Saturday, March 19, 2011
I issue you a challenge: go to Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon during the winter, look out over Lake Michigan, and avoid seeing the clouds of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks swarming over the water. Accomplish this, and I will surrender you my binoculars, complete with the casserole composed of granola bar crumbs, sand, and dried snot caked in the ocular lenses.
So why care about one measly Long-tailed Duck at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, a mere half-hour away? Well--Pere Marquette is on Lake Michigan, and Riverside Park is, as its name implies, on the Grand River in landlocked Kent County. Context is important.
But still--why care? There's the superficial excuse of county listing. County listing--the fun and often addicting practice of listing birds seen within a particular county--isn't the entire answer. My Kent County listing career has suffered from limited transportation; ninety-eight percent of my birding takes place either on campus or at Reed's Lake a few miles away. As satisfying as it was to tick Bucephala hyemalis (errr...Clangula...thanks JOHG) on my Kent County list, it wasn't the sole reason for seeing the bird.
Hmmm. The Grand River is choked with ice during the winter, and all the ducks are forced into small patches of open water within feet of the shore. That's it--this particular Long-tailed would offer close, extended study, resulting in a more satisfactory duck experience than the distant flock scenario. But, what of the hormone-charged male Long-tailed displaying to a group of disinterested females within peeing distance at Pere Marquette? Those were good views, for sure--and the birds were even calling.
Seeing birds in unexpected places is one of those inexplicable joys of birding. Let's examine hypothetical situation. If a Barrow's Goldeneye appeared at Riverside Park, would you chase it? Or would you fly to Seattle and watch a whole flock of them? In an ideal world, I would prefer the latter, but the former is more convenient when there's only an hour available before class.