This past weekend we went on an adventure. For the first time in almost a year, we slept away from home, two nights as the only guests at a guesthouse run by a former student and her parents. I was so excited to go somewhere, to be somewhere else, somewhere not home or school or our outdoor church that we’ve cautiously started having again since October. I packed my binoculars and my new hiking shoes, my bathing suit, and books to read. My husband loaded his bicycle into the car. My son emptied his school backpack of textbooks and filled it with weekend supplies.
The guesthouse is minutes from full-on city, but it’s in an area that is still wooded. I recently read that Haiti is the most deforested country on the planet, so an area with lots of trees is a true treasure. For everyone, but especially for people like me who love to look at birds.
The birding was almost too much for me. Instead of my city yard with about seven trees (I count the visible ones from neighboring yards as part of my territory), I had a quarter mile of path, with possibilities for off-path exploration too. Countless trees overwhelmed me. Sometimes I’d turn from one bird I’d been trying to bring into focus and start trying for another, only to get distracted from that one too. Instead of ones and twos like at home, the birds were in flocks.
I saw three lifers, meaning birds I’d never seen before: an American Kestrel (actually two of them on two different days), a noisy treeful of Village Weavers (the Madame Sara bird, which gave its name in Haitian Kreyol to the gatherings of market women, full of chattering just like a group of Village Weavers), and Hispaniolan Parrots. The parrots flew over in a flock of a dozen, squawking raucously, and we watched them, passing the binoculars back and forth, for about half an hour until it finally got too dark to see their gorgeous green, blue, and red plumage. It was one of those perfect experiences that I will remember the rest of my life. I also saw Palm Crows, White-necked Crows, and at least eight black Smooth-billed Anis with their floppy tails. Plus loads of colorful little warblers, Bananaquits, and hummingbirds. And Hispaniolan Woodpeckers! Once I saw three on one branch.
On Saturday afternoon, giddy from all the birds I’d seen, I followed a loud bird voice on a nearby tree, and spied someone who looked familiar: my beloved Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo. But maybe not exactly. The more I looked at him, the more I thought his breast was darker, redder than the bird I was used to seeing in my yard. This wild and crazy word came into my head: bay-breasted.
The Bay-breasted Cuckoo is very similar to the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, but the latter is smaller and lighter in color, with a slightly different beak. And the Bay-breasted is much, much rarer. While the distribution map for the Hispaniolan shows the whole island shaded blue (blue indicates a place where this bird can be found), the Bay-breasted has just a few blue dots, almost all of them completely in the Dominican Republic.
What are the odds of seeing this bird in the location where I was on Saturday afternoon? Pretty small. And soon cooler scientific heads prevailed. I got two messages from people acting on behalf of eBird. One asked for a photo. Do you take a photo when you see a unicorn? No, I didn’t have one. And even if I had, based on my previous experience with taking bird photos, it would probably not have helped my case much - most of my efforts show empty branches or, at best, a vaguely bird-shaped blur. The other message suggested that I go look at pictures of the Bay-breasted online, because it was really nearly impossible that that’s what I had seen.
Chastened, and feeling my low status as an ignorant beginning birder, I went to the website and changed my identification. Not Bay-breasted, but Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo.
Why did my heart sink a little bit? How could I think of the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo as a non-special bird, when I’ve been loving seeing its elegant long tail, black with white circles, and its graceful, curved beak, since before I even started taking all of this seriously? My brother Andy told me once about a birding mentor of his, who said (in the plummiest English accent imaginable, flawlessly imitated by Andy), “If you can’t see all the birds you want to see, you have to learn to enjoy the birds you do see.” In wishing for something just a bit more exciting, I’m like the children of Israel getting tired of manna, God’s amazing gift of food falling from the sky just for them.
And yet. Maybe it really was a Bay-breasted Cuckoo. Maybe he was a celebrity on vacation, incognito, with other birds coming shyly up and saying in their bird way, “You know, maybe it’s the light, but you really look bay-breasted. Could I have your autograph?” Unlikely? Sure. But it’s still entertaining to imagine.
Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo (Source: eBird.com)