THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The one that got away.  Experience tells us that not all birds can be ID’ed, especially if they got away before critical marks could be noted. What hurts the most is when the one that got away was certainly something quite out of the ordinary for the time and place. This happened years ago to Francis M. Weston and Fred Wicke. And it happened more recently to Bob and me.

Weston and Wicke were driving west on the Ft. Pickens road, no doubt anticipating seeing spring migrants at the old fort.  Now keep in mind that this was in the l930s or ‘40s, before field guides were beautifully detailed, before extralimital species were included in those guides, and possibly before many – if not most – extralimital species had even been found in the United States! Suddenly a bird flew in from the Gulf and north across the narrow roadway right in front of their car.

Fred Wicke described the bird as having a long streamer for a tail, and shouted for Mr. Weston to stop. Weston kept on driving. Fred was flabbergasted. Why didn’t his mentor stop and try to ID the bird? “Why didn’t you stop?!” he asked. Mr. Weston replied, “The bird’s not in the book, and we have no way to ID it.” And on they drove.

Nowadays we have dozens of books with which to ID rarities, and not just books of North American species. A complete library for the Southeast might include field guides to birds of Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, South America, and Europe. After all, birds have wings. They fly. And some make tragic miscalculations and end up where they shouldn’t be. They can be swept up by storm winds or just hanging out with the wrong crowd (of birds) and follow along ending up in strange latitudes.

Bob and I were driving west along the Ft. Pickens road back on a fall morning, when suddenly I saw a strange bird alongside the road in the grass. It was midnight black. The size and shape of an American Robin. And the legs, the LEGS! The legs were bright red. We screeched to a halt and did a uey, and I practically tumbled from the car, binoculars in hand. The bird was nowhere to be found, and after an hour, we finally gave up. And we never saw its face or bill.

So what was this mystery bird? We have pretty good guesses based on birds we’ve seen ‘south of the border’ and from scouring some of those field guides from the tropics. But we’ll never know for sure. It was certainly the one that got away.

By Lucy Duncan

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