Many birders have made specific plans to see a certain bird, what is often referred to as a target bird. Rare or unusual birds are typical targets, or it might be a special bird in a certain area. Endemic species – birds only found in one limited area – are other popular targets, as are vagrant birds that appear far out of their expected range.
The Florida scrub-jay is a popular target in my area, and these bold, curious jays with their bright blue plumage, white markings and fondness for peanuts are highly sought after not only by local birders, but many visiting guests. There is a Florida Scrub-Jay Festival held annually in different hotspots around the state where these birds are common residents, and there are occasional birding walks designated just to find scrub-jays. I attended such a walk recently at a local urban sanctuary in the hopes not necessarily of seeing the scrub-jays – I already have them as a lifer – but rather to simply learn about the sanctuary and the best birding trails within it so I could revisit at my leisure.
The walk was all I’d hoped for – spectacular views of the scrub-jays (though I didn’t actually see the one that landed on my head, but I’ll never forget it!), and a good overview of the sanctuary so I can visit again. But what surprised me most wasn’t the birds I’d gone there to see or the reason behind the walk itself, it was the unexpected lifer I saw so beautifully.
Of course, even if a birding walk has just one intended target bird, you can’t get a group of birders together without watching for every other species along the way. One of those unintended species was the eastern towhee that perched so willingly just eight feet away from the path, singing robustly, show off all its glory. It was even the white-eyed variant of this species, a subtle distinction only found in Florida eastern towhees.
I was actually surprised to check my life list and realize this bird was indeed a new lifer. I’ve seen the western counterpart, the spotted towhee, many times, and helped other birders identify eastern towhees on different occasions, but this was the first time I’d been privileged to see the bird myself, live and in all its feathered fabulousness. It may not have been the bird I intended to see, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget, and a good reminder to never limit yourself to one bird, one target or one intention – you never know what else may fly your way.