Have you ever found a needle in a haystack? If you can imagine the satisfaction of finding something extremely rare or beautiful, then you have a hint of what motivates an enthusiastic viewer of birds, or a "birder."
Because they fly, some birds can show up in odd places. Migrant birds appear sometimes to simply head in the wrong direction. For example, a few years back a golden-crowned sparrow traveled 2,000 miles east from its western Canada breeding range to Missouri, rather than to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
Sometimes birds seem to forget to migrate altogether, such as the Cape May warbler that stuck it out at a north Kansas City feeder during the winter of 1995. Although the warbler should have been in the West Indies or Central America, instead it entertained countless birders who traveled to Kansas City from several states to see it.
Not all the species of birds that interest birders are as spectacular or as beautifully colored as a Cape May warbler. A bird's appeal sometimes lies in subtle cues, such as plumage shade, body conformation or behavioral traits, that separate one species from another.
Correctly identifying Clark's and western grebes requires the observation of such subtle clues. Classified as the same species until a few years ago, they are now separated into two, primarily by the slightly darker plumage of the latter. Either is an exciting find in Missouri.
The identification of an Anna's hummingbird in Columbia required close observation plus a photograph to prove to others that it was real. When someone reported that a hummingbird was visiting flowering cannas on Oct. 30 (too late for our common ruby-throated hummingbird), a birder who lived a block away put up a sugar-water feeder in hopes of getting a closer look. Sure enough, the bird found the feeder. Over the next two months of its stay, not only was it photographed, but hundreds of birders showed up to check off Missouri's first record of this West Coast hummer.
The ways that nature displaces birds are almost as varied and interesting as the birds themselves. Those that migrate the wrong direction may be inherently abnormal. Research shows that a bird that flies the wrong direction during fall migration and survives may repeat the incorrect flight the next fall. A yellow-billed loon that winters at Table Rock Lake displays this behavior. It should be on the West Coast with its colleagues.
Sometimes birds end up where they never intended to travel. The groove billed ani in central Missouri in October 1979 may have come north from southern Texas in a delivery truck. The Inca dove that a homeowner discovered in Mound City in northwest Missouri may have been accidentally shipped, but it probably came on its own accord. Regardless of how it got there, it was a mistake. Adapted to the southwestern deserts, it appeared in December 1987 shivering next to a house foundation beneath a clothes dryer vent.
One of the most dramatic ways that birds become misplaced is by weather. An alert resident found a sooty tern, an ocean-going species, alive but dying on the Osage River south of Jefferson City on Aug. 5, 1995. The date corresponded with Hurricane Erin, which hit the Gulf Coast a few days earlier. The resultant huge rain storm that moved up the Mississippi River Valley probably transported the bird aloft for hundreds of miles, resulting in one of few inland sightings of this tern anywhere on the continent.
Although it makes sense that storms, trains, trucks and genetics could be responsible for unusual bird occurrences, we would rarely have any way of really knowing how these birds lose their way. All we know is that rare things are special. And when they are living, active and brilliant, they are truly nature's finest works.
Rare birds don't necessarily show up in rare places -- backyards host their fair share, too. Hummingbirds provide one of the best opportunities for the backyard birder to attract a truly "rare" bird.
In August, a few lucky hummingbird feeders attract striking orange birds -- rufous hummingbirds, a western species. The less colorful female and juvenile rufous hummingbirds migrate later -- some as late as December.
In fact, any hummingbird seen in Missouri past mid-October is to some degree a rarity. Hummingbirders who maintain their feeders later in the year may not only attract rufous hummingbirds, but have the potential to attract even rarer species. Broad-tailed, black-chinned and Allen's hummingbirds are but a few of the species that probably pass through Missouri but have never been documented. When they are detected, it will be in someone's backyard -- maybe yours.
And don't worry, leaving a feeder up until December will not delay the migration of our usual hummingbird, the rubythroated hummingbird.