Two hours southeast of Cincinnati is Red River Gorge, and there, as many birders know, lurks the enigmatic Swainson’s Warbler. The bird isn’t handsome—in fact, I’ve seen more attractive scat—but it is rare, so birders covet this denizen of rhododendron. Having never seen one, I found myself aflame with list lust and executed a decidedly harebrained quest to find them.
I worked all day Saturday, preventing me from doing much birding before dark. The road leading to my intended bivouac had eroded away (come on, forest service, update your webpage!), so I drifted back to a Walmart for the night. The ensuing fitful night of sleep cramped in my trunk added to the substantial body of evidence that it is impossible to sleep comfortably in a Ford Taurus. (Before I complain further, allow me to say that my sleeplessness did net me two Common Nighthawks and a mockingbird. Worth it all.)
Early the next morning, after all-too-close encounters with McDonald’s (I know, I know. But, I needed to pee, and do you know how great coffee sounds after “sleeping” in your trunk all night?), a rabbit (it died), and oncoming traffic (all parties survived), I was stumbling down the Rock Bridge Trail, lured on by the distant whistles of a Swainson’s Warbler. I hiked into the ravine, realizing that the rhododendron canopy created an opaque blanket that would fully cloak small brown birds like Swainson’s Warblers. To top it off, the bird stopped singing. I paused to pity myself, rubbing my tired eyes. Some rustling leaves interrupted my thoughts. Glancing over, I immediately spotted the Swainson’s digging around in the leaf litter fifteen feet away. No way, that easy? I thought to myself.
The bird stayed in view for about ten seconds, flying just in time for the birder couple from Washington to miss it. I felt bad—it was, as the woman said, their last North American warbler that they “needed.” For ten minutes I did all I could to help them—which, to be honest, amounted to standing there, occasionally saying, “Ah, I hear it up the ridge.” Eventually I bid them good luck and continued hiking.
I ended up seeing two more Swainson’s, as well as piles of Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers. Add that to the giant millipedes, pink lady’s slippers, and beautiful scenery, and it was well worth the drive and the tortuous night. A few hours later, when I again bumped into the Washington couple, I was happy to discover that they eventually had good views of the bird.
Get to the gorge. My only advice is to camp properly and eat something other than peanut butter for four meals straight.