A dedicated birder makes a rare find and the nation’s capital is buzzing

by Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal
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When a Dickcissel turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time last week, Scott Stafford, one of Washington’s top birders, just happened to be in the right place at the right time to find it.

D.C.’s Dickcissel rummaging in the brush.

Less than an hour later, a small swath along the banks of the Potomac was buzzing with birders pointing their cameras into what amounts to an oversized ditch. There among the mix of mud and twigs hopped a small sparrowlike bird carefully concealing its brilliant yellow breast.

“At first I thought it was just another White-throated Sparrow,” Scott said. “But then he popped up, and there was so much yellow. I’m like, Holy Crap!”

What Scott did next made him late for work. It also made him the hero of the moment in Washington’s very active birding community. Nabbing a rare sighting like the out-of-range Dickcissel comes along maybe once in a season – and being the person to claim it is rarer still.

Scott Stafford with a Florida Scrub-Jay.

“I took a photo and immediately posted it out on the D.C. Rare Bird Alert,” Scott said. “Then I stayed on the bird to help direct birders who said they were on their way to find it, so if it flew off, they’d know what direction.”

Flying Lessons clearly states that our website is about “What We’re Learning From the Birds.” But in talking with Scott the other day about his experiences, I realized that what we’re learning from other birders can’t be stressed enough.

While Anders and I are usually plotting our next birding adventure away from the big city, Scott is patiently stalking everything within a few miles of home. He’s seen 226 species in the D.C. area alone – more than my entire Life List from around the country and beyond.

Before talking to Scott, I had no idea there was so much to see right in our own back yard. Frankly, it was embarrassing.

Anders caught the wayward Dickcissel foraging with a female cardinal.

Scott just started birding about four years ago, yet he consistently ranks among the top 10 in D.C. for posting the most checklists to eBird, Cornell’s birding app that many birders use to track the species they spot. He’s added a new species to his Life List of 434 birds every month (but one) for the past three years.

This is especially remarkable because the 40-year-old, self-employed software developer is also a husband and father of 9-year-old twins. Scott says he has to steal his birding moments whenever he can.

“My favorite place to bird is whatever is closest to me,” he said. “I don’t like to waste my birding time driving.”

That’s how Scott came to be walking around Fletcher’s Cove Boathouse in D.C. early on a Thursday morning at the end of January. It was supposed to be a quick pit stop to scan the canal for a Pintail Duck that had made an appearance there last year. But walking back to his car, Scott noticed a light-colored sparrowlike bird out of the corner of his eye.

“I wasn’t really focused because I’d just been by there,” he said. “I almost kept on walking.”

Fortunately for us — and for other birders in D.C. — Scott sounded the alarm on the local email group and shared the location on eBird so that anyone could find Scott’s adorable Dickcissel.

(For details about the Dickcissel and to hear its song, click here.) 

The Dickcissel shows off his pronounced yellow breast.

Scott told me his birding skills blossomed because Washington’s birding community is generous and supportive of newbies.

In true D.C. spirit, Scott wasted no time in signing me up for the D.C. Rare Bird Alert – a way to plug into the local community and know immediately what’s being spotted where.

Won’t it be funny if the birds I’ve been searching far and wide for turn out to be roosting right here at home? According to my new friend Scott, they may very well be.

And that’s a lesson in more ways than one.

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