November 10, 2016
As longtime readers of this column probably suspect, I might have been happy with a career in biology, and E. O. Wilson is one of my heroes, environmentally speaking for sure, if not academically.  If you don’t know E. O. Wilson, google him.  Or google his most famous quotes, which will give you the Cliff’s Notes version.  My favorite E. O. Wilson quote is “There is no greater high than the high of discovery.”  He was, of course, referring specifically to scientific discovery, but the thought behind the words has certainly driven many a lifelong birder.

The high of discovery is a major attraction of birding for many who keep a life list.  There’s the research into the habitat, the distribution, and the seasonality of an unseen species, then the travel plans, whether they be across town or across the country, and finally after all the anticipation comes the actual sighting.  I’ve often called birding the ultimate adult treasure hunt, and with 800 species, give or take, in North America, that high can be prolonged over an avid birder’s entire lifetime.

Longtime readers also know the only list I keep any more is our yard list, and the last few years haven’t been so great for that.  In 2013 we added only two species, in 2014 two more, and last year only 1, a flyover Neotropic Cormorant.  2016 has been better, though, five new species already with almost two months to go.  After more than ten years at the same address there’s really only one way to goose a yard list . . . and I haven’t been successful convincing Deva to move just for a new yard list.

One’s yard can never really be upgraded dramatically enough to overcome the constraints of the neighborhood habitat, so sooner or later everything that’s been expected has passed through, been seen, and duly entered onto the list.  At that point the best hope is migration season or a tropical storm out of Mexico that might bring an unexpected vagrant.  Nonetheless, two weeks ago we had a new yard bird that fell into neither of these two categories!  I’m still riding that high.

And I’m totally gobsmacked.  Although this species is not rare nor even uncommon statewide and in a few, scattered parts of the Valley, we have never seen one in our neighborhood or within half an hour of our house.  It is a non-migratory species and there is no habitat anywhere near us that would typically host it.  In other words, it was unexpectedly and completely out of context, so much so that as I glanced at the movement in the Sweet Memories bush right outside the computer window, my brain cramped and I could not put a label on this bird though I’ve seen hundreds in my life.

This is a bird that is quite common in the residential east, but here in the arid southwest it is considered “local” and inhabits only brushy, riparian canyons on the fringes of urbanization.  If required to photograph this bird in habitat, I would get in my car and drive an hour east or south of the Valley, although the mountains preserves in Maricopa County are known to hold a small population.  That’s how habitat specific birds are and how habitat oriented birders become.  I have not come up with a single reason, logical or speculative, why this bird would have been in our neighborhood, let alone in our yard, yet there it was for thirty seconds right outside our front window.

There is an old birders’ aphorism that covers this kind of encounter--“Well, you know the birds can’t read the guidebooks, and sooner or later any species can turn up at any place at any time.”  A picture of our latest yard bird appears below.  I’m still gobsmacked.  I’m still high.  It never crossed my mind that a female Northern Cardinal would ever grace our yard.
Northern Cardinal female
Northern Cardinal female