Friday, October 22, 2010


In the quiet space between the eye and the lens of a spotting scope, a spark of excitement leapt into my consciousness, ran down my brainstem to my spine, and settled around the pounding of my heart.

A brown bird on the water, half a mile away. Small head. Long, pointed wings. The shape reminded me of a Sabine's Gull, a bird that nests in the Arctic and spends the rest of its time over the open ocean. Some of the birds, usually juveniles making their first trip south, migrate over the center of the continent. In recent years, Sabine's Gull has become an annual fall visitor to Smithville Lake.

But this was not a Sabine's Gull.

Why? I asked myself, watching the bird ride gentle waves, its head high and alert. It's just not. Wait for it to fly.

My phone rang. It was my husband, just home from work, wondering where his wife and three-year-old daughter were. "I have a bird," I said. "It's a good one." He understands me after 15 years. The tone in my voice told him it was useless to ask when we would be home. He let me go.

Adrian played nearby. From the corner of the eye that was firmly affixed to the eyepiece of my scope, I saw her start off toward the rip-rap at the edge of the lake. "Adrian..." I breathed, warning her not to go. She ignored me. The bird raised its wings and all at once started across the lake, rising into the air. All brown at this distance. No distinctive pattern on the upper or underside of the wing. Definitely not a Sabine's Gull. It's — a — jaeger.

Until this moment, I had never seen a jaeger. Like the Sabine's Gull, this family of gull-like birds is almost exclusively pelagic, and they can even be difficult to spot from the coast. To see a lot of jaegers and see them well, one must get on a boat and travel out to sea. I have never been on a pelagic birding trip, but I have spent every fall and winter for the last ten years keeping an eye open for that one stray jaeger. Because, also like the Sabine's Gull, jaegers occasionally are found on inland lakes as they take a short-cut through the center of the United States.

The last time any jaeger species was seen in Missouri was 1996. Coincidentally, that sighting was also at Smithville Lake.

As I watched the jaeger gain altitude and, with remarkable speed, cover the entire distance of the main body of the lake (which is about one mile at its widest point), I dug back in my memory to find field marks that might help me separate the three jaeger species. But, because I have never tried to identify a jaeger before, the field marks were not lodged in my brain. I even had trouble recalling all three species by name. Parasitic ... Pomarine ... and ... and ... Long-tailed.

In their brown juvenile plumage, all three are very similar. I have heard horror stories about multiple birders seeing the same bird independently, and independently they each arrived at a different identification. Knowing the identification conundrum I was up against, I simply watched the bird and took as many mental notes as I could. And I occasionally glanced toward the shoreline to make sure my daughter had not fallen into the lake.

"Adrian, I have a really good bird here," I called.

"Good, Mom!" she said encouragingly, taking off her shoes to tiptoe across the rocks.

"Adrian, did you know you're my lucky charm?" I called. Three years earlier, when she was just four months old riding on my chest in a Baby Björn, we kicked up a Common Ground-Dove in a field near our home. It turned out to be only the sixth time that particular dove species had been seen in the state.

"Yeah, Mom," Adrian replied.

She has no idea, really, but—like the man in my life—she already knows that sometimes it's best to humor me when my eye is on my scope and my heart is in my throat.

Identification, misidentification

That first evening, I spent more than 30 minutes watching the bird fly. By then, Adrian had thoroughly soaked her clothes with lake water and we needed to go home. Before we left the parking lot, I wrote down everything I observed. After making a written description and sketching the bird from several angles, I opened my Sibley field guide, confident that I would have an identification—and immediately became lost. I had no idea what I had just seen. Parasitic Jaeger? Pomarine Jaeger? Long-tailed Jaeger? I did not know. But it was time to go home.

What is the allure of identifying a bird? Most people could care less about separating a House Sparrow from a European Starling. But for me—and a good number of afflicted others who call themselves birders—the presence of a difficult-to-identify bird can cause various symptoms including a gnawing sensation in the stomach, diminished appetite, difficulty sleeping, and lack of concentration at work.

In my case, the jaeger resulted in all of the above symptoms.

When a red sun cracked the horizon the next morning, I was standing on the shore of Smithville Lake, my scope panning furiously to keep up with the powerful flight of a bird in silhouette. I waited, heart pounding, for confirmation that my jaeger was still here, that I had re-found the same bird from the night before. At that moment, the bird accelerated toward an Osprey lazily flapping toward a cove. It strafed the large fish-eating raptor in an attempt to steal its catch. The Osprey wheeled, held onto the fish, and the jaeger—yes, still here—climbed back to a higher altitude.

I jogged along the shoreline with my scope and tripod on my shoulder, my digital SLR camera banging my hip and tangling with the strap on my binoculars. Finding a clear area of shoreline, I raised my camera into the sun and tracked the jaeger, which was following one or two Ospreys around the cove. It headed directly toward me, coming closer than I had seen it before, but it was silhouetted against the sunrise and I was determined to get a photo instead of raising my binoculars. Finally, it banked with its ventral side perfectly parallel to my camera's view. Click - click - click. I checked the photo preview on my camera's LCD screen. It was all black against the sky, but there was the tell-tale jaeger tail—rounded with one or two longer central tail feathers. At least now it was documented as a "Jaeger species".

Knowing I would have the sun in my eyes from this location for the rest of the morning, I made a fast ten-minute dash in my car to the east side of the lake, heading straight for a point that provides good views of the full length of the dam and several arms of the lake. I waited for about ten minutes before the jaeger finally flew into view. I centered it in my scope and panned as it crossed the entire distance of the lake. From that moment forward, I kept the bird continuously in my scope for over an hour.

The jaeger spent most of its time flying high above the tops of the trees on the horizon. It crossed the length of the lake many times. It dipped down to the water once, picked up a fish off the water, and stayed still on the waves while it picked at and ate the fish. Then it took off, rose into the sky, and began its patrol of the lake once again. In a heart-stopping moment, the jaeger's meandering flight became more focused and intent. It dropped low to water, and suddenly there was another gull in the scope view with the jaeger. Just as the jaeger pulled in close to the gull, the gull flared its wings with its back to me, and I gasped when I saw the bold upper-wing pattern of a juvenile Sabine's Gull. The Sabine's Gull wheeled away and the jaeger gave up the chase.

But the chance to observe the bird's behavior took a back seat to my attention to the bird's plumage. The jaeger stayed infuriatingly distant, making it difficult to interpret the colors and tones I was seeing relative to the bird's topography. I watched how color and tone of the upper wing changed when the bird was flying in a relaxed attitude, compared to sharp, banking turns or more aggressive flight. Light danced on the wing and underside of the bird, changing the way my eye perceived "white" or "buff".

Finally, the jaeger settled onto the water about 400 yards away and preened while resting. This was close enough to make out some finer details, but far enough away that some details were left to interpretation. I saw a small, dove-like head. Unstreaked breast. I scribbled notes blindly onto a small notebook while keeping my right eye pressed against my scope. The bill appeared to be one-half black, and it was small and fairly straight. I scribbled more notes. When the bird took flight once more, I had a sense that I might have been closer to a positive identification.

When I returned to my car, I pulled out my field guides, compared them to my notes, and reached a conclusion: Long-tailed Jaeger.


What is worse than not knowing the identity of a bird? Thinking that you might have identified it incorrectly.

Immediately upon returning to my computer, I shared my one silhouetted image of the jaeger with the community of birders online. By the end of the day, others were calling into question my identification. I tried to stand by my original ID, but faltered in the face of my own inexperience. By Saturday, others had seen the bird and were posting pictures of the jaeger and sharing their own opinions. Some said Long-tailed. Some said Parasitic. Most shied away from a public declaration of its identification. All seemed to agree that it was not a Pomarine Jaeger, so at least we had made it 33 percent of the way toward a positive identification.

By Sunday morning—my husband's birthday—I was completely distracted in everything I tried to do. The following day, I was scheduled to take a group of birders in two pontoons out onto Smithville Lake for the annual "Smithville Lake Pleagic", which I started leading six years ago. I knew that if the bird stayed until Monday, we would have a good chance of getting close enough to get good photos and—hopefully—a good, solid, indisputable identification.

But for me, standing in the light of Sunday morning, Monday afternoon could have been a year away.

"How would you like to go on a boat trip for your birthday?" I asked my husband. He hesitated, but agreed to go. He knew it was useless to resist.

Rick and Adrian tolerate me
Rick, Adrian, and I rented a pontoon with the intention of taking it out on the water for two hours. At the two-hour mark, we had caught two tantalizing glimpses of the jaeger flying at a distance and then disappearing against the horizon, but I did not have the photos I needed. Feeling completely defeated and somewhat foolish and really selfish, I started to tell Rick to head for the marina—but then changed my mind: "No, try going that way." I pointed north. Almost immediately, we had the jaeger in our sights. And it was cooperating. The bird made several passes high over the boat as the pontoon's tiny, shredded propellor tried to keep up with the jaeger's amazing aerial speed. At last, the jaeger landed on the water.

Rick, driving the pontoon, eased up slowly ... slowly on the bird. I crouched at the front of the pontoon and clicked my camera incessantly. At a distance of about 30 yards, the bird took off, and there! I had the photo I had come for. Upper wing, under wing, flanks, breast, bill all visible in a single frame.

It flirted with our boat a few more times but never allowed a close approach, so we headed for the marina to avoid stressing the bird unnecessarily.

Looking at the photos on my camera's LCD on the way home, I said to Rick, "The bill doesn't look like it's half black. It looks one-third black." And I rattled off a few other identification points that I had learned over the last few days. "I think that means it's a Parasitic Jaeger."

When we returned home—in between putting our daughter down for a nap and rushing to make my husband a birthday cake—I quickly shared my photo with the online birding community, convinced that we now had the correct ID: Parasitic Jaeger.

But 90 percent of the comments that came back congratulated me on the identification of Missouri's fourth Long-tailed Jaeger!

The Annual Smithville Lake Pelagic

By Monday morning, I knew two things: 1) jaeger identification is hard and 2) I needed to get my hands on an excellent but out-of-print book, Skuas and Jaegers by Olsen and Larsson.

I also went into Monday having been reassured by a number of people that my original identification, based on my long period of study on Friday morning, had been correct, and that my photograph taken from the boat on Sunday verified that identification. But there was still a sense that doubt lingered among some other respected birders.

At 2 p.m. two boats with ten birders each set out from the marina to try to find the infamous Smithville Lake jaeger. After an hour of searching, we had not found the bird. A very small group of gulls was loafing on the water in one spot, and I suggested that we idle the boats in that area and attempt to "chum" with popcorn and cheese crackers. I threw out one handful of crackers. The nearby gulls reacted by flying closer to the boats. I threw one more handful of crackers. Someone on our boat shouted, "There!"

I turned around, looked up, and here came the jaeger, making that direct, intent flight straight at our boats.

The next 30 minutes have become a memory—solidified with photographs and video—that I will carry with me the rest of my life. The jaeger came to our boats and picked up popcorn from the water, only feet away. While shooting video of the bird with my iPhone, it circled us and was practically an arm's reach away from my face.

Long-tailed Jaeger, 20 September 2010
Smithville Lake (Smithville, Missouri)
No other rare bird that I have experienced compares with the Smithville Lake Long-tailed Jaeger of 2010. Each time I watched this bird—beginning with distant views on Thursday, building with the long, peaceful observation on Friday, climaxing with the birthday boat ride on Sunday, and concluding with naked-eye views of the jaeger at arm's length—a new level of detail was revealed. And although the gnawing in my gut, the distraction at work and at home, was tied to a personal desire to pin a precise name to a creature—by the time it circled our boats on Monday, its exact identification had become a quiet footnote. Instead, I gained an appreciation for individual perception, for subtleties in plumage and structure, for movement and behavior.

My desire to learn more overrode the need to assign a name. Every bird sighting should be like this.


Robert said...

Excellent article Kristi! I loved it! Sure wish I had ditched work and went. I am stupid.

Anonymous said...

Since high school I have always been fascinated by your writing abilities. For some time I have read most of your stories/blogs and they are all so eloquent and make foe a good read, in my opinion. I was up at 5 a.m. on this Saturday morning when I decided I wanted to read about this Jaeger. When I first saw your fb post of jaeger, my naievity let me assume you were somehow referring to the whiskey! I later read that it was about a bird. I know very little about birds. I do find them fascinating creatures, but even more fascinating to me is your patience for following them and then writing so beautifully about your experiences. I enjoyed reading this story so much that I shared with my mom. She loves a good story! Thank you and I look forward to more great reads!

Kristi said...

Trent: Don't feel too stupid. I have a short list of would-be Missouri life birds I "shoulda" chased ... Wood Stork (twice), FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER!!... But they'll be back.

Betsy: Thank you! It's gratifying when non-birders appreciate these kinds of stories. I loved sharing my writing with you back in the day, too. How cool that you're still reading my stuff!

BrehD said...

What a great post and beautiful pictures of you jaeger. I check in periodically to see any running posts you put up. Did you find a copy of that book? My university library has it and I'll be volunteering at Psycho WyCo. Let me know if I can bring it for a day.

Kristi said...

BrehD: Thank you! I obviously need to post more often, but things have been slow in the running department lately. I did get a copy of the book - but thanks for the offer. See you at Psycho...