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A Rare Find

Spark Bird Vol. 1, Issue 2

By Nellie PoppinsPublished about a year ago 9 min read
Whooper Swan, from Zita's personal collection

Story by Zita Robertson

I pulled the covers over my head, half awake, listening to my Mom packing walnuts and cashews for our end-of-May birding trip. It was still dark outside, but Cleveland, my rooster, really wanted it to be morning, and he was crowing continuously. Finally, I got out of bed and let him and the hens out. We didn’t have time for breakfast, because we wanted to be at our favorite Missouri state park by sunrise.

By the time we turned into Wakonda, I was fully awake and had already recorded my first bird, an American Kestrel. I was trying to remember the scientific name for it. I knew it was Falco something, in the family Falconidae. My teacher, a retired biology professor from the local college, gave me a list of birds to memorize scientific names and families for, and I know the kestrel was on this list.

For about two years now, I have been learning from “Mr. B,” or John Bursewicz. He actually grew up in the same town as Roger Tory Peterson, but he always tells me that he is nowhere as important as Peterson is. We meet every week, and I like how he challenges me with taxonomy and anatomy, but I like ecology the best. Mr. B has shared with me many stories from his long life, and one of my favorite is from the time he was a graduate student. He and some of his classmates had their own “cells” in one of the big offices. In the same room, sectioned off in the back, was the office of Victor E. Shelford. Mr. B even had his picture taken with Shelford! It must have been exciting to be able to “talk shop” with him. I learned most of what I know about birds from Mr. B, and through him, I sort of feel connected to the founding father of animal ecology.

Shelford must have had to get up early like this sometimes, too, I thought, watching the sun slowly creep up through the faraway trees as we walked along the shore.

I noticed something on the other side of the lake.

“Mommy, wait!” I said, grabbing my binoculars.

“What did you find?” Mom asked.

“There are three big white birds, and some geese, on the opposite shore; they are probably pelicans,” I answered, lowering the binoculars. I kept an eye on the birds. Something was suspicious about the behavior of those Canada Geese.

We walked for another ten minutes or so, and the closer I got, the more I was doubting my pelican identification. For a little bit, I got distracted with some Grey Catbirds in the mulberries, but when I caught up to Mom and my brother, Zalán, I looked over to the lake, and stopped in my tracks. The bird in the middle was standing with its neck outstretched, flipping its head back and forth. It was not a pelican, for sure. But then what was it? A swan? I was still too far for the camera to take any usable pictures, and the binoculars didn’t help much. I was watching the shore, trying to figure out what it was. Long neck, all white, big. In the winter, we see tons of Trumpeter Swans, and sometimes a Tundra. But by the time the cottonwoods have leaves, all swans leave Wakonda State Park.

When the shore was finally accessible from the trail, I went out as far as I could on the sand bank. Even that wasn’t close enough to take a good picture. What is this? Why is it here? Why is it alone? There were so many questions, without a slightest hint to the answer.

“What do you see?” Mom asked.

“Well… It’s got a long neck, black legs, and it’s large…” I looked one more time, and continued, “and… yellow on the bill?” I took another step forward to see better, grateful for the rubber boots that kept my feet dry. “It’s an Old World swan.”

At the next few stops along the shore, I was able to take some pictures, but they were not good enough for me to be able to pin an exact species to the bird. To be able to get nearer though, we would have to walk another two miles around the lake, back to our starting location, then another mile to get to a lookout platform where I should be able to see the swan from.

“We have a 50-50 chance that your bird is still there,” Mom said as we walked through the parking lot, past our little blue car. I sighed, imagining what the bird looks like up close.

“Look… I think those are pelicans, Mom.” I said as I spotted two big, white birds circling above where the swan was.

“I think our chance just shrunk to 25 percent,” Mom said.

Zalán stopped and asked, “Should we still go look?” From his tone, I thought he hoped that we’d get in the car and go home to eat breakfast finally.

“I am!” I said, and kept walking.

Near the lookout, we heard one faint honk from the swan’s direction.

“Zita, how about you go ahead and get down on the shore, we’ll stay up here and rest a bit,” Mom suggested. A few more minutes, I thought, and I’ll see the rarest bird in the county.

I carefully stepped down onto the muddy shore, and saw three geese. Four… five… eight…a swan! It was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen; an elegant, very long neck, a pure snow white rest of the body, the black feet almost cartoonish, with how disproportionate they were to the body. I was able to get more pictures, this time identifiable. A Whooper Swan! It slowly walked away with the geese who seemed to have adopted the swan as a leader, following its every step, in almost complete silence.

When we got home, I immediately called Mr. B. with the news of a Whooper on Agate Lake at Wakonda.

“Well, that’s unlikely,” he said, “but if it is a Whooper, that’s wonderful, and I stand corrected. Remember, I do want to see those pictures!”

Meanwhile, Mom googled what to do if we see a rare bird, and we ended up e-mailing the Missouri Bird Records Committee. The response came within an hour. They needed a day or two to look the situation over, and they wanted to know more — did we see it fly, did we see any appearance of missing wing feathers, and did we see any bands on either leg?

“Who wants to go back tonight?” Mom said after lunch. I thought she was kidding. She never drove me birding twice on the same day.

“Me,” I said before she had a chance to say she was just joking. Zalán looked at me like I was going to go try to put a saddle on a hippopotamus instead of simply going back to the state park where there was a Whooper Swan hopefully still waiting for me.

“If we’re going back,” Mom continued with her wonderful ideas, “we should go with the kayaks.” I thought it must be my birthday or some other special holiday. This was great. “Are you coming, Zalán?” she asked.

“Only if I can ride my bike,” he said. Eventually, we decided that Dad and Zalán are going in Dad’s car with the bicycle, and Mom and I take the other car with the kayak. I loved how the whole family was involved.

We were on the water by seven in the evening, and the unusual silence and clear skies with the setting sun made it a beautiful end to the day. It was turning out to be a great trip, swan or no swan.

Around the bend, mom noticed some Canada Geese, and we stopped paddling, just in case the swan was around — we didn’t want to scare it. We peeked as we glided forward, but there was nothing.

“There it is!” I said from the front of the kayak as Mom continued to paddle against the wind. I reached back to grab the binoculars, and as I looked, it turned out that the big white blob was just a big poo on the opposite shore!

I shouted “there it is” three more times before we got to an opening in the lake where we could turn either left or right. We turned left.

“There it is!” I said once again, but this time, I was right. On the other side, straight ahead of us, there was a flock of eight Canada Geese, and right in the middle, preening its wing, was the swan.

For the following hour, I took picture after picture of the beautiful bird. It was at least 40 percent bigger than the Canada Geese, and they continued behaving as if it was their leader.

I had the pictures to show Mr. B. We even took videos and recorded sound. This time, I knew I could convince him to believe me that I saw a bird he thought unlikely to show up around here. But what about the rest of the world?

In the next few days, we were trying to get the documentation process moving forward with the Records Committee. We read about what the committee does, how birds are counted and kept track of in the different states, and dug up articles from several decades ago about Whooper Swans in our area.

Eventually, the swan was not recorded as a bird seen in Missouri, because of the high probability that it was an escapee. I had put the information up on eBird, with images and notes. On iNaturalist, my observation was immediately contested, and within a short time, based on identifications by others, it turned into a “research grade Tundra Swan.” I responded how the Records Committee confirmed my identification, and let everyone know that the markings were clearly that of a Whooper.

While I kind of understood the Records Committee decision, my experience on iNaturalist was really bothering me. I turned to the other Young Birder Mentoring Program-participants on the Slack workspace, and with more comments and suggested identifications, they were able to change my observation back to a Whooper Swan. I’m really happy that I was able to get their help. I feel that the story of my “big find” has come to a satisfactory conclusion, and if Mom ever gets up to take me birding somewhere at sunrise again, I won’t pull the covers over my head, I will be jumping out of bed to get going.

About this story

This is a true story written by Zita Robertson in 2020, when she was 11 years old, as part of the “writing module” submission for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder Mentoring Program. Neil Hayward, President of Brookline Bird Club, ABA Board Member and Program Judge provided much appreciated feedback, and Zita is excited to share the updated version here in support of the Iowa Young Birders.

All earnings from reads, any tips or pledges to the Spark Bird series here on Vocal.media fully and directly support the work of the Iowa Young Birders, a not-for-profit organization that promotes engagement with our natural world and conservation issues by empowering young Iowans to study and enjoy birds and birding.

The Iowa Young Birders does not endorse any of my other stories or series published here, and they remain independent of the views expressed in those.

To connect with the Iowa Young Birders, find them on the web @ https://iowayoungbirders.wildapricot.org.


About the Creator

Nellie Poppins

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