The word “lifer” can mean different things to different people. For most people it connotes a span of time like the length of a prison sentence or the amount of time one has lived somewhere. But for a birder it means something altogether different. In birding “lifer” means the addition of a bird species previously unrecorded to one’s “life list.”
Adding lifers to a life list can have varying degrees of importance depending on one’s association with birdwatching. For the avid birder, recording lifers is paramount, and they will go to any extreme to make it happen. That could involve traveling some distance, perhaps across country, to see an “accidental (a species that normally is non-occurring in an area)” or scheduling a birding expedition to a destination where there is a concentration of potential life list species one cannot see anywhere else. Then there is the birder who will drive a couple of hours hoping to record a lifer that has been spotted in the area. But there also are birders for whom the lifer is not a matter of concern at all. What they see, is what they see.
The challenge of the lifer was on my mind recently as I drove to the ferry dock in Charlotte, VT in hopes of seeing a tufted duck – a potential lifer for me - that had been observed there recently. The tufted duck is a northern European native. It does appear on our East Coast from time to time, but such occasions are unpredictable. The possibility of seeing this one made the day’s almost three hour drive worth it.
Under a heavy, low overcast sky with chilly, damp winds gusting from the NW and the temperature barely above 20 degrees, my birding buddy Wayne and I arrived at the ferry dock about 9:45 A.M. We were greeted by the spectacle of hundreds of waterfowl crammed into the small amount of open water created by the ferry’s passage back and forth to Essex, NY. Normally these ducks would be dispersed around the lake, but Champlain was almost completely iced over, and the ferry dock’s open water was the only place the ducks could go.
So many waterfowl concentrated in one area did not make trying to locate the tufted duck any easier. Tufted ducks look a lot like ring-necked ducks, their North American counterpart; distinguished from each other by the former’s small tuft of downward facing feathers on the back of its head, hence the name, and the lack of a white ring about its bill which is the ring-necked duck’s hallmark. Oh, did I mention the tufted duck also resembles both the greater and lesser scaup? Unfortunately, ring-neckeds and scaups were present in great numbers (200+) which made locating the tufted nigh impossible. A spotting scope would have helped but, faced with the challenge of pulling off the avian equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, it might not have produced a sighting either.
After a half hour of fruitless searching, we decided to take the ferry over to Essex to see if our quarry was in the open water by that ferry dock. After almost twenty minutes of slicing through thin ice in the ferry channel, we approached the dock and again were greeted by the sight of hundreds of ducks. Alas, our results were no different than on the VT side. Chilled to the bone by the increasingly bitter, raw winds, we resigned ourselves to our fate and gladly boarded the ferry for the return in its much appreciated warm lounge.
A waste of time you say? Almost three hours of driving each way for the privilege of standing outside for two hours in bone-numbing conditions? Not at all. To borrow a phrase from fishing, “A disappointing day birding, is better than a good day working.” At last report, the duck is still there. Yes, I probably will go back.