser Nighthawk, Couch’s Kingbird, many Groove-billed Ani, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a bunch of Chachalacas and other valley specialties. About halfway back on our 2.5-mile stroll, I started feeling nauseous, spinny-headed with a pounding headache, and my vision was blurring. It was then I realized that it was now after 3:00 pm, and all I had consumed so far was a single cup of coffee. It was just ticking over 100°. I walked back to the nature center, in the roadside shade as much as possible—and after drinking a liter of water from the bathroom sink and spending a few minutes in the air conditioning—all was well again.

We headed off to Hargill to see the plover again.

We arrived at 6:30 pm to find a group of birders searching for the Collared Plover. So far, it had not been seen all day. The viewing conditions were horrible: wind blasting us straight in the face, with gusts up to 50 mph. At times the far side of the pond—about 800 feet away—wasn’t visible because of the blowing sand and dust. I think the soil quality in this part of the world is measured by how many metric tons of it are in the air at any given moment.

Tuesday, August 19, 6:45 am

Back at the Hargill playa. It’s still windy (though not as bad as the evening before), and there’s a small group of birders present, including Bill Sain. We scoped and scoped and glassed and scoped … since Sunday evening there was a significant turnover in the birds present, and alas, the Collared Plover was not seen. John and I wandered up the dirt road trying to photograph the sparrows in the brush for a bit. At 9:15 am, it was time to pull the plug. This twitch was over.


As it turns out (as it often does with these kinds of chases), those 22 minutes were it. John and I were the last people to see the bird, at 8:10 pm on Sunday. This is without a doubt, one of the craziest things that’s happened to either of us. Thanks Anthony, and thanks to all the Facebook buddies for egging it on, and following along.

We made a movie about it (with a poster and everything!):

…and here’s some stills from a most wonderful 29 hours of birding in The Valley: