Phantom Birding

Heard about the possible ivory-billed woodpecker trailcam footage?  It’s the best hope anyone’s had in a long time of showing the extinct bird to have some kind of continued existence.  Or is it?  My money’s on fuck no, rufk?  This bird is the USA’s thylacine – a thing of dreams whose sad reality is well understood by the knowledgeable.

But there are ways of confirming this, besides repeated sightings or capturing a specimen.  Ivory-billed are not very closely related to pileated woodpeckers, despite appearances.  They are likely another case of the recently documented phenomenon of look-alike woodpeckers around the world.  And without a close relative in the neighborhood, some kind of trace environmental DNA (eDNA) could be a smoking gun.

In my own neck of the world, I am not interested in hunting ghosts, but I am discovering the magic of invisible birdies.  There’s a birding app that identifies bird calls.  Just recently started using it, and discovered there at least several species living in my neighborhood that I’ve never seen, or only glimpsed long ago.  If I practiced my ear enough, I could experience them all the time – at least as long as they’re singing.

So if you live in my suburb, about halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, you would see crows, seagulls, pigeons, starlings, and dark-eyed juncos every day.  Very often you’ll see chickadees, robins, mallards, and canada geese – which may include cackling geese, I’m ill-practiced at telling the difference.  Less often you’ll see great blue-herons, coots, steller’s jays, white-crowned sparrows, spotted towhees, northern flickers, red-breasted nuthatches, bushtits, red-winged blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, house finches (&/or purple finches, I can’t tell the diff), or – downtown – house sparrows.  Less often still, goldfinches, about four species of woodpecker, a few types of swallows and swifts, cedar waxwings, killdeer, and a few species of owls, bald eagles, ospreys, and cormorants.  I have very rarely seen a western tanager or belted kingfisher.

But apparently golden-crowned kinglets are still doing well for themselves.  The app got their number.  I haven’t seen one in several years, but there are little flocks hiding in the trees.  A type of tree-trunk-crawling weirdo called the brown creeper is also getting along very well, in areas of thicker forest.  Bewick’s wrens are everywhere, marsh wrens in any given stretch of wetland.  There’s a bird so common in town it must have numbers to rival the much more visible guys – song sparrows are making noise everywhere.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

More surprising to me are the black-headed grosbeaks.  Never seen anything like them, and apparently, they’re common here, especially where there are more trees.  Also the warblers.  Black-throated gray warblers and wilson’s warblers are in any forested spot, usually completely unnoticed by me.  This is where I stop recounting boring lists of birds and start recounting my sins.

You’re not supposed to play bird songs on your phone to summon birds.  This is a thing you can do, but it’s rude to the birds, and can waste their precious survival resources.  I played back the song of wilson’s warbler just to hear it, and one came out of the forest to find out who the fuck I am.  Sorry little bro, I am not a wilson’s warbler.  But it was so cute I’m sorely tempted to do this again.

But I won’t.  Pinky swear.


  1. says

    oh i forgot to mention i’ve seen a few varied thrushes in my apartment complex, brown-headed cowbird (did a post about that one), i saw one bluebird ever, some brewer’s blackbirds over in puyallup, and one possible green heron. down by where i work in the valley, i’ve seen some kind of jay i couldn’t identify – one of the plainer types – gray jay or california scrub-jay. seen some falcons i couldn’t dream of IDing because those bitches all look the same at a distance.

    more birds i’ve never seen but that the app seemed confident about: pacific-slope flycatcher, western wood-pewee, purple martin, and hutton’s vireo. the last one was noted as outside of its range or season, but every time it peeped, the app had the same ID.

  2. says

    my bf and i spotted this bird at the shore once that neither of us can remember for shit tonight, but i think it was the pigeon guillemot. and of course, i’ve seen some other random waterfowl from time to time – scoters once, goldeneyes and wood ducks more often, but only barely. take my life list, scallywags. i don’t even give a shit anymore.

  3. SasquawkFinders says

    On our latest road trip, I incidentally added three life birds: Song Sparrows, Field Sparrows, and Fish Crow. The last is only really distinguishable from the American Crow by it’s call, which is pretty distinctive. So, in that case, I trusted the call ID because I was staring at a Crow when the app detected it. I was delighted to visually confirm the two Sparrows after recording their songs.

  4. says

    my hometown seems to be freakin infested with song sparrows, but i don’t think i’ve ever caught more than a fleeting glimpse, never enough to ID. this app is a trip tho.

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