Birds & Birding

The Lessons of Epic Birding Failures

A Nazca booby on Isla Genovesa, Galapagos Islands. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

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.


Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is an award-winning science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative research conducted by the Conservancy’s scientists in the Asia Pacific region. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine's favorite stories take her into pristine forests, desolate deserts, or far-flung islands to report on field research as it's happening. When not writing, you can find her traipsing after birds, attempting to fish, and exploring the wild places around her home in Brisbane, Australia. More from Justine

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

  6. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  10. I was in pursuit of the Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica. We were all there for the same thing, and up early with hired guides. Sure enough, several flew in, but if you weren’t looking in the right direction, you saw nothing. Several of the photographers got real excited by one that was more compliant. But it was not a Quetzal, it was a male collared Trogon. I tried to tell them, but they were sure it was a female Quetzal, and told me I was an idiot. Those people will probably never know that they went through all that, and it was not a Quetzal.

  11. The American Bittern. I’ve heard it at least a half a dozen times – had to have been staring RIGHT AT IT…but nope. Can’t actually list it. And a quetzal while I was in Costa Rica but in fairness, I was shepherding a dozen high schoolers. Every bird in the rainforest heard us coming.

  12. We saw some birders hanging around the Madera Kubo but they informed us that there was nothing new so we went directly to the upper parking lot where the trailheads are. Armed with the directions provided by Anthony Mendoza whom I emailed after he reported seeing the Elegant Trogon, we started our quest for our grail bird. For the past three years we tried to look for the Trogon but each time we were unsuccessful. There had been some close calls: in Patagonia Lake in 2005 where we gave up at noon but our fellow seeker from Boston kept looking and found it just after we left, and in the Chiricahuas last year where we heard but did not see the bird.

    Anthony said that there was a trogon nest about a mile up the trail and that was where he saw it. The trail was arduous, to say the least, especially to these 61 year old legs with about 20 extra pounds of gear lugged on my shoulders. Every 20 feet or so, Cynthia and I would stop to catch our breaths. During those times we scanned the treetops and surrounding vegetation looking for birds as our excuse for such frequent stops in case the other birders/hikers noticed. About 3/4 along the way we met a lady birder who confirmed the directions that Anthony emailed me. She also said that there was indeed a trogon nest there but the young birds have already fledged. With us at this spot were a few birders with the same aspirations as we have. Soon we could hear the barking call of our quarry. But the birds never showed up. Determined, we moved on to where the nest is, leaving the other birders behind. Soon we were at the big boulder which was the landmark mentioned by both the lady birder and Anthony. It was eerily quiet. Cynthia chased some Hermit Thrushes to while away the time. An hour has passed and still nothing. After a short while I saw some movement in the branches not far from where we were. I followed it only to discover that it was a Sulphur-bellied Flycacther. It was while I was taking the flycatcher’s picture that we heard a loud “gark!” “gark!” “gark!”. I looked up just in time to see the Trogon fly overhead. “There it is!”, I shouted to my wife who immediately jumped to her feet and followed the barking sound. The Elegant Trogon eventually landed on a branch not far from the big boulder. Heart pounding, I trained my big lens at it only to be dismayed that I can’t autofocus due to some leaves in front of it. I used manual focus but that was my undoing because I have bad eyes and couldn’t tell if the subject is focused properly or not. Nonetheless, I got some documentary shots. Cynthia, on the other hand, was more mobile with her 100-400 zoom lens. She was able to position herself in front of the bird, albeit with a too steep an angle. When she tried to move back a little, she almost tripped on a rock. Her jerky movement in trying to regain her balance spooked the bird which flew off barking into the distance. I ran towards my wife and hugged her and offered a prayer of thanks. Both our hearts were beating wildly as the excitement of finally seeing the Elegant Trogon sank in. Nevermind the crappy pictures. We saw it. On our fourth attempt, we saw it at last! (This was way back in July 2008)

  13. I like all the birds as I am working as bird guide in Nepal.It is great bird. Thank you dearest.It would be great to see one day.

  14. I just wrote about my Nemesis Bird on my blog. Here’s the post:

    Sixty years ago I saw my first scarlet tanager. I was ten.

    I was sitting outside “in the country,” and I don’t know what made me look up, but there was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. I called it a “real bird” because it was different than the plain brown birds I was accustomed to seeing. A “real bird” was the kind of bird I only saw in the Golden Guides my parents bought for me.

    The scarlet tanager was in a tulip tree. The tulip tree was a “real tree” which I had also recently identified from my tree books. The days of pouring over those books were finally paying off.

    I don’t know how long the gorgeous red bird graced me with his presence, but I do know that at the age of ten, it was one of the most joyous experiences of my life. It was the day my hobby was born. After that day, and for the next sixty years I searched for another scarlet tanager and another tulip tree. The tulip trees were easy. I saw many of them.

    But the scarlet tanager quest was unfulfilled.

    The sad part of the story is I admit, “I am the worst birder in the entire world.” On Audubon outings when I am on my best game, and I can see color, I can identify birds that are close up. On outings when I am on my regular game, I can confuse pigeons with bald eagles. I have learned to laugh at myself and have tried to educate myself. Even though I am “the worst birder,” I love being outdoors, being silent, and absorbing the sights and sounds of nature into my soul.

    No scarlet tanager. How can that be? The bird books says he (the bright red male with black wings) is up there, but hard to find. Hard to find! I wonder how many other scarlet tanager searchers have been seeking the red phantom for sixty years? I am supposed to listen for him. Well, I mix up all my bird vocalizations, much as I try to work on improving my sightings.

    I’m sure if I asked for help, from the many wonderful birding guides I’ve known over the years, I might have seen my tanager decades ago. But I didn’t. Mine was a private desire, lingering in my psyche for so many years—my tanager was becoming my holy grail.

    (Of course, between my cataracts, retina surgery, touch of macular degeneration, hearing problems, perhaps I should be given a bird watching handicap…I don’t know what that is, but I know golfers get one) Oh well, I digress.

    So the other morning I’m just sitting at my kitchen table and looking out to my deck where I have a bird bath (a plant saucer with two rocks in it for balance) and guess what! There, sitting on the edge of the plant saucer and leaning in to sip the water, is my scarlet tanager—the bird I have not seen in sixty years!

    The last time I saw him, I was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and red or blue Keds sneaks. I probably went into the house and ate a tuna fish sandwich on white Wonder Bread, cut in squares by my mother. Maybe I cooed to my brother sleeping in his crib. If it was a Sunday, maybe my father was there reading the travel section of the paper and eating bread and butter, or maybe borscht.

    That’s why, the other day, when I saw the scarlet tanager, I cried, hard.

    It took me a long time to recover, and I was glad I was alone. I thought “No one will understand.”

    But I do hope you will.

    And, my scarlet tanager? I don’t know where he is now. But I am hoping he will drop in again.

    1. Beautiful story, Ruth. Thank you so much for sharing, and may your Scarlet Tanager visit you again.

  15. By some miracle I saw an elegant trogon on my very first time looking at Patagonia Lake State Park in SE Arizona on March 1, 2013. Several hikers had spotted a male trogon about eye level in a bare tree about a half mile into the trail. I remember being in a bit of a shock finding it at about eye level in a forested area in a tree without leaves. It was not too concerned about our presence while we admired it and took photos for about 10 minutes. We spotted an elderly couple who had wandered off the trail and beckoned them quietly to come see the trogon. They were delighted but unfortunately the woman let out a squeal of joy and the bird flew away!! The couple told us they had been looking for a trogon for twenty years!! I feel like birding is serendipity and whatever you see is what you are meant to see. Walking on the trail that day we saw several people who apparently walked right past the trogon without seeing it.

  16. A friend and I have just returned from a trip to Hokkaido, Japan. The birding was as hot as the temperatures were cold! Displaying Red Crowned Cranes , Blakiston’s Fish Owl feeding, White-Tailed Sea Eagles diving for fish and the massive Steller’s Sea Eagles soaring right over our heads not to mention the numerous species of gulls and sea ducks, we almost forgot it was freezing outside, almost!
    The day before we were to depart, we decided to take the southern coastal road and scan the rocky coastline along the way for one of our “most wanted” species, the Tufted Puffin. We knew mid-March was a bit early, but there had been reports of them in this area so even though the skies were filled with ominous slate grey clouds, we pressed southwards. The area is barren and desolate, made even more so with the snow starting to fall and the winds picking up. A few hours later, as we were driving in near blizzard conditions and doing our best to find our way with a Japanese GPS and a cheesy road map from the rental car company, (complete with animated Puffins along the coastline just to tempt us) we found our destination. “Welcome to Kiritappumisaki” (say that three times fast) signs welcomed us, and many buildings had car- toonish caricatures of Tufted Puffins with oversized bills adorning them. We were in the right place at last! We made our way out to the lighthouse and along the snow covered icy path, up and down hills some quarter mile or so out to the cape. We both stood out in the freezing cold, scanning the rocky cape, frequently stopping to wipe the snowflakes from our binoculars. My friend Tom yells “Penguins”! I knew of course exactly what he meant, he has seen the Puffins! Too excited to take the opportunity to correct him and chide him for the simple mistake, I im- mediately scanned in on two birds standing near a grassy overhang, their colorful markings visible even through the heavy snowfall. Naturally, we had left the cameras in the car so off I went jogging gingerly along the icy path back to the parking lot. What felt like an hour later but was probably closer to twenty minutes, out of breath and lungs searing, I made it back out to the cape to find Tom crouching behind a marker for some shelter from what now was a major snowstorm. Propping my lens up along the fence for stability, )I opted not to attempt to drag along the tripod) I took a few record shots and one last glance at the Puffins who stoically, hadn’t budged an inch in the storm.
    After returning home, I sent an e-mail off to a colleague who is an authority on birds in Japan and told him of our journey to Kiritappumisaki to see the puffins. His reply the next day: Did you see the two decoys on the left under the grassy overhang?

  17. My nemesis birds are probably Black-backed Woodpecker and Spruce Grouse. This past winter a BB woodpecker turned up near me in Boston for several months, and I went 6 times to his allegedly often visited stakeout spot, but no luck.
    The grouse became a nenesis bird during this year’s Acadia Birding Festival. I went on an all-day expensive van trip into the north which promised all the boreal species. We got gray jays, the only boreal species I’d seen before. The worst part was the grouse; their dust bathes and recent droppings were almost everywhere we stopped, but no grouse were apparent!

  18. Elegant trogon relly? Come to Colima México we have those in Numbers waranted

  19. Not a birder but was with Justine in the Galapagos. If I am ever to have an interest in birding, Justine would be the cause. She was enthusiastic, willing to share, and a joy to watch as we trooped around the Galapagos. So fun to see this article.

  20. Haha, this is great. Not a birder as such however if I have a nemesis it would have to be the orange wattled crow/South Island kokako AKA the greyghost. For quite a few years I unsuccessfully helped Rhys Buckingham in his quest to bring this bird back from extinction, and the search goes on. If you’re intrigued and want to learn more try this URL it’s a clunky site, I had to scroll down to find the information.
    For an online article that rounds it out well –
    There is also a facebook page but the link wouldn’t work for me.

  21. I had the good fortune 10 yrs ago to view a pair of Elegant Trogans in Madera Canyon, but I live in AZ and had searched & hoped for some time. For years my nemesis was the Pileated Woodpecker; and fortunately good friends as well as a daughter’s family live in Maine. Still it took over five years of hunting & trailing until late last year on a fall hike through Wolf’s Neck Woods to spot & identify a spectacular Pileated. Worth the wait and effort!

  22. […] told, our birding failures often out-number our birding successes by a large margin, so it’s a good thing there’s always something to learn from a nemesis, as Justine Hausheer shares at The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green […]

  23. My top 3 nemesis birds (and how many times I’ve tried for them) are as follows:

    1. Pileated Woodpecker (at least 15-20 tries.)
    2. Least Flycatcher (Lost count – Probably seen it but never ID’d it)
    3. Virginia’s Warbler (2 tries, but on one I missed the bird by under 10 seconds.)

  24. Free-loading Double-barred Finches – Once when staying in the spectacularly rugged town of Kununurra in the Kimberley region of northern Australia, I went out into a nearby national park in search of the delightful little Double-barred Finch. It was hot. Very hot! Like a trooper though I stuck with it and walked around the park but to no avail. After a few hours and near dehydration, I gave up lured by the thought of a swim in the caravan park pool back in town. When I arrived back, just before taking the cool plunge I noticed several Double-barred Finches sitting on the edge of the pool. I got my finch photo but not quite the one I wanted. A fiberglass pool edge kinda mocks the wildlife photography experience.

  25. Thank you all for the wonderful comments! Justine left on a trip to do field reporting in Papua New Guinea very soon after this post went up. She will have a great time reading comments and responding when she gets back.

  26. I think my nemesis bird is the brown headed cowbird. Every spring he sits on my windsheild squawking at himself in our rearview mirrors. He leaves poop everywhere! P.S I’ve named him Lynyrd.

  27. No fair! You got my nemesis, the Florida scrub jay and you got a photo.

  28. I just bird locally (Ohio) but my nemesis bird was Hooded Merganser. I found the other mergansers easily, but Hooded took me not 1, not 2, not 3, but 7 times to find until I found it- after driving an hour away each way just to see it.