I have written once in the past about utilizing Cornell Lab's eBird services, in particular the email alerts. I wrote after finding out about an active osprey nest only about 15 miles from my house, but once again, the email alerts have helped me make another exciting find, this time only 5 miles from my home... a swallow-tailed kite! If you subscribe to the Ohio rare bird alerts from eBird, no doubt you have seen the numerous reports about a swallow-tailed kite in Highland county. There have been a total of 29 reports for the bird to date, and more are likely on the way. The bird has been in the exact same area for four day straight now (today the fifth, if it hangs around; unfortunately I can't go and see today).
When I first saw the original report for a swallow-tailed kite in Highland County, I remember thinking something along the lines of:
'Wow, a swallow-tailed kite in Highland County. That's pretty uncommon, I'll have to go see that.'
That is when the truly unbirder part of me- my memory- kicked in. In completely forgot about the bird, not knowing how truly rare this species is in Ohio. Now I will be the first to admit that (unfortunately) I don't know much about many bird species that are outside of my range. Take the swallow-tailed kite, for instance. I knew that this bird was uncommon in Ohio, but I didn't realize that is plain flat-out rare. Once again, I knew that these were southern birds, but I didn't know that the furthest north their normal range goes is the coastal southern portion of South Carolina. In fact, until I actually saw the bird for myself and did some research, I knew nothing about the swallow-tailed kite other than the fact that it was an uncommon bird from the south that didn't belong in Ohio.
It wasn't until Sunday afternoon until I remembered the bird, thanks to another report from eBird (17 of them, in fact). When I saw that there were 17 reports of the bird, I instantly realized that I had been missing something, and that this was truly an extraordinary find, which meant, of course, that I had to see it for myself. Before attempting to hunt down a particular bird species that I am unfamiliar with, I always turn to my field guide and look up the bird and get a good idea of exactly what I am looking at (or for). Next, I turn to Cornell Lab's AllAboutBirds.org and listen to the birds calls, so that even if I can't see the bird, perhaps hearing it will lead me to it so that I can see it. It was during this customary process in which I glanced at the range map and noticed how truly rare this species is in Ohio- Over 450 miles out of range.
Seeing the range map settled it. Now I had to see the bird. This was (and still is) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for birders and nature enthusiasts alike in the greater Highland County area to see an extremely rare bird species at stunningly close range (I will extrapolate on this momentarily). The opportunity should by no means whatsoever be missed, if at all possible. Go see the bird. It may be decades before another one turns up in Ohio, and perhaphs even more than decades before one turns up in Ohio and sticks around for days, as this one has. But back to the point, I immediately decided that that very afternoon (all previous reports were in the afternoon, so I decided that it must be a good time to see the bird) I would search for the bird, most likely without results (the prediction was made based on most of my previous experiences in searching for birds that had been reported in my area, with nearly all of the previous instances involving waterfowl, interestingly enough). So around 2:15 I set out, and by 2:30 I was pulled over alongside the road with about 8 other birders, my binoculars trained on the soaring shape of... a swallow-tailed kite.
In the instance of a rare bird, in almost every instance (with few exceptions), it is relatively easy to find the area where the bird is, though it is much more difficult to find the bird itself. Let me explain. In the instance of a bird whos rareness (is that a word?) is of as great a magnitude as that of this bird, many birders will jump at the chance, some traveling great distances just to see the bird. Because of this, it is always easy to find the group of birders (just look for people lined up with huge cameras and expensive spotting scopes atop massive tripods; then you will know the general area that the bird is in). Once you have found the birders, you just have to find the bird, which is sometimes much more difficult. Other times, it is just as easy to find the bird as it was to find the birders who were also looking for the bird (so simple it seems complicated, huh?).
In this instance, it was the latter experience that I had- once I had found the birders, I had barely rolled down the window to ask a few questions when one birder with a huge (the word huge doesn't even propery describe his camera rig because it was so, well, huge) camera pointed above the treetops and the attention of everyone present went south... right to the bird, who had soared above the treetops and was slowly approaching. So I quickly (after moving my vehicle safely off of the roadway) jumped out and got a view with my binoculars, and then grabbed my camera to snap some long distance shots. All I had expected (actually, in reality I hadn't expected to find the bird; I actually fully expected not to) was some very bad long-distance sillhouette shots, but I fared much better. Those photos are posted below, becuase I fear that my article has become long-winded (if an article can do that). Below is one of my best shots of the bird (and a video-turned-animation... how cool is that?). And if you have a chance, go see the bird before it heads back to it's home. Just look up New Vienna Road (New Vienna, Ohio) on Bing maps, and sit there between where Jones and Connel road connect to New Vienna road. You will probably see; many have so far, and with a little luck, many more will see it yet. It will most likely be out hawking over the soybean fields, as it was when I saw it. But as always in birding, be patient. Not a bad 130th species on the life list, if I do say so myself...