snow goose, okaloosa, florida, birding

Searching for Rare Birds in Okaloosa County

The search for the rare and uncommon has driven humans for millennia. We want things we feel are hard to find, like diamonds or truffles. Birders are no different, and rare bird sightings often cause a tizzy in the local, regional, and national birding communities. Seeking these birds, also known as “twitching,” can prompt thousands of miles of travel. While I don’t go that far (yet), my search for birds rare in the Florida Panhandle has resulted in disappointment, but also unexpected triumph.

The site for both my high and low birding experiences is far from pristine. The Okaloosa Holding Ponds are no longer in regular use, and are composed of two large depressions in the earth lined with cement and containing some amount of water, depending on the season and recent rains. The man-made ponds may not be attractive, but they are bird magnets. Over 200 species have been seen in this vicinity, many of them uncommon.

I had never been to the holding ponds, but I was scanning eBird one day when I came across an interesting species list. In addition to different waterfowl and shorebirds, birders had seen a Ruff the day before. Though it looks similar to two North American non-breeding shorebirds (Greater and Lesser  Yellowlegs), Ruffs are actually from Eurasia. Wow!

snow goose, okaloosa, florida, birding

I called Lenny, a skilled local birder who leads walks for the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society, and we met to check the ponds out during my lunch break.

Everyone had seen the Ruff the day before. But we, only a day later, had missed it, and the Ruff never reappeared. I was mollified by other cool species I saw and shorebird identification tips graciously explained by Lenny, but missing the Ruff was disappointing. Still, I knew I would return to the ponds, the possibility of interesting birds tantalizing.

A few weeks later I was back, this time with my visiting mother, who is also a birder. We were scanning the water’s surface and looking at the shorebirds when suddenly we saw a much larger bird on the shoreline: a goose. Its body was mostly dark, with pinkish red legs, a pink/red bill with a dark streak, and a white head and neck. It looked so odd standing there all alone, without a flock and seemingly without a purpose. We snapped a few photos and moved on, kind of assuming it was an escaped domestic variety and agreeing to look it up later.

snow goose, ruff, birding, florida, okaloosa

Upon returning home, I eventually picked up my bird guide and flipping lazily through the pages. Suddenly, I pulled the book close to me. When we think of Snow Geese, we think of mostly white birds; large flocks covering fields really do resemble a thick layer of snow. But I had forgotten they also have a blue morph, and the drawing I had in front of me was almost identical to the goose I had seen at the holding pond. When I referenced the photos I had taken it was irrefutable: we had seen a Snow Goose!

Now, Snow Geese do show up on the Panhandle, sometimes in large flocks, but we aren’t part of their regular winter range. I felt mildly foolish for missing the ID at the time, but excited as I filled out the eBird rare bird form.

Twitching is a little like gambling, with highs and lows not necessarily in one’s control. Lady Luck had both frowned and smiled on me, and I am already more interested in paying attention to rare and uncommon sightings, at least within my local radius!

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