Stalking the Wild Flister
There’s a song in the cult classic film Pink Flamingos the title and sole lyric of which is “the bird is the word”. It’s not much of a song but it expresses a philosophy that’s shared by flocks of birdwatchers around the world. But, pardon the rhyme, sometimes the bird word heard is absurd. Let me tell you.
One evening I was chatting with a visiting couple from outside DC who were here on a bird-watching vacation. I’ve never considered going anywhere with the sole purpose of looking at birds, but I listened politely as they explained their shared obsession. There are nine thousand kinds of birds flying around and the differences between them, apparently, are great enough to notice. I mean, anybody can tell a pelican from a hummingbird, but did you know that there are two kinds of hummingbird here on St John? That’s right: the Green Throated Carib (Eulampis holosericeus) and the Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus). The Carib has the curved beak, if you’re interested.
Anyhow, I’m talking with this couple and they’re telling me about the fabulous birds they’ve spied on their various vacations and the guy says, “Can you believe it, we’ve seen two Lie Flisters right from our deck overlooking Cruz Bay.”Pardon me? “Lie Flisters,” they repeat. Now, I don’t know birds from bats, but I do speak English, so I figure that the Lie Flister is a species of Flister that’s indigenous to St. John. Oh, I instantly invented all kinds of Flisters: the Rocky Mountain Flister, the Red-bellied Flister, the Worm-eating, Horned Flister. Of course, what they were saying was “life listers” as in “belonging on a list of birds we’ve seen for the first time in our lives.” What a birdbrain I am! A North American Dimwit (Yankis stupidus).
I was too embarrassed to ask which two resident birds made their list. They could, however, have been any of several types of birds that are specific to this region. A front-runner is the Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (Loxigilla noctis) which holds the record for staying on St. John the longest without taking a trip to St. Thomas. FORTY YEARS! Yup! You see, they don’t even belong here in the first place, since we’re in the Greater Antilles. This little gray fellow with the red highlights was blown north by a hurricane in the ‘60’s and lived here until just last year when he crossed Pillsbury Sound and appeared at Red Hook. Birdwatchers went nuts.
“Going nuts” is what birdwatchers do when birds do something weird or they see an unusual specimen. Birds displaced by storms, or for other reasons, are called “vagrants”. Birdwatchers really go nuts over vagrants. Then they call the bird hotline and report the event. Sometimes fanatical birdwatchers, called “twitchers” (and I thought that was a speed-freak) will leap in their cars and drive hundreds, even thousands of miles to witness a bizarre bird event. They record their sightings in their journals and, in the case of a first-time sighting, they’ll add the name to their Life List.
The bird-watching couple might never have met a Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor) before. They’re very private and tend to keep to themselves, away from people. Or, they might have been visited by a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) which is a kind of black parrot. Even the mourning dove, the Bridled Quail Dove (Geotrygon mystacea), which is seen everywhere around here, would be out of his element in Maryland. Whichever of our indigenous bird neighbors made these people’s Life List doesn’t really matter. Two birdwatchers from DC had a memorable St. John vacation and I added “Life List” to my lexicon.