Birding In The National Parks: What Bird 'Sparked' Your Interest In Birding?

This week marks a bittersweet fifth anniversary of the last time I visited Yellowstone National Park. I’d love to have gone back by now, but life has conspired to keep me out of the northern Rockies.

As the host of the birding column here at National Parks Traveler, I haven’t mentioned this most iconic of national parks very much. The fact is, Yellowstone just isn’t on a typical birder’s radar. Nevertheless, it holds a special spot in my birding heart.

Most birders have what we like to call a “spark bird.” That’s the bird that showed itself to you in a serendipitous moment that led to your life-long love affair with watching all things feathered. I can tell you the spark bird of a lot of famous birders. It’s one of their vital statistics, like the batting average on the back of a baseball card.

The odd thing is, when someone asks me about my spark bird, I have trouble coming up with an answer.

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Bison, Canada Goose....and American White Pelicans. Kirby Adams photo.

There wasn’t one single sighting that stands out, but when pressed, I can say a road trip from Michigan to Seattle in 2008 stands out. One stop on that trip was an all-too-brief drive through Yellowstone. We stopped at Tower Fall and a funny thing happened. A diminutive green, white, and purple bird perched on the branch of a dead snag right along the edge of the crowded viewing area for the waterfall. I knew it was a bird I’d never seen before. And then I turned my back to one of the West’s most splendid waterfalls and I watched the bird. Approximately 1,000 people (it seemed) were facing one direction while I looked the opposite way to admire a little bird.

In the gorge near the falls we spied several Osprey nests, one inhabited by an adult bird. I knew this bird from Michigan, but something about seeing it across a narrow, yellow-stoned canyon made it very much a different experience. Apparently an Osprey is not always just an Osprey.

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Osprey nesting in the gorge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Kirby Adams photo.

Getting back to our car, my wife and I looked in a field guide we’d picked up earlier at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It turns out our little bird was a Violet-green Swallow. They’re as common as chunks of granite in the Rockies, but that didn’t matter to us. We’d seen a bird we didn’t know and we’d identified it.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were becoming birders. A little further along the road in Yellowstone, we stopped to admire some grazing bison. Between us and the park’s signature megafauna was a flooded pond filled with geese and six white pelicans. Pelicans?

In the middle of the continent? At the time, my idea of pelicans had them on the warm coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and that would be correct if Brown Pelicans were the pelicans worth thinking about.

But we had just stumbled across the species of pelican that nests in the high plains and mountain plateaus, the American White Pelican. I now know that some of the most robust pelican colonies in North America can be found in North Dakota, smack in the geographic center of the continent.

At the time, however, I was astonished to be looking at them cavorting with bison.

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Violet-green swallow in Yellowstone. Kirby Adams photo.

My wife and I often muse about how many other birds we likely saw in Yellowstone on that drive. Some that probably aren’t even on our official life list yet, but we took no notice of them five years ago, not being birders then.

Still, the Violet-green Swallow, Osprey, and American White Pelicans of Yellowstone did their job on that fateful day. They lit a fire that is burning brighter than ever today.

Looking at pictures of them right now, I can’t help but want to revisit Yellowstone. It may not be the birdiest of the parks, but I feel like there’s some unfinished business there.

I bet we saw a Clark’s Nutcracker in 2008. If so, it didn’t make the list.

Comments

For me, it was when I was a child of about 10 living in central NY State. It was winter and the snow was deep. My mother decided to put up a bird feeder where it could easily be seen. I was amazed at the diversity of birds that competed for a spot at the feeder. In addition to many song-birds, there were what seemed like intruders; pigeons and squirrels. I had my first lesson in survival of the fittest and "pecking orders". Then one day a bright red Cardinal showed up alone. I was captivated by the beauty of this bird. As time went by I always kept my eyes open for Cardinals, then, Eastern Blue-jays, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and so on. I was hooked. I now live in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains and I have 6 bird feeding stations and three Hummingbird feeders. Now, I'm interested in anything that can fly and always take joy with the discovery of a new addition for my life bird list.

My "spark" bird was the painted bunting. I had just started work at Fort Frederica National Monument in Georgia for my first summer as a historical interpreter. My interest at the time was not in birds but in the 1736 town and fort of Frederica. However, one morning as I was setting out to do the daily "dance with the deerflies" around the site to clean off the tell-tale marks of those hated birds from our outdoor displays, I noticed a shiny little bird flittering around in the bushes. I stopped for a moment to observe and it seemed that every time that bird moved it had a different color, a bright, irridescent color. I was intrigued and couldn't wait to find out what it was. When I returned to the visitor center I searched quite a while to find the park's bird guide (we were a historic park, you see) which had about a quarter inch of dust on it yet the pages were like new. After consulting with the permanent interpreters we determined it was the painted bunting I had seen, a common but sometimes shy bird that lived on the Golden Isles of Georgia. I was hooked. Before I left from my summer position to head back to college I had begun conducting "natural" history hikes in the park pointing out birds such as the painted bunting, plants like the resurrection ferns and animals such as the fiddler crabs. It was fun and I've been at it ever since. Now I work in a state park who's specific purpose is to protect habitat for Bald Eagles and provide opportunities for folks to see this majestic bird in the wild, only 20 miles from our nation's capitol. The little bunting hooked me and once I was hooked I swallowed the hook, line and sinker for life.

For me it was the trip my wife and I took to EVER, BISC, and DRTO last April. Until then I had thought of birds as pesky little creatures that would never hold still for photographs. But in southern Florida we saw such a variety of large, colorful birds up close that it was hard not to fall in love with them. Cormorants, gallinules, spoonbills, egrets, pelicans, herons, frigatebirds, and many others were so abundant and relaxed in southern Florida that it was easy to get up close and personal with them, get great photos, and in general take an interest in them. In particular I'll never forget the one flashy purple gallinule that was sitting alongside the boardwalk on the Anhinga Trail at EVER, or the floating pelicans and soaring frigatebirds when we went snorkeling at DRTO. With such an abundance of great birds to see I couldn't cite a single species as sparking my interest.

Since then I've taken a much greater interest in the birds I find here in southern Michigan. While the more exotic species that pass through on migration are certainly most interesting, I've come to enjoy even the more common species. Just this spring I followed the exploits of a mating pair of mourning doves raising their young in a conveniently-located nest.