Tuesday, June 10, 2014

From South Padre Island to The Astral Plane: A Cerulean Warbler Vision Quest

It was April in south Texas. Migration was in full swing...a glance at NEXRAD on any given day would likely show thousands of birds migrating over the area. I was going out to South Padre Island 3-4 times a week, the closest coastal migrant trap. I was checking eBird multiple times a day on days I was unable to get to the coast. I was, in fact, consumed.

One day I was birding the convention center, and was told that the bird I lusted for was hanging out down at the Sheepshead lot. Off I went. For an hour and a half I walked in circles, trying to find it. I even ignored a newly-arrived vagrant Red-headed Woodpecker, so focused I was. But birds come and go from the island all the time, and the area was so small I assumed that if I could not find it, it had already departed. I was wrong.

A quick check of eBird later that night had revealed the truth....someone had seen the bird after I had given up. It had been there the whole time. I had dipped...I was furious. I bashed my head into the wall, and blood poured from my forehead. Reeling and foaming at the mouth, I flipped over a table and howled with rage. My coworkers tried to restrain me, but were of little help. They didn't know...how could they? I could see the fear in their eyes, which only encouraged my disturbing grip-off episode. "Don't judge me you bastards!", I screamed at them, flailing my arms wildly. Eventually my anger dissolved into tears, and I fell into a catatonic depression that lasted through the night.

Cerulean Warbler was the bird I needed to meet. I had never seen one. Having done most of my birding in California, it was not an optimal state to be living in to see this bird. They show up every few years, but they are notoriously difficult to get within the state's borders. It's a major blocker for a lot of birders. Still, it was something that us vagrant-hunters hope for, but my yearnings have gone unrequited. I have had my chances elsewhere...I am no stranger to birding the east. Many years ago I heard one singing high in the treetops at Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, but I could not lay eyes on it. Since then, I have had trouble sleeping, but my dreams are always vivid, and generally disturbing. I even dreamt of seeing a Cerulean Warbler once, which triggered a weeklong bout of insomnia...I had to stay awake, in case I was meant to find the Cerulean. And so the years went by, and I saw many new birds...a Baird's Sparrow here, a Whiskered Auklet there...but not the bird that has haunted me for far too long.

The spring of 2014 was meant to be my time. The Spring of Steve. It would be the first time I had ever spent an entire spring anyplace where Ceruleans can actually be expected. If I was going to meet my target warbler, it would be this year. Along the Texas coast, Ceruleans lie somewhere on the spectrum between rare and uncommon...it's not a bird you expect to see on any given day, but it's something that could show up at any time. And show up they did....but never at the right place, at the right time.

One week and twenty-six stitches later, I did my usual bedtime check of eBird. There it was...another Cerulean Warbler report from South Padre Island. It was a single observer report of a female, and had no documentation. My eyebrows were raised. South Padre Island is saturated with sketchy birders who misidentify things left and right....this was not an observer I was familiar with. I decided to sleep on it, which was an interesting experience in its own right...I had dreams of no other than a female Cerulean Warbler, bouncing around in the trees of the convention center. The dream was startling in its realness. It almost seemed that she was reaching out to me, beckoning me to gaze upon her pleasant yellowy greenness.

After work the next day, there had been no further reports....but what the hell? The birding gods, or possibly the warbler herself, had reached out to me the night before, and who was I to ignore any of them? Why not head to the coast? And I did. Puttering around the convention center did not result in any adrenaline-producing warblers, but the birding wasn't bad. I began to feel secure about an absence of Ceruleans in the area, and I should let it go and just enjoy myself. Eventually, my coworker showed up, who was a casual birder. I briefly had walked away from him to check another patch of trees when he texted me..."female Cerulean over here". I sprinted back to the spot, clotheslining several photographers along the way. They hissed and clawed at my legs viciously, but they were no match for a power birder who was on his way to meet his nemesis. One waved his gigantic 600mm lens at me in some sort of threat display, reminiscent of a fiddler crab, but with no burrow in sight he quickly fell to the ground and curled into the fetal position when I came near. "Don't hurt me", he said in a feeble whimper. "I just want to see Indigo Buntings".

It turns out that the woman who had found the Cerulean the previous evening had refound the bird, despite no one being able to locate it all day. She was decidedly not a sketchy birder. I walked up to where she and my coworker were standing, and they pointed at the tree it was in. It was surely right in front of me. We waited. And waited. Another birder said he saw it from the other side of the tree, but quickly that became suspect. I started to panic. Where was the bird? The worst-case scenario that had flashed through my head only a few minutes before was becoming true...my coworker had somehow effortlessly and nonchalantly seen the bird I had fruitlessly waited almost 20 years for. I started to get weak in the knees and moved off to vomit a strange, viscous, black oil into the shrubbery.

And in a split second, things would never be the same. The female Cerulean Warbler appeared, bouncing around above us for a good 10 minutes, sometimes coming down to eye level. A strange, high wailing sound began to become apparent, and it took more than a moment to realize that it was coming from me. Tears were streaming down my face, and for some reason my head wound had opened up as well. Nearby birders, recognizing me as United States #7, gathered around me in awe, hoping to join the spiritual experience. One woman gently touched my cheek, collecting some tears and blood, and dabbed the scarlet mixture onto her khaki shirt. The Cerulean Warbler began to glow, and for a minute it's green and blue rays elevated me to a place that I had never been before, and may never visit again.

A few minutes later, after the emotions and bodily fluids had subsided somewhat, a cry rang out from around the corner. An adult male Cerulean Warbler had arrived! The bird was not as cooperative as the female had been, but it was only a few minutes before it's crippling effects began to take hold of me. It was much, much more than what I had hoped it would be. How could such a bird, with only a simple palette of blue, black and white, be so facemelting? It made a male Black-throated Blue Warbler look like a goddamn Abert's Towhee in comparison. Fifteen minutes after I had first contact with the male, my body could not handle the observation anymore. With limbs locked and twisted, some birders eventually had to carry me to my car (a serious chore, considering all the wretched, retribution-seeking photographers we had to avoid) , and it was another hour of groaning and drooling until I recovered enough to drive off.

That night, I again dreamt of the female Cerulean. Under cover of darkness, she was surely migrating north over mainland Texas at that very moment. For a brief instant, she had left her earthly flightpath for a detour through the astral plane, where we briefly looked each other in the eye, one last time. Since then, I cannot help but wonder...what will I have to sacrifice, what part of me will I lose, in order to see that next nemesis bird? But I sleep soundly now, for I am not afraid.

I have seen the Cerulean Warbler.


  1. Goddamn Abert's Towhee.

    This is great. Glad you got it before heading home. This is an exceptional bird.

    1. Thanks buddy. You go for Bastrop STKI yet?

    2. No, already have an east TX trip planned for this weekend. Hoping for STKI crushes there. Taking Laurence for EASO at GFNGF this evening.

  2. My god that is an epic retelling.