One Week, Two Nemesis Birds!

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Barnacle Geese - Life Birds at FDR Park in Philadelphia - Recovery Big Year 2016

There are dozens of terms birders use to describe the addiction-hobby that is birding, of which ‘nemesis bird’ is one. A nemesis bird is one that eludes a birder despite multiple attempts to see it. In the past week, I’ve been fortunate enough to knock two long-time nemesis birds off my list: Barnacle Goose and Winter Wren. Barnacle Geese were nemesis birds, because as rare vagrants, they’re simply hard to find locally, but the fairly uncommon Winter Wren became a nemesis bird for far more personal reasons related to my struggle with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and vestibular migraine.

Barnacle Geese at FDR Park in Philly

eBird Range Map Showing Barnacle Goose Occurrence ©2016 Google

eBird Range Map Showing Barnacle Goose Occurrence ©2016 Google

Between freezing cold temperatures and frequent snowfalls, vestibular therapy and biofeedback appointments, I haven’t been able to do much in the way of awesome birding adventures recently. So when I got the rare bird alert that two Barnacle Geese had been sighted in Philadelphia last Friday, I knew I wanted to go!

Barnacle Geese are rare vagrants to the eastern US, with only a handful of records within an hour or so of Chester County. And the birds at FDR Park were only 50 minutes from my house– even closer than my biofeedback appointments at the Jefferson Hospital! I hadn’t been feeling so great the last several days, primarily due to inactivity, but the desire to see these long-awaited life birds far outweighed my uncertainty that I was up for the drive. After finishing up some work and packing a bounty of snacks, I left the house for Philadelphia, crossing all my fingers that the birds would stay put until I arrived.

Barnacle Geese - Life Birds at FDR Park in Philadelphia - Recovery Big Year 2016

Barnacle Geese – Life Birds at FDR Park in Philadelphia

As I pulled up, I located a flock of Canada Geese foraging on the golf course bordering the park. And then, I felt overwhelmed by that sinking feeling I get whenever I chase a rarity, where I realize how difficult it may be to actually find the bird. But with my bare eyes, I immediately picked out the blue-gray Barnacle Geese– locating them within the flock was way way easier than I had expected! In the past 4 or 5 years that I’ve been a birder, I’ve scanned endless flocks of Canada Geese in search of rarities like Greater White-fronted, Pink-footed, or Barnacle Geese, and have always wondered if I’ve ever overlooked a Barnacle Goose. Seeing these guys in the field answered my question; there’s no way you can miss them! Whether they’ve got their heads down foraging or they’re looking around, those blue-gray bodies, black bibs, and white faces stand out like sore thumbs.

Barnacle Geese - Life Birds at FDR Park in Philadelphia - Recovery Big Year 2016

Barnacle Geese – Life Birds at FDR Park in Philadelphia – Feeding Like Lawn Mowers

For the next hour or so, I basked in the enjoyment I felt while watching the birds and observing their behaviors with fellow birder and friend, Todd Fellenbaum. Todd knew a bit about the history of this species in the US, and explained that all Barnacle Geese were assumed to be escaped captive birds until one was found associating with a Greater White-fronted Goose that had been banded in Greenland (I hope I’m remembering this correctly). One fascinating behavior I noticed about these geese were that they readily instigated fights with the surrounding Canadas. In my experience, vagrant geese tend to be harassed by Canadas, not the other way around! These Barnacle Geese were definitely feisty. Another interesting behavior I noted was something my friend Derek Stoner had described after seeing a pair of Barnacles in Wilmington– that Barnacle Geese are “like lawn mowers,” picking at the grass constantly and rarely picking up their heads to check their surroundings. What an awesome experience it was to finally see these geese!

And then suddenly, I felt extraordinarily cold. It was only about 15 degrees F that day, with a “feels like” temperature in the single digits as a result of an abnormal weather pattern aptly named the “Siberian Express.” I guess the adrenaline and excitement had finally worn off! So I said goodbye to Todd and headed back home. Unfortunately, something about looking through my camera viewfinder and/or binoculars plus the freezing cold had left my eyes feeling funky (like they weren’t pointing in the same direction– it’s somewhat common for vestibular migraine patients to have visual symptoms), which made driving rather stressful. Regardless, the elation from seeing the Barnacle Geese was overpowering and I felt so grateful for being able to drive myself to see them, especially on a less-than-perfect health day.

Winter Wren at Somerset Lake in Chester County, PA

Winter Wren at Somerset Lake in Chester County, PA - Recovery Big Year 2016

Long-awaited Winter Wren at Somerset Lake in Chester County, PA

The following Tuesday, I had a hankering to do some birding and decided to stop by Somerset Lake in southern Chester County. While I was checking out some American Tree Sparrows and Field Sparrows that were flying in and out of the hedgerow bordering the large grass field behind the lake, I noticed a tiny, dark brown bird dart into the thicket. From the size, color, and behavior, I knew immediately that the bird was a Winter Wren.

Now, these winter residents aren’t rare, but in the context of my struggles with vestibular migraine and my recovery, this species has become something of a nemesis bird. I hadn’t seen one since April 28th of 2013! Back when I was bedridden, I would get email alerts that people had seen this species in Chester County. And unfortunately, the habitat in which these birds are found was prohibitive for someone who was incapable of walking without a walker or wheelchair; these birds are stereotypically found in woodlands, near fallen trees that lie adjacent to streams and rivers. So throughout the winter of 2014-2015, I would get constant reminder emails that I was sick and incapable of seeing this species. So when I was finally able to walk and drive again, winter wren was at the top of my must-see list. But then, I simply couldn’t find any! We dipped on this species during the Middletown CBC, the Wilmington CBC, and virtually every other attempt I made despite birding in absolutely perfect habitat. So when I saw that tiny brown bird, I felt endlessly relieved and happy to have this species off my nemesis bird list.

Current Standings for Recovery Big Year 2016

Other highlights I encountered in the past week were 10 species added to my year list, including: Winter Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Wilson’s Snipe, Gray Catbird, Pine Warbler, Fox Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Barnacle Goose, and Gadwall! That brings my total species tallied for the year so far up to 122– not quite half way to my goal of 275, but close. I can’t wait to see this number increase with the beginning of spring migration in March! As for my other goals, seeing the Barnacle Geese in Philly brought me up to 2 life birds for the year! Only 8 more lifers left to see before reaching my goal of 10 life birds in 2016. I still think this goal is a bit of a stretch, but absolutely within my reach. Especially now that I can drive myself over an hour to see them!

The beginning of 2016 has been relatively slow in regards to my Recovery Big Year, but once spring migration starts to pick up in March, that will absolutely change! There are so many new locations I am looking forward to visiting in March, especially, that I can’t wait to explore. And then in April and May come the neotropic migrants like warblers! 2016 is going to be an incredible year!

Recovery Big Year 2016 Photo Gallery!

If you’d like to check out the photos from my past week in birding, visit my Recovery Big Year photo gallery by clicking here, or one of the images below!