Confronting the “R”

By: Christy Esmahan, Travis Audubon Master Birder

If you are as obsessed with listing on eBird as I am, it is agonizing when you enter a sighting and find a red dot and an “R” next to your bird’s name. Your fingers tremble slightly, and you wonder if you have the energy for this. That happened to me not once, but five times over the last few days.

That “R” stands for “rare” and it means you’re reporting a bird that has never/rarely been seen in that area. The scientists at Cornell rightly set this up to warn you to double-check your entry.

My first “R” came at the Hazel Bazemore Park with a Lincoln’s Sparrow that I mis-identified as a Song Sparrow.  Mel, the local eBird guardian, was patient with me and examined my photos, pointing out that Lincoln’s can have breast spots.

I wasn’t lucky enough to get a photo for any of the other cases, either because I didn’t have my camera, or I wasn’t fast enough.

At Sunset Park I saw white stripes on a bright blue wing. Cerulean Warbler, I thought, shifting to get a better view. But the bird was skittish. A rich cinnamon/rust colored upper chest and a flash of a white belly. Eastern Bluebird? I pished and its blue head with the wrong, too-big beak popped out, then it flew away, immediately followed by another bird which was clearly an Indigo Bunting. Could it be? But, they’re not found in this part of Texas! I hesitated several hours, thoroughly researching the bird before I confronted the “R” with Lazuli Bunting.

The next morning, I saw a Couch’s Kingbird and was about to enter it in eBird when the bird began singing, very stuttery and fast. Tropical Kingbird! This “R” was easier as I knew the call well and soon ran into another local birder who corroborated my sighting.

At a park in Beeville, a Bobwhite called loudly. Also another “R”, but we managed to get a sound recording, and eventually, a brief look at the quails as they darted through the tall grass.

Finally, stopping in Seguin we heard a Tropical Parula (TRPA) calling loudly. I know that call, having heard and studied it. Our bird was bright yellow from its chin to the end of its belly, with no chest band, a dark head, back and wings! But for this “R” I really wanted a picture. Try as I might, though, it was impossible. It was high up in the tree, darting from branch to branch and the automatic focus on my camera frustratingly homed in on the closer leaves. We tried to get a recording of its call, but with the loud waterfall, nothing could be heard. I agonized about whether to report it, but finally, my husband convinced me that it was the right thing to do. It’s been a disruptive year for TRPAs, with one recent sighting in Austin. The beauty of eBird—and confronting the “R”—is sharing (and sharing in) unexpected findings.

Photo: Northern Bobwhite, taken by Christy Esmahan