The Lessons of Epic Birding Failures

One birder recounts the lessons of epic birding failures.

It’s 5:00 a.m. and my headlamp is casting a narrow beam across the gray stones of the Josephine Saddle trail. Several miles into the canyon, binoculars at the ready, I listen for a barking krup, krup, krup and watch for a flash of ruby, emerald, and copper in the sycamores straddling the stream. But there’s no sign of the elegant trogon.

These gaudy, paunchy, jewel-colored birds rarely venture north of the Mexican border — except for a few secluded canyons in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. Only the strange coincidences of ecology could bring me more than 2,000 miles across the country to stumble along a trail before dawn, attempting to bark like a Mexican bird in the hope of a reply.

But the bird just wasn’t there.

The only word running through my head isn’t fit for print. This was my one chance to find the trogon, and the stupid bird wasn’t there.

It’s my deep, secret, and possibly unfounded belief that most birders experience this occasional rage. (If they don’t, they’re either better people than I am or they’re lying.) The birding community even has a word for these epic birding fails: nemesis birds. The more times you fail to see a bird, the greater a nemesis it becomes.

Elegant trogon: 1, Justine Hausheer: 0.

Have you seen this bird? Because I haven’t. Photo © Dominic Sherony / Flickr
Have you seen this bird? Because I haven’t. Photo © Dominic Sherony / Flickr

The trogon wasn’t the only bird I missed that morning — gale-force gusts from the desert floor kept the trogons, warblers, and many other species silent during my 30-hour stay in Madera Canyon. Nor was that my first bad day in my admittedly short and almost entirely U.S.-based birding career.

Woodpecker finches in the Galapagos? I have no idea… trying to tell most Darwin’s finch species apart is an exercise in humiliation and despair.

Short-tailed hawks on Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge? After 6 hours tramping through the scrub my only souvenir was 60+ chigger bites.

Northern saw-whet and flammulated owls in the Colorado foothills? Unlike the birders, the birds decided not to traipse around in a 35-degree hailstorm.

But for every great bird I miss, another stunner just about falls into my lap when I least expect it.

A now-infamous snowy owl turned up on a parking garage sign in downtown Washington D.C. on a dreary January afternoon, a sighting about as likely as finding a bull moose munching roses on the capital lawn.

The January 2014 D.C. snowy owl. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer
The January 2014 D.C. snowy owl. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

I nearly tripped over a pair of courting Nazca boobies on Isla Genovesa, and the male gently placed a twig at my feet. I won’t flatter myself — it was clearly meant for his lady friend — but I fell in love nonetheless.

On Merritt Island, a Florida scrub-jay perched on my head for several minutes, apparently convinced I had some snacks hidden under my hat. And my lifer limpkin nearly crashed into my car while I was parked near a power-plant-turned-wetland.

An inspection of both hat and backpack yielded no snacks for the scrub-jay. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer
An inspection of both hat and backpack yielded no snacks for the scrub-jay. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

I’ll be the first to admit that the attempt and anticipation of chasing and landing a great bird is fun — I like listing and I like the wild goose chase it takes to find the whooping crane at the end of the rainbow. Er, marsh.

But the surprise birds are often the most memorable. And the nemesis birds are a reason to return — motivation to hike back up that trail one last time, or to stay up all night pathetically imitating an owl to a clump of sentient, silent pines.

Nature doesn’t always cooperate. And that’s okay.

What’s your nemesis bird? Share your stories of epic birding failures and awesome avian surprises with us in the comments.

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  1. My nemesis bird had to be the Indigo Bunting here in Wisconsin. For years I tried to get close enough to one to take a picture, but never could get close enough to even be sure I’ve seen one. Earlier this Spring, I was eating lunch, on my one hour lunch break from work. I was sitting in my car and one landed 15ft from me! Than another one, and than another one!! I broke out my camera and I finally took a closeup picture of one on a picnic table! For a week it keep coming back to the same spot! I finally after 6 years I got my closeup!
    Now my nemesis bird is the Scarlet Tanager.


  2. timboucher says:

    I have a running list of nemesis birds, some going back 20 years of more, and it only gets longer no matter how many I tick off…

    (And I have the exact same photo of the Snowy Owl in DC!)

  3. Jim Atkins says:

    Years ago, I went camping near Portal, AZ with some serious birder friends to seek the elusive trogon. We never saw one after a lot of hiking and clambering. Later that year, I had a teachers meeting at Duncan High School, 50 mi north of I-10 almost on the New Mexico border. I stopped to stretch at the Duncan city park. There in a tree, right above the restrooms, was an Elegant Trogon!

  4. Tom says:

    Mine this year is the house wren. After deer / groundhogs pillaged my sunflower sprouts, potted and moved remaining 10% to the safety of the porch, where house wren finished them off!

    They have a constant, beautiful song in this, the nesting season though, so it works out.

  5. Alice Patton says:

    I would say a A blue Grosbeak. We had one five or six years ago. Would love to see him again.

  6. Laura says:

    I’m new to this birding malarky so I haven’t got to the stage of going out looking for something in particular and therefore don’t have a nemesis bird. I kinda feel like I should just pick a random bird as my nemesis so can shake my fist and swear at it for no reason when ever I see it 😛 (and confuse the hell out of anyone around me).

  7. Paul Prappas says:

    Without question, my nemesis is the White-tailed Ptarmigan. If I’m to be Zen about this, the bird is my teacher. I have gone searching for it many times, and in all the right places, high in the alpine and sub-alpine of British Columbia, Alberta, and Colorado. In Glacier National Park, Montana and even Mt. Rainier, Washington. I’ve looked for it on Ptarmigan Ridge. I’ve looked for it where a fellow birder said, “You can’t miss it!” – the kiss of death, by the way, to say that to any birder. I’ve even toyed with the idea of hiring a Ptarmigan Spirit Guide, but pride won’t allow it. This is my quest, and mine alone. Heck, my non-birding brother-in-law in Colorado has been attacked by them while out hiking! And no, seeing it on the menu of a fine restaurant does not count!

  8. Bruce Nixon says:

    My nemesis bird was the Three-toed Woodpecker. Searched several consecutive days in the mountains around Creede CO. It Had been seen recently by others. Found correct habitat, correct elevation etc. got caught in a terrible summer hailstorm but never found the bird. Several years later found it in the Uinta Mountain in north east Utah. Found an active nest and saw both parents feeding young, returning time and again to the nest hole. Sat on a log and watched through binoculars for forty five minutes.

  9. Julie Cronin says:

    I was in Madera Canyon in early May. I made the hike up the trail to where the nest was sited. I waited a good hour there and had no luck seeing the mighty Trogon. I had given up and headed back down the trail when I heard the call and looked to my right. There it was just as beautiful as all the pictures I had seen. It was there long enough to get a good look but when I went for my camera it was gone. Well worth the hike up the trail!! Made the trip from Idaho (where I live)complete.