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The TOP 10: Best ABA Area Vagrants of 2014

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 2014 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….

10. Marsh Sandpiper – California – April

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.

Photo by John Sterling

Photo by John Sterling

9. Tufted Flycatcher – Texas – April

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.

The ABA's 7th record of Tufted Flycatcher was, thus far, a one-day wonder, in Kleberg County, Texas, this week. Photo by Jim Ziegler

Photo by Phil Ziegler

8. Bahama Swallow – Florida – October

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.

Photo by Alexander Harper, used with permission

Photo by Alexander Harper

7. Salvin’s Albatross – California – July

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).

Photo by Alvaro Jaramillo/Alvaro's Adventures

Photo by Alvaro Jaramillo/Alvaro’s Adventures

6. Red-legged Honeycreeper- Texas – November

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!

Red-legged Honeycreeper in South Texas is a potential ABA Area first, pending decisions by the Texas BRC and the ABA Checklist Committee

Red-legged Honeycreeper in South Texas is a potential ABA Area first. Photo by Dorian Anderson.

5. Whiskered Tern – New Jersey – September

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.

Photo by Mike Crewes

Photo by Mike Crewe

4. Eurasian Siskin – Alaska – November

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.

Photo by Suzi Golodoff

Photo by Suzi Golodoff

3. Collared Plover – Texas – August

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?

Photo by Dan Jones

Photo by Dan Jones

2. Common Shelduck – Newfoundland – April

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.

Photo by Tony Dunne

Photo by Tony Dunne

1. Nazca Booby – California – June

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 Long Beach. It was the first, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

Photo by Tim Hammond, used with permission

Photo by Tim Hammond, used with permission

So that’s it. What do you think? Did you manage to cross paths with any of these birds last year? And what did we leave off that we should have included?

Let us know in the comments!

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • Tom Benson

    Hard to argue with any of these! My own pick for inclusion in the list would be the very confiding and chasable Olive-backed Pipit in Anaheim, CA in November. Also, a correction, the Nazca Booby was seen on a whale watching boat out of Long Beach (not all the good birds are seen in San Diego!).

    • Yes. An excellent choice along the lines of the Marsh Sandpiper. California had a very good 2014.

    • John Mueller

      I never did get to the Olive-backed pipit, but that was one I was thinking was overlooked as well. Certainly any ABA firsts should be toward the top of the list.

  • Brandon Holden

    If the main/only criteria is total number of ABA records, it’s hard to disagree… Birders who don’t live on the extreme edges of the ABA area may find records, like the MI Berylline; more remarkable than some listed here:

    • An excellent point, and perhaps one I overlooked.

      That and the Wood Thrush in Alaska were two that could, and arguably should, have made it in.

    • Ted Floyd

      Right on, Brandon. I had precisely the same thought. I was going to sniff around for examples like the one you just brought to our attention. Berylline hummingbird that far out of range is remarkable.

  • Nate Martineau

    It’s hard to argue with these, but I still find it difficult to believe that Michigan’s Berylline Hummingbird didn’t make the list.

  • flupster

    As a vagrant, the Painted Bunting (apparently a first-year male) that is overwintering in Oakville, Ontario would be unusual to say the least

  • Danny

    What about the New Mexico and Texas code-4 Common Cranes in December?

  • Jared Clarke

    Certainly the Code-5 COMMON REDSHANK that spent ten days at Renews, Newfoundland would be a candidate. Only the third record (7th individual) for the ABA, all of which have been in Newfoundland. And it was just part of a remarkable event.

    • David Shepherd

      For a while, there were two!

  • Wilson Cady

    I would have included Oregon’s Tundra Bean Goose in the list, a bird that is still being seen with little difficulty.

  • Carl

    Personally think the WA Eurasian Hobby should have made the list. Also think that the number of birders who are able to see the bird should make the rarity a little higher on the list. This would bump up species like Whiskered Tern and Collared Plover, while dropping birds like Tufted Flycatcher and Nazca Booby.

  • Guillem Izquierdo

    Hi from Spain,

    First of all, tell you I’m only a 14 years old teenager, so you may notice my english isn’t good at all.

    I’ve seen there have been some arguements about which vagrants may enter the list or not. What we do here, in Spain, is to vote, in a list of about 20-30 previously chosen vagrants, which one we do find the rarest one of the year. I’ts called th Rarest of the Rare. We can vote three times and, although we choose only the one we consider the rarest one, you could make the same here fo that list. The main page is Rare Birds in Spain, and the blog page where the birds are voted, at least this year is It’s in english so the language might not be a problem. The votations are in the right corner.
    I find this a really interesting way to choose the rarest vagrants, and it will be nice to see it done by you, although I don’t think the Common Yellowthroat would be elcted, as in Spain.
    Thank you for considering it,
    Guillem Izquierdo Arànega

  • John H. Haas

    All of the birds mentioned are without a doubt cream of the crop choices. One bird which has been missed in the discussion, and is certainly as unusual as any mentioned, is the Willow Ptarmigan that showed up in northern New York last spring and spent several weeks there. There are very few records of this species making it to the lower 48.

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