By Nate Swick and George Armistead
2013 was an incredible year for vagrants, particularly unexpected ones, and a hard year to top, but 2014 was no slouch itself. Now that 2013 is well in the rear view mirror, we’ve looked back on the year that was and assembled the following list of notable and unexpected birds that got twitchers across the continent pricing plane tickets and rental cars.
As always, our list is merely our own personal opinion. Feel free to hash it out in the comments section if you think we’re right on, wildly off base, or have our heads firmly up our cloacas. It’s these kind of discussions among birding friends that make our community so special.
So without further ado….
Sure, Marsh Sandpiper is known as a very rare vagrant in western Alaska. But that’s western Alaska. Not the easiest place in the ABA Area to get to in a pinch. With only one previous record away from the Last Frontier – and that a one-day wonder – an accessible Marsh Sandpiper is undoubtedly a big get. That’s why this long-staying individual found by Roger Muskat makes the list, a combination of incredible rarity and incredible ease.
April in east Texas is always hot, but the inclusion of the ABA Area’s 7th Tufted Flycatcher, found and photographed by Phil Ziegler, to the suite of birds found there in the spring was certainly unexpected. The exceptional cold of winter 13-14 probably pushed this elevational migrant down close to sea-level, as it was suspected to do with the ABA Area’s 1st Tufted Flycatcher in 1991. Sadly, this bird didn’t stick around long, and many subsequent attempts to find it failed.
Bahama Swallow had not been seen in the ABA Area since 1992, so it was a complete shock with at least three, and possible more, individuals passed over the Florida Keys Hawkwatch platform, to the shock of the hawk-watchers assembled there, in October. Whether this means that the species is more regular in south Florida than we know, going unnoticed because – let’s face it – how many of us are willing and able to carefully pass through flocks of many thousand wintering swallows, or this was an unusual incursion of the species that is not likely to be repeated is unclear. I guess we’ll just have to wait until this October to find out.
There are few birds in the ABA Area as dramatic as albatrosses, and aside from the one expected and two sort of expected species, any albatross in the ABA Area is a big deal. The long-expected AOU split of the “Shy” Albatross complex turned what was one good rarity into three exceptional ones, as the two California boats that got on the ABA’s 2nd record of Salvin’s Albatross – the first was photographed in Alaska in 2003 – found out. The bird was initially spotted by Alvaro Jaramillo, who radioed the nearby Debbie Shearwater boat to share the pelagic love. Views were crippling, copious photos were taken, and many celebratory high-fives were had (I expect).
Docked a few places because of questions about escapee potential, the female-type Red-legged Honeycreeper found at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Texas’s Lower Valley seems as good a bet for natural vagrancy as one could hope for based on plumage, location, and timing. The question of provenance is for the Texas Bird Records Committee and the ABA CLC to suss out, however. The rest of us can just enjoy the presence of the long-anticipated potential first ABA record anyway. Particularly as bike Big Year champ Dorian Anderson improbably managed to catch up with it!
Rare birds aren’t always great simply because of their rarity, but also because they serve as common touchpoints for the hundreds of birders who make the journey to see them. Often these sorts of sightings become de facto bird festivals, with friends and acquaintances joining together to celebrate one lost individual. Of course, the very best vagrants are those that do both, and the Cape May Whiskered Tern of 2014, found by Louise Zemaitis and Alec Humann, definitely fit the bill. This individual was the 3rd ABA record for Whiskered Tern, with both of the previous two having ties to Cape May as well. In the week or so that the bird was present, hundreds of birders managed to see it from the hawkwatch and adjacent beach.
Alaska had its usual haul of great birds this year, including incredible numbers of Tree Pipits and Wood Warblers, but arguably the best was the ABA’s 3rd record of Eurasian Siskin, a colorful individual found by Suzi Golodoff that has spent the better part of three months on Unalaska island. It was initially seen in early November, stuck around through the Unalaska Christmas Bird Count and into the new year. It was last seen on January 18th.
Some birds go to show that hitting the out of the way spots can be incredibly productive. Such a find resulted when Dan Jones checked a seemingly innocuous playa near Edinburg, Texas, to find a sharp little Collared Plover, the ABA’s 2nd ever record. This bird may go down as the most inspirational vagrant in ABA Area history, but how many birds are in the running for that honor?
Common Shelduck is a strange bird in the ABA Area. It’s not uncommon in private collections and at zoos, so determining whether a given individual is a natural vagrant or not isn’t easy. Many east of the Mississippi River are pretty much rejected out of hand. But a number of records in the northeast may represent wild birds, and one wary bird in Newfoundland in the spring of last year – precisely the time of year one might expect an overshoot from northern Europe – seemed to pass the initial smell test. It remains to be seen exactly what will become of this bird and others like it, but birders in the northeast seem to be particularly open to the idea of natural vagrancy for this species in the ABA Area.
First records are fun. Particularly those whose provenance is not really in doubt, a relief given the other potential firsts of 2014. That’s why the Nazca Booby in southern California gets the nod for the best rarity of 2014. Nazca Booby has been long suspected to occur in ABA waters and soCal birders have had it on their radar for years. The difficulty of differentiating subadults from subadults of the very similar (and formerly conspecific) Masked Booby has muddied the waters, so it was very exciting when a near-pristine adult bird was seen from a whale-watching cruise out of San Diego. It was the first, but it’s unlikely to be the last.
Let us know in the comments!