Reflections on rarity

3 01 2007

Winter in Sapsucker Woods has seemed to be more a time to reflect on the hardy goodness of our resident chickadees and nuthatches rather than an opportunity to sniff out a foreigner among the residents. So many things are referred to as “rare”, and in the world of birds the connotation of rarity earns certain species a cachet that sends earnest twitchers out into the mists. When a vagrant or a rare but regular species shows up in a locale, it can be a welcome respite from the more familiar residents of the woodland. And some of the most interesting rare birds to an area are those that are seasonally common, but are usually absent during the winter. But what if I defined rarity without paying dues to the season?

I ask the question because of a common sighting this winter at Sapsucker Woods pond: Belted Kingfishers. Normally, spotting a kingfisher in January in Sapsucker Woods (hit refresh after loading the page) would be a rare thing for a very simple reason: ice + dive-bombing headfirst = unhappy bird. However, this year has brought us a winter without cold, precipitation without snow, and rarity without a season…

Recent sightings in Sapsucker Woods

Simply put, kingfishers aren’t at all rare when there is open water on the pond. What is rare in this situation is the weather, with temperatures 10-20 degrees above average…Rarity is a matter of semantics, a combination of timing, location, and identity. While rare unseasonably warm temperatures are leaving the trails bare and confusing the plants and animals, one thing is for sure–it’s a bit easier this year for a commonly seen kingfisher to find a good meal (check out this video for a youtube clip of a Belted Kingfisher whose eyes were almost bigger than its belly…)

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