45 BIRD WATCHER’S DIGEST • SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER ’ 17 • birdwatchersdigest.com
observer; we just don’t know.
This confusion is due in part
to their peculiar characteristic
of being impossible to magnify,
even when viewed through the
best and most powerful optics.
This has hampered close observation. Despite the dedicated
work of gifted wildlife photographers, the SBFL is also impossible to photograph.
Here is what is known about
the SBFL. Its preferred habitat
is highly variable and seems to
be virtually everywhere, even
indoors. According to eBird
data, they are apparently nonmigratory and have no seasonal
movement. Despite hours of
observation, the floaters have
never been seen feeding, so there
is no information on diet or
foraging style. To date, no nest
has been found. There are two
different theories on their vocalizations. One holds that they are
mute. The other theory is that
they are incredible mimics, producing a variety of sounds that
make their song indistinguishable
from their environment. Should a
floater be captured, perhaps this
debate could be resolved.
When it comes to birder
experiences, we have gained
some valuable information. It
seems that few birders under 50
years of age have seen a slaty-
backed floater. Even highly
skilled young birders are unable
to find the bird. We can assume,
then, that chronology, not skill
level, is a factor here. Observers
relate that SBFLs are constantly
moving and will repeat the same
flight pattern again and again.
This persistent activity can be
very distracting when trying to
find other species, especially in a
forested situation. Hawk watch-
ers have been frustrated by their
presence, which may have led to
conflicting numbers and some-
times heated arguments between
younger and older birders.
Slaty-backed floaters may also
disappear and return in the
blink of an eye.
Birders comparing observations sound like they are seeing
entirely different birds. As more
data is gathered, it is appearing
that the SBFL may be species-specific, or, rather, birder-specific,
so that each birder has a different,
Keep your eyes open for slaty-backed floaters (although the
birds are often visible when birders’ eyes are closed). This is one
bird you will not enjoy adding to
your life list. a
John Sill is an artist and illustrator whose paintings have graced
14 covers of Bird Watcher’s
Digest. He lives in North Carolina.