(This column was first published in the November 17, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Even after sixty years of birding I occasionally add another species to my life list -- a bird, that is, that I have never seen before. Most often those additions occur on trips to other parts of the country: to Michigan for a Kirtland's warbler, to Florida for a scrub jay, to Texas for a curve-billed thrasher, to Alabama for a blue grosbeak, to Colorado for a dipper or to Washington state for a spotted towhee.
Far less often I find a new species on the Niagara Frontier. Indeed, earlier this fall I added a lifer only about a mile from my home in Amherst. There is a story associated with this discovery and I share it with you.
The Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow is a bird that spends its summers in the prairie provinces of Canada and its winters along our Gulf Coast. As you might expect, the species migrates between those regions along a route far to our west. Occasionally, however, a few of these birds stray east and are recorded in this region.
Two years ago one of these rare sparrows was found by Jack Skalicky in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. I visited the area several times to look for it but I had no success. This sparrow is very shy and I simply could not find it in the vast cattail marshes of the refuge.
Then early this fall several of our senior local ornithologists suggested that regional birders look for this rare species in small isolated cattail stands.
A neighbor of mine, Jim Pawlicki, took this advice to heart. Jim is a high school student who has been an active birder for only a few years, but he is an alert observer who has learned bird identification remarkably fast.
On a walk along the Amherst bike path between North Forest and Millersport Jim noticed just such a small cattail seep a few yards from the trail. He told me later that he thought, "That looks just like what they've been describing as a place for sharp-tailed sparrows." So he investigated and found one of these rare birds.
When Jim reported his find to the local birding community, I thought, "Oh, oh. Here's a youngster who may have, in his eagerness, misidentified a more common bird like swamp sparrow for this rare visitor. I hope he won't be embarrassed and turned away from this hobby by his experience."
When I arrived at the bike path to check out Jim's find, I met Bill Watson and Bill's news was not good: he hadn't found the bird. However, he added that he might not have looked in the right place.
I asked Bill to return with me and we walked back along the path until we reached the location Jim had described. It was indeed a small cattail patch, a narrow damp slough only about thirty yards long.
When we approached the seep a small sparrow flushed and flew a few yards before it dropped back down in the reeds. Bill got it in his binoculars first and immediately called out, "That's it." I finally picked out the bird where it perched in the reeds and indeed was able to identify the field marks of my first Nelsen's sharp-tailed sparrow.
I was, of course, delighted to add this species to my life list. It is number 433 -- not all that great when you consider my friend Mike Hamilton's list of over 700 species -- but still very satisfying.
Even more satisfying was the knowledge that this youngster had outdone all of us old timers.-- Gerry Rising