This northern lapwing never had a chance. The world of birding has changed.
It’s a mobile, high-speed, interconnected planet. Formerly, birding was a solitary pursuit, which appealed to shy, retiring introverts like myself. When a rare bird showed up, the fastest way to hear about it was through gossip. Eventually, it might be mentioned on a weekly bird line or listed in the newspaper. Usually, by the time word got out, the bird had flown the coop.
No more. Cellphones, text messages, emails, tweets, GPS and digital cameras have transformed birding into a social activity — a vast left- and right-wing conspiracy. A century ago, the surest way to confirm the presence of a rare bird was to shoot it. Many collections of dead rare birds are still in museums. We no longer open fire on rarities. We merely surround them and talk them into giving themselves up. “Come out with your wings up.”
And so it was that that I tracked down this northern lapwing in Bridgewater, Mass. The bird was discovered shortly after Hurricane Sandy and has stuck around. It was present during the Thanksgiving holiday, but I couldn’t slip away because there were precious few hours to spend with the in-laws. When the bird lingered in its favorite cornfield through December, I jumped in the car on the day after Christmas and snuck away long enough to get my lifer.
A northern lapwing is as rare as an NRA bumper sticker on a Prius. The lapwing is a shorebird in the plover family, common and widespread across Europe and Asia. It is similar to the killdeer and behaves the same way, but it is larger, crested and more strikingly colored. Like a killdeer, its call is a loud and sharp two syllables. It sounds like peewit, and so is also known by that name in Europe. In winter, it migrates to the Persian Gulf and areas along the north coast of Africa.
During fall migration, cyclonic storms can snatch a few of these lapwings off their course and throw them across the Atlantic. After Hurricane Sandy, one or two were seen briefly in Maine, several were sighted on Cape Cod, but only the Bridgewater lapwing remained in one location for an extended period. For me, the hardest part was finding Bridgewater. Massachusetts is a collection of oversized colonial towns connected by random cow paths. The addition of pavement has scarcely improved the road system. Pavement only accelerates the pace at which one gets lost. Thank you, Google Maps.
While Internet maps were helpful, the most useful tool for tracking down this lapwing was the proliferation of rare bird alert websites and listservs. Not only was I able to follow near daily reports on the bird, but I could also track exactly where it was being seen in the immense fields common to that area. I was forewarned to look for particular hay bales and start my search from there. It worked. I even Googled images of this particular bird so that I would know exactly what it looked like, given that it was in post-breeding plumage and far, far from home.
One step to becoming more networked with Maine’s birding community is to visit Maine’s Rare Bird Alert. Just type “Google maine birds” into your search engine and the appropriate Google group should pop up. You can see recent sighting reports and even join the listserv. Be forewarned: like all listservs, you have to sift through many pebbles to find the gold nuggets. Maine Audubon maintains several email lists, depending on whether you want to know about nature activities or environmental issues, and Audubon augments this email system with Facebook and Twitter. The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon maintains an email alert system to provide members with updates, as do other chapters.
National connections serve Maine birders well. Visit eBird.org to examine a real-time checklist program which was launched ten years ago by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The utility not only allows birders to keep track of their own sightings, but automatically enters their information into a citizen science database that helps scientists track trends. There is even a Maine eBird portal dedicated to our area. Cornell also runs a bunch of other backyard projects enjoyed by many Mainers.
If you do it right, birding can still be both a solitary pursuit and a social activity. It’s truer than ever: birds of a feather flock together.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Reach Bob at email@example.com.