The 100th Bird

Standing on my balcony a few days before Christmas, I noticed a bright blue and yellow something dart into the bottlebrush tree out front. I ran back to the living room, where I keep my binoculars and bird book handy precisely for moments like these. The bird posed just long enough for me to make positive identification: the golden-rumped euphonia (Euphonia cyanocephala).

Rick & Elis Simpson / Wikimedia Commons

Rick & Elis Simpson / Wikimedia Commons

It’s in the running for the single most beautiful bird I’ve seen in the past nine months in Brazil. I’ve never seen it since, and believe me, I spend a lot of time on my balcony looking for birds.

Once, and only once, some maroon-bellied parakeets landed in the trees out front. (I have seen them in big flocks elsewhere.)

Another time, a blue-fronted parrot posed long enough on the neighbor’s TV antennae for me to identify it. Months later, I saw it (or, at least, a parrot of some sort) perched again on the same antennae. It flew away before I could get the binocs on it. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the light was wrong. The parrot was in silhouette.

And then again, within the past week, I heard a sort of braying honk outside, something like the sound a wounded or enraged goose would make. On investigation, I saw two parrots on the same rooftop. But once more the light was poor; I can only assume it was the blue-fronteds again.

These have been the balcony highlights of the past nine months, and the capture perfectly the allure of birdwatching: sometimes, only sometimes, something magical appears. The house sparrows and the rufous-bellied thrushes and the eared doves will be with you always. But stick with it long enough, and a euphonia may flit by.

My life list in Brazil has grown in fits and starts. My first week in the city, everything was new and exciting. On a single Saturday in November, spent at a deserted lagoon a few hours south, I added more than 20 species. February very nearly became the first calendar month without a single lifer, until, just before the end, I glanced up and noticed what seemed, at first glance, very much like a frigatebird that had wandered many miles from the sea. Back home, I realized it had been a swallow-tailed kite – my one and only February entry.

By late March, my list had grown well into the 90s, and I figured I had a good shot at cracking 100 during a weekend in the Serra Gaúcha mountains with the family. An afternoon expedition to a town park in Canela brought me to the verge: Whistling heron, Buff-necked ibis, Cliff flycatcher; 97, 98, 99.

Buff-necked ibis, Canela, Rio Grande do Sul, March 2016; iPhone & binocular photo technique copied from my friend Mike, master of bino-vision.

Buff-necked ibis, Canela, Rio Grande do Sul, March 2016; iPhone & binocular photo technique copied from my friend Mike, master of bino-vision.

Number 100 came on Easter morning, as I stood there washing dishes in the Airbnb shack we were staying in. The kitchen window looked out across an empty lot, choked with weeds and unruly saplings, perfect for songbirds. The place had been crawling all weekend with rufous-collared sparrows, which is the sort of pretty little bird whose reputation suffers on account of abundance. You see them so much in the Serra Gaúcha that it’s easy to stop appreciating their spiffy, zebra-striped heads.

Flocks of rufous-collards had come and gone the whole time I was washing dishes. So when I stepped away for a moment, and my wife announced, “Hey, there’s a bird out there,” I made an informed assumption: rufous-collared sparrow.

I was happily wrong. (Nor was this the first time, I should add, that Rachel gets credit for spotting a lifer.) The gray Easter morning delivered another one of those birding sometimes when something new bursts onto the ordinary, dishwashing scene: a small songbird in muted pastel green, blue and brown – a female Chestnut-backed tanager, species #100, very shortly thereafter gone again.

Araucaria pine, Serra Gaúcha

Araucaria pine, Serra Gaúcha