The Yellowhammer Effect
A few years ago, when Bob and I took a Sunbird Tour and visited the Czech Republic to do some birding and hear some music, we were treated to looks at a variety of birds, many of which were well known to the European members of our tour. I pointed to a colorful bird that was perched high on a tree and said, “What’s that?” A member of the tour said, “That’s a Yellowhammer. We see those in our backyard.” “Oh, said I,” recognizing that what was an everyday bird for some was not an everyday bird for all. I should have remembered that lesson when we took a Swedish gentleman out birding in New Jersey.
This is how it worked out. A week ago our friend from Sweden, Magnus Aurivillius, had some unexpected time off, and he messaged me to ask whether we would be free to take him out birding somewhere. Bob and I had nothing special to do that day – Bob is still recovering from surgery on a broken arm – so we said, “Sure,” and arranged to meet him downtown at the hotel where he was staying, near the Convention Center.
We decided that a trip to Belleplain, NJ would be the best choice for this time of year. It has wonderful habitat, and is home to a variety of nesting birds, many of which would still be vocalizing, we hoped.
So we picked him up at 6:30 AM and headed south on the Expressway toward Routes 55, 347 and 47. We stopped at the usual WAWA, picked up sandwiches and continued on toward Belleplain, a short distance away. (The drive there took about 2 hours.) We stopped along the dirt road whenever we heard vocalizations, and found Worm-eating, Black-and-white and Pine Warblers, among others.
We went from there to the bridge on Sunset Road to look for Prothonotary, Yellow-throated and Hooded Warblers as well as Northern Waterthrush. We had luck with the Hooded and the Yellow-throated, but the others were nowhere to be seen. Magnus was happy to see the Yellow-throated at close range. He had not seen one for several years.
We had lunch at the picnic area at Nummy Lake, where we enjoyed the company of Chipping Sparrows and Common Grackles.
Next stop was along Franks Road to look for tanagers. We had great looks at a female Summer Tanager, and saw Scarlet Tanager singing from a treetop.
But here’s where the Yellowhammer Effect came in. On our way out of the forest we saw a Gray Catbird in the bushes on our left. I said, “Do you want to look at a catbird?” Magnus enthusiastically said, “Yes, I’d like that!” So we all got out of the vehicle, and he carefully examined every field mark on the catbird.
We who live here in this area take catbirds for granted. A pair nests in our backyard every spring. But to Magnus, catbirds are seen very rarely, and only on a trip to North America. We had not considered that in making our plans for the day. If we had, we would probably have taken him to a spot closer to home, like Forbidden Drive or Tinicum, where he could have seen our everyday bread-and-butter birds: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Song Sparrow, American Goldfinch, and, of course, Gray Catbird. Then we would not have spent so much time driving. Next time he visits and wants to go out birding again, we’ll stay local.