Monday, December 19, 2011

Best Bird of the Year

The good folks at 10,000 Birds are soliciting stories about everyone's "best bird of the year". That gave me a good excuse to avoid more productive work and relive a great twelve months of birding. Best Bird is quite an honor and not to be bestowed lightly.

Was it the Black-crowned Night Heron in Big Cypress National Preserve on the third day of the year? I'd been oddly missing that relatively common heron from my life-list. (And he had only one foot - a sentimental favorite.) Likewise I finally got an incredible Snowy Owl at Tawas Point State Park in Michigan just last week. Then there was the life Mourning Warbler at Magee Marsh in Ohio during the holy season of spring migration. Who could forget the Bobolinks lining the fence posts in Canaan Valley in West Virginia, singing like an army of R2-D2's? Even the Black Vultures in Everglades National Park that seemed intent on eating our windshield wipers were pretty special.

But I think the "best bird" is the one that stirs the birder's heart the most. In that case, the choice is clear.

McCormick Tract (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

On a cold November morning a few weeks ago, the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan had just received its first snow of the year, and it was a good one. The North Country Trail was covered with 18 inches of white powder as it sliced through the wild McCormick Tract, an hour west of Marquette in some of the UP's most beautiful, if not wholly pristine wilderness.

The North Country Trail (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

Here we found Gray Jays. Some folks call them Canadian Jays. Others call them "camp robbers" with good reason. Many northerners know them as the Whiskey Jack. This is an  Anglicized form of the name Wisakedjak, who was a trickster god of Algonquian mythology. (Supposedly Wisakedjak caused a flood that destroyed the world, which seems like more than an annoying prank, but who am I to judge?)

My name is Perisoreus canadensis. (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

Gray Jays are well known for being quite friendly around humans, particularly those who offer crumbs of blueberry muffin.

Sarah and a new friend. (Photo: Sue Wolfe)
Spotting a Gray Jay or two on a snowy morning in Northern Michigan is nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought back memories of my life Gray Jay.

 It was the summer of 2010, and my wife Sarah and I were exploring Newfoundland, which was becoming our favorite spot in the world. Having boned up on the potential new birds we'd see, we both reacted excitedly when something looking like a giant chickadee appeared in a spruce in Terra Nova National Park. A Gray Jay! We'd just nabbed our life Boreal Chickadees and were about to cavort with whales and icebergs. We'd spent the previous day watching thousands of Northern Gannets plunge-diving among spouting fin whales off of Cape St. Mary's. Life was good.

The lifer Gray Jay in Terra Nova National Park, Newfoundland. (photo: Kirby Adams)

Newfoundland was all about wonder. A new place to explore, new birds to see, new oceans to smell. A sating of the wanderlust, if such a thing is possible.  Life and its cohorts (time and money) conspired to keep us away from that rocky island in the North Atlantic this year.

Then a Gray Jay landed on Sarah's hand and for just a moment we were back in Terra Nova. I couldn't help but thank him.


  1. Gray Jays are fascinating birds. I first saw them in the White Mountains in Arizona. That last photo is amazing!

  2. Thanks, Jeremy! That Arizona population is interesting - at least from the looks of the eBird map. Significantly isolated from the rest of the range in the Rockies, yet seemingly abundant in that one area.