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My Hook Bird(s)

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Thursday, January 13, 2011 

Jerry's recent post got me thinking about "hook birds." Your hook bird is the one bird that caused your first "wow" moment, and got you hooked on birding for life. I've heard some fun hook bird stories, and in a way I wish I could point to one bird as my hook bird, but I can't. I have three hook birds, each marking a different transition in my birding.

Despite growing up in the city, I feel like I've always been interested in the natural world. I know many people have a moment in their life when they realize how interesting and wonderful wildlife is, but I think I was born with a particularly strong sense of biophilia, as E.O. Wilson calls it. In fact, my first word; before "mom," "dad," or anything else; was "bird." A few years after that, I remember being impressed with my father's knowledge of the natural world. He wasn't a biologist, or a birder, or a hunter. He worked (and still works) in automotive insurance. But he loved nature, and as a young child, I noticed. I remember, at an age of less than ten - maybe five? - hearing a bird sing in my front yard, and having my dad tell me it as a chickadee. I was fascinated that he could give a name to that sound, and even tell me what the bird looked like, just by hearing it. I wanted to be able to do that. So in a way, Black-capped Chickadee was my hook bird.

You might say that a Black-capped Chickadee in my yard in Seattle was the bird that got me into birding for life. (I photographed this one near Birch Creek, Cache County, UT on 17 Jan 2010.)

But, that was hardly the start of my birding career. I was interested in birds, but also in everything else - plants, fossils, rocks, stars, mammals . . . anything natural and real. As I grew up, my focus narrowed on animals. In my last year of college, where I majored in Zoology, I took an ornithology class, but I don't remember any of those birds standing out from any others. It wasn't until I started working on my Master's degree at Oregon State University that I ever went birding for the sole purpose of finding and observing birds. My statistics professor, Dr. Fred Ramsey, was also a birder, and author of "Birding Oregon". One morning at the start of class, before we dove into p-values and correlation coefficients, he took the time to draw a simple map on the board. The "X" on that map marked a treasure: a Snowy Owl that had been hanging out in a farm field a few miles outside of town. The next day, a couple friends and I drove to check out the owl, and were suitably impressed. I think that was the first time I realized that birding was not just learning to identify the common sparrows and warblers that were resident in my area: birding could also reveal unexpected surprises. Those surprises were worth looking for. And so, Snowy Owl was my second hook bird.

A Snowy Owl in the Willamette Valley of Oregon was my second hook bird. This one was photographed in Alaska by Floyd Davidson, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

After finishing my degree at OSU, I moved to Washington, where I worked on a project studying frogs and salamanders. One of my coworkers, Casey Richart, was an avid birder. Just as I had been impressed with my father's ability to identify a chickadee by its call, I was impressed by Casey's ability to identify a raptor from what seemed like miles away. Casey and I went birding several times, and I learned a lot from those trips. We also shared a house for a while, and worked on a collective yard list (which reached 39 species by the time I moved out six months later). It was while birding with Casey that I realized that birding is not just a matter of memorizing the field marks pointed out with little arrows in the field guides, but that it is a skill that can be honed for a lifetime: learning the subtle differences in how a hawk holds its wings, recognizing the difference between chip notes of sparrows, or learning to tell the sex and age of birds. Birding was a hobby that would challenge me as long as I cared to let it.

Around the same time, I had the chance to "chase" a very rare bird that had been found right in the town we lived in: the first Redwing ever seen in western North America. (Redwing is a species of thrush from Eurasia, not to be confused with the Red-winged Blackbirds of North America.) The bird stuck around for quite a while, long enough for my aunt to read about it in the newspaper, for me to read about the bird online, and to go find the bird. When I went, I saw dozens of other birders also looking for the bird. We shared the search that morning, we shared information when we found it, and we shared optics so that everyone could get a look. It was my first rare bird chase, and I loved it. I loved seeing a bird that had never before been seen in the region, I loved the camaraderie of the group as we looked for the bird, and I loved the thrill when someone finally shouted "there it is!" as it landed in the top of a tree filled with robins. I was impressed on that day that birding isn't just an activity to do by yourself or with a friend: it can be an activity of an entire community of people who share sightings online, learn together, and share a passion for birds. That Redwing was my third hook bird. Besides showing me that there was a community of people like me who loved birds, that experience also taught me that rare birds can show up anywhere - even in your own neighborhood.

The best shot I could manage through my spotting scope of western North America's first Redwing, in Olympia, Washington, on 28 December 2004.

A flock of birders shares smiles as they watch the Redwing in a residential neighborhood in Olympia, Washington.

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Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

Here is a much better shot of the same Redwing, taken a couple weeks later:

January 13, 2011 at 3:35 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

Great post, Ryan. It's always interesting to hear how people got into this bizarre hobby of ours. Like you, I've always been interested in the natural world but didn't ever really try to ID birds until 4 or 5 years ago. I honed my skill at spotting them as a kid riding past forest preserves around Chicago with my nose pressed against the glass looking for Hawks perched in trees and on power poles. I didn't know what they were from a human-naming standpoint but I couldn't care less at the time. They were awesome. Besides that seemingly intrinsic interest, there are a couple of key events that influenced me. I'm not sure how old I was, but my parents took me and my two sisters up to Wisconsin to a town called Prairie Du Sac, famous for its wintering Bald Eagles. My father and I famously yelled as we got out of the car upon arrival - "look there are Golden Eagles too!!!!". My mother, who knew better, was somewhat embarrassed by our lack of understanding of the characteristics of the Juvenile Bald Eagle. If there's such a thing as hindsight embarrassment, I feel it every time I think about it. Same goes for the pig hat (complete with snout and ears) I also used to wear as a youngster. Such is life...
Shortly after I moved to Utah 5 years ago, my girlfriend at the time gave me a bird feeder which promptly went up in the backyard. At some point I noticed a bizarre zebra-head-striped-bird amongst the usual "sparrows" (the only backyard bird I thought existed) and determined that it must be some crazy exotic magical creature from a parallel universe. I'll always remember the story of that lifer White-Crowned Sparrow.

January 13, 2011 at 4:10 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

I have to agree with Ryan, I can’t pick just one hook bird. I remember “Camp Robbers” stealing pancakes from the griddle when my dad turned his back as we camped in the high Uintas. Ruffed Grouse that wobbled around in a drunk-like fashion along the Whiterocks drainage. Yellow Warblers, and Mountain Bluebirds near camp at Sheep Creek Lake. All memorable sightings form growing up, and all identified by my dad who knew the common birds fairly well for a non-birder. The Golden guide to birds in the door of the pickup helped with the ones we weren’t familiar with that caught our eyes. But these weren’t my hooks. I was more interested in baseball and skateboards than birds and wildlife when I was little.

Then I went duck hunting for the first time, and the first duck I shot was a Lesser Scaup—or so the biologist at Farmington Bay told me. But something didn’t look right; looking at it closely it had the most beautiful purple sheen on the neck that gave it a collar. The bill was ringed in gray, blue, and black, and it had the slightest of a crest. I remember grabbing a field guide at home and looking at the scaup. It was not a scaup. Then I found the Ring-necked Duck on the following page and knew that was my bird. It is funny that the memory that sticks out is that as being the moment that bird identification really grabbed a hold of me. A couple weeks later I had my own binoculars and a Audubon Field Guide. The following spring and summer the birds hit me like a wave. While in the Uintas at a regular summer camping local I walked a road through the ponderosas when the most curious yellow and orange bird lit on a branch just in front of me. It was my first Western Tanager and the stunning color really struck me. It has ever since been my favorite bird, exciting me every time I see one, even if I see 10, 20, 50, or 100 in a day.
Two summers later my dad took me to southeastern Arizona where I saw more lifers then I can remember. The goal of the trip was to see the Elegant Trogon in Cave Creek Canyon, and on the 2nd to last day I took a stroll up the left fork and got to glimpse a beautiful male perched 40 or so feet away. The green, red, white and yellow of that bird leave me with the same solid image in my memory as the other two events. These are my hook birds, the ones that I have a lasting memory of.

The scary thought is when I go to Costa Rica this summer, of what the new hook birds will be. Speckled Tanager, Resplendant Quetzal, and Royal Flycatcher are all on my mind for a new kind of hook—the tropics hook!

January 13, 2011 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

My father-in-law has been birding since he was 9 years old. He's 64 now. Six years ago, while visiting his home in Nampa, Idaho near Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge (Lake Lowell) he handed me a pair of binoculars and said "Let's go for a walk". I had always appreciated nature and wildlife. As a kid I loved to check out the bird guides from the library, but until that moment I had never looked at birds in the wild. Once I saw that male Bullock's Oriole, I was a slave to the birding passion.

January 13, 2011 at 6:56 PM  

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