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.
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.
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.
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.
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.