Some years ago, my friend and I were out birding here in Colorado. It was a month or so after Hurricane Katrina had inundated the Gulf Coast, but that fact was far from our minds on that early morning in August. We had stopped at a little pond alongside the road to check out the ducks and waders, when we spotted a large brown-striped bird standing at the edge of the water. It looked a lot like the bird in this photo (which is courtesy of Laura Gooch via WikiCommons—thank you).
At the time, we were both fairly new birders. We didn’t own one scope between us. As the bird was on the far shore, we took turns squinting through our binos and consulting our field guide. Our view wasn’t nearly as good as the photo here.
We immediately ID’d our subject as a juvenile Night-Heron—the S-shaped neck, the large size, and the habitat made that easy even for beginners. (See last month’s bird quiz answer on Night-Herons.) That’s where we got stuck. Black-crowned Night-Herons are fairly common around here. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron would be a rarity worthy of reporting (and a new life bird for me). Yes, the bird looked like a Yellow-crowned, but it couldn’t be that. (I never expected to see birds that are represented by little green “accidental sightings” dots in the field guide.) So we called it a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron and went home.
The next day we saw the post on CO-birds (one of our Colorado rarities hotlines). A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was seen in southern Colorado Springs! Everyone was rushing to see the bird, most likely blown out of range by a recent hurricane. We could have been the ones to report it first, but our lack of confidence betrayed us. (The adult, shown here, would have been easy to ID.)
I learned a lesson that day. Yes, we should always consider a bird’s expected range and habitat. But you never know. The birds don’t read the books, and there are no fences holding them where they “belong.” Rare sightings happen. Trust your instincts, be sure of your identification, and document with photos if possible. You could be looking at a lifer.