birding guides are your best hope of finding your grail birds

Lifelong Birders Get Hooked and Never Stop Scanning the Skies

9 Birding Guides Share Their ‘Hook Birds’ and/or ‘Grail Birds’

Countless occupations and industries crash landed during the pandemic. At the same time, hobbies, especially outdoorsy ones like birding, took flight.

Stores ran out of bird feeders, binoculars became a must-have lockdown accessory, and birdseed became a “just in time” essential, bypassing warehouses as fast as companies could mix it, Audubon Magazine reported in its Birdwatching is a Bright Spot in a Pandemic-Stricken Economy on August 06, 2020.

Well before pandemic boredom attracted new birders to the flock, common and colorful backyard birds have routinely drawn new birders in.

Even professional naturalists and birding guides sometimes cite feeder species as the “hook bird” that caused them to start looking up and looking out. 

Today we discover what nine of Naturalist Journeys’ birding guides ID as their hook birds and, their counterpart, “grail birds,” species they would love to add to their life lists someday. 

Steve Shunk

Grail Bird

It was easy for Steve to decide on a grail bird – or rather 21 of them. He has already seen nine of the 30 endangered members of the woodpecker family, Picidae, which also includes wrynecks, and sapsuckers. A resident of gorgeous Sisters, OR,  and a woodpecker expert, Steve designed our popular Oregon’s Woodpecker Wonderland tour. Next year’s tour is May 18-27 and is a can’t miss if you love woodpeckers – or wildflowers, as we saw in the gorgeous photos of this year’s tour. Steve’s Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America, published in 2016, is a definitive reference to the 23 woodpeckers found in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Steve listed a couple of other grail birds as well: 

“My grail birds are Dovekie and Inaccessible Island Rail,” Steve said, “and I am in the process of visiting all the threatened woodpeckers in the world, about 30 species, of which I have only seen nine so far.“

Two of those, the Okinawa and Amami Woodpeckers, Steve saw and photographed in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands!

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  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
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Hook Bird

“I didn’t really have a hook bird,” Steve said, “although the first bird I remember seeing through binoculars was Steller’s Jay. My real hook birds are woodpeckers.”

A birding guide is the best way to see bird's like Stellar's Jay.
Steller’s Jay. Photo Credit: Carol Comeau

Bryan Calk

Bryan’s Next Trips:

Arizona: Sweetheart Birding Feb. 12-16

South Texas Birding & Nature March 7-15

Southeast Arizona May 1-10

Hook Bird

Bryan Calk grew up loving nature in his Fort Clark Springs, Texas backyard. He became interested in birds around age 10 when 30-40 Painted Buntings captivated him for a full summer as they were visiting his mom’s bird feeders in the yard.

“Who could ignore a bird like that, especially so many of them?”

He was fortunate to be mentored by local birders through his early years and went on to pay it forward at Texas A&M Agri-life Extension Service’s birding program doing public outreach, education, and running his youth birding program, Rio Diablo Birding Camp.

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Painted Bunting.
Painted Buntings. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Grail Bird

Bryan has many “grail” birds he hopes to see one day, and perhaps at the top of the list is the Pennant-winged Nightjar (nightjars are Bryan’s favorite family of birds). 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Pennant-Winged Nigthtjar
Perched Pennant-Winged Nightjar.Photo Credit: Nigel Voaden from UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Gallardo 

Hook Bird

Since early childhood Robert has been passionate about the natural world and started collecting butterflies by the age of 11. Robert recalls seeing a male Western Tanager outside the window of his 7th grade biology class in southern California. 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Western Tanager
Western Tanager. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Grail Bird

Though Robert has seen both the Harpy Eagle and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Panama, he still dreams of seeing them both in eastern Honduras. Robert has the distinction of having created for OTHERS a grail bird, by putting the Ocellated Quail on the world map of bird watching. For many, Ocellated Quail had been considered a species virtually impossible to find, though it can be seen on our tours with Robert to Honduras.

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Jon Atwood

Hook Bird

Guide John Atwood has been a practicing conservation biologist for over 40 years, with his research focused on bird behavior that informs efforts to conserve habitat. His hook bird was an endemic:

“The Santa Cruz Island Scrub-Jay was probably the bird that really hooked my interest in bird behavior (although Least Tern is a very close second).”

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Grail Bird

Gosh, I don’t know, maybe penguins in Antarctica!

Dodie Logue

Hook Bird

I remember when I was a kid a Snowy Owl showed up in our neighborhood in Lake Elmo, MN. That was my hook. We always had bird feeders up at my childhood home, and binoculars and bird books handy. There was a “bird lady” in the neighborhood I grew up in, Mrs. Lundgren. I loved spending time with her, we would do bird flash-cards, and yard walks where she would help us identify birds.

Snowy Owl. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Grail Bird

 I don’t have a particular grail bird – I like seeing them all, new and repeats.

Pat Lueders

Hook Birds

Having traveled to 49 states, the variety of birds throughout the country attracted my attention.  Early in my career, I became interested in a summer breeder to my neighborhood, the Mississippi Kite.  

Mississippi Kite. Photo Credit: Steve Wolfe

Grail Birds

World-wide, the magical Harpy Eagle was a target bird of mine for many years, and the sighting was finally achieved during a tour I led to Panama Darien, seeing the Harpy Eagle one day and the rarer Crested Eagle the next!  

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Andrew Haffenden 

Our “shorebird school” professor, who lives on Dauphin Island, had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“There was no bird that hooked me into birding generally, but a banded Snowy Plover helped me become a shorebird junkie.”

“I don’t really have a grail bird either…I still get excited at seeing Sanderlings…maybe seeing one of my Piping Plovers that have wintered here for years on its summer breeding ground, with its tiny chicks running around.”

Snowy Plover. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Gerard Gorman

Hook Bird

Author of 10 books, many about Eurasian woodpeckers, Gerard had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“It’s hard to say what hooked me, I always loved nature, but obviously one or two species in childhood in England. I recall my first Short-eared and Tawny Owls near home in England, I was about 10 years old. Later my first Black Woodpecker, in Hungary, really hooked me, so much so that I later wrote a book about it.”

Gerard’s Woodpeckers of the World, A Complete Guide, published in 2014, is considered the definitive word on the world of woodpeckers, and is part of the Helm Photographic Guides series.

Grail Bird

My grail bird is Okinawa Woodpecker, which is an endangered endemic to the Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. One day I will get there.

Michael Marsden

Hook Bird

“I’m afraid I never had a hook bird – my birding developed from a more general interest in natural history.  But when I was very young, I spent many hours walking and cycling on the moors near my home and was captivated by the calls of the curlews and golden plovers.  Shorebirds and seabirds have always held a special fascination, with Buff-breasted Sandpipers my favorite. I learned American shorebirds in the UK (thanks to the wonders of the Gulf Stream) and was once able to show an American his first Buff-breasted Sandpiper – in England! 

Grail Bird

My grail bird would have to be Eskimo Curlew.

[Editor’s Note: It was much harder to locate images of professional nature guides’ grail birds, particularly in Michael’s case, as he wants to see an Eskimo Curlew, a bird not seen in 55 years and believed by many to be extinct!]

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Photo Credit: Nigel Lallsingh

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