I write this from the south shore of Lake Superior, not far from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Two days ago, while casually birding the lakeshore, my wife Sarah spotted a Black-crowned Night-heron. That's an extremely unusual bird to find as far north as the Superior shore. We put word out on the e-mail lists, and before long a group of the Upper Peninsula's intrepid birders had added the heron to their list. It was a lifer for at least one, and a new 'UP bird' for many of them.
That was plenty of fun, but there's also a serious lesson there: everyone needs to keep their eyes open for odd birds, even during the doldrums of summer. The Superior shoreline is not well-patrolled by birders during mid-summer because there just isn't much going on. The warblers have quit singing, the gulls are all the usual Ring-billed and Herring, and the shorebirds haven't started to head south quite yet. The only reason Sarah and I were there was to visit family and take a relaxing stroll along one of the world's most beautiful shorelines. That makes me wonder how many odd birds are in parks like Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands in mid-summer during peak tourist season, but they just aren't getting noticed.
What about Death Valley and Everglades in July? Those areas are avoided because of unwelcoming summer weather. Yellowstone and Yosemite may be avoided in favor of the less-crowded spots in nearby national forests or wildlife refuges. The birds, on the other hand, can show up anywhere, and if there aren't birders there to see them, no one will ever know.
Acadia National Park seems to be pretty heavily birded throughout the summer, but sometimes I wonder about that place, too. A Tufted Puffin was seen last week at Machias Seal Island, 13 miles off the coast of Maine. The Tufted Puffin is a strictly Pacific bird, one you'd see from the shores of Olympic National Park to Kenai Fjords National Park. But there it was, in Maine. (Technically New Brunswick, according to the Canadians.) The only other person who had ever reported seeing a Tufted Puffin off of Maine was a fellow named John James Audubon back in the 18th century. Audubon was known to 'forget' some details about his bird collection from time to time, causing many people doubted the veracity of his claim about the Tufted Puffin. After this month's sighting, we may need to apologize to the old man.
The lesson here is simple, and would make a good bumper sticker. Always Be Birding! No matter how crowded a spot is, how unfavorable the weather or habitat, and how unlikely the season, a rare bird can appear and the sharp eyes of even an 'off-duty' birder can pick it up.
Postscript: As I prepare to send this post off, I get word that an American Avocet has been seen near Pictured Rocks. That's another relatively uncommon bird in these parts. It also indicates something even more interesting, that the fall migration of shorebirds has already begun with July still two days away!