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#ABArare – Willow Ptarmigan – New York

Adding to the flood of late April rarities, a Willow Ptarmigan was found by Eugene Nichols in Jefferson County, New York. Pending acceptance, this would be a first state record for New York and only the 2nd record for the Lower 48 in the last 100 years.

Photo by Alex Lamoreaux, Used with permission

Photo by Alex Lamoreaux, Used with permission. More photos and video available at The Nemesis Bird

The bird was seen on Point Peninsula, on the shore of Lake Ontario, west of Watertown, New York. The nearest major city is Ottawa, Ontario, on the other side of the international border, and New York City is the better part of six hours away. A Google map of the bird’s location is here.

A more specific account comes from Jeff Bolsinger on the Northern New York listserv as follows:

According to reports, the bird The location is on South Shore Road 3.5 miles south of the intersection with Pine Woods Road (this road is in Point Peninsula Village, known locally as Shangri-La). When you reach the location you will come to a highway sign indicating a sharp curve ahead, with a real estate sign just beyond, and the curve about 100 yards ahead. We saw the ptarmigan in the woods on the lake side of the road opposite the highway sign. During the 90 minutes that we watched it the ptarmigan roosted on a pile of ice at the lake’s edge for about an hour, and then flew up into a tree and ate buds… All of the land along the road here is private, so please respect private property and stay on the road. Based on the bird’s behavior today it seems that if present, it will eventually show itself if you are patient

Willow Ptarmigan is the largest of the North American ptarmigans, and is generally a bird of northern Canada and Alaska. There are a handful of historic records for the Lower 48 from Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin (1846), Massachusetts (1859), and Minnesota (1914), and only one relatively recent record from Maine (2000). In 2011, a Willow Ptarmigan spent the better part of 6 months at a power plant in Darlington, Ontario, in the southern part of the province.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Louis Bevier

    Maine has 7 records, 5 are fairly solid with descriptions, photos, or specimens (we need more information on two). The old record from Massachusetts, long disregarded, was 10 May 1859 (not 1849). The pattern is strikingly clear, with all but one of Maine’s coming from mid-late April through May. So this New York bird fits neatly into that pattern along with the Massachusetts bird and an old NY record (22 May 1876). Here is a link to the Maine Bird Records Committee list of Willow Ptarmigan records, which includes a link to a paper discussing recent records (Applegate 1996). Here is a link to the Massachusetts record of Willow Ptarmigan.

    • Excellent! Thanks for the additional info and context.

      • Louis Bevier

        The old New York record is mentioned in Birds of New York State by John Bull (1974, pg 209). He writes, “what was purported to be a male in “changing plumage,” was collected at Watson, Lewis Co., May 22, 1876 (R. Hough).” He goes on to say that the Coues, who first published the record, had not examined the specimen, which as of Bull’s writing had not been located. Bull also speculates that “the May date is suspiciously late for a bird that is casual in winter,/i> in southern Canada.”
        One can read Elliott Coues’s note on the New York bird here. The vagrancy of Willow Ptarmigan has had a difficult time being accepted in part because the most distant occurrences come at a time when it was thought least likely, mid to late spring rather than winter. But the pattern is clear now. To Bull’s credit, he included the historical account in the main text rather than relegating it to a section in the back of the book, as was done for the Massachusetts record by Griscom and Snyder (another May record), or not mentioning it at all as in a more recent compilation of New York’s birds (
        Bull’s Birds of New York State Levine, ed., 1998). Bull might have been more positive of the May occurrence had he known about a record from Whitby, Ontario, right across the lake from New York, on 15 May 1897 (Ames 1897, in The Auk here).
        This highlights, to me anyway, why authors should maintain historical accounts in avifaunal treatments and records committees should not relegate to obscurity birds not accepted for whatever criteria. I would even go so far as to recommend listing all species verifiably recorded and placing them in some section of a list. As an example, a small volume published in 1999 on the birds of Storrs, Connecticut, by George A. Clark, Jr., one finds the occurrences of plausible vagrants (e.g. Barnacle Goose and Ruddy Shelduck records) with some implausible but fascinating occurrences of birds roaming free (e.g. Abyssinian Ground Hornbill found alive in a farm field at Pomfret, CT, in 1966). A ground hornbill on the hoof in Connecticut? Fascinating. By the way, Connecticut has a record of Chough that was contemporaneous with a Eurasian Jackdaw. The former has been ignored to the latter’s fame.

  • Sportfreak15

    I saw a Willow Ptarmigan yesterday in Vermont. Was wondering how rare of a sight this was? I do spend a good deal of time in the woods as have others that saw it. This was the first that any of us have seen.

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