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The TOP 10: Craziest ABA Vagrants of 2015

By Nate Swick and George Armistead

For the last couple years the annual Top 10 Best Vagrants post has been one of our most popular on The ABA Blog. Well, we’re ready to bring it back for a third year and ignite the arguments for 2015’s crop of megas. 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.

Instead of rehashing simply the rarest birds of 2015, we tried to mix things up a bit. Sure, rarity plays a role both in absolute terms and in unexpectedness, but we also tried to incorporate factors like the magnitude of excitement among birders of the ABA Area. One could easily make a great list simply of birds found in western Alaska, but there were birds all over, including areas that see significant birder coverage, and a massive El Nino made the left side of the continent the place to be in the second half of 2015.

Of course, this list is subjective, and being our own personal opinion we encourage you 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. Zone-tailed Hawk – Rhode Island to Connecticut to New Jersey to Virginia

Social media has changed birding, that much is absolutely clear. News about rare birds is distributed more quickly, the excitement is shared more widely, and opportunities for experiences like the great Zone-tailed Hawk journey of 2015 more likely. Zone-tailed Hawk is a red-letter rarity in the eastern part of the continent, so one found at the end of September at a hawkwatching festival in New Haven, Connecticut-where it represented a 1st record for the state-was a pretty big deal. More notably, the bird was uniquely identifiable because of a frayed tail feather.

A week later, a Zone-tailed Hawk with a frayed tail-feather was picked up at the Cape May hawkwatch in New Jersey, where it represented that state’s 2nd record. Pretty weird, but then things got weirder.

The bird turned south over the bay where it eventually ended up in Virginia, where it was picked up at the Kiptopeke hawkwatch near Cape Charles (a 1st record for Virginia). There it stayed for several days before disappearing. Did it keep moving south? A strange all-black unidentified hawk was reported from coastal North Carolina a month later but that bird was never re-found. In any case, a single Zone-tailed Hawk represented 1st records for two states, and made for an exciting couple of weeks.

Photo: Nick Bonomo

Photo: Nick Bonomo

9. Variegated Flycatcher – Florida

Variegated Flycatcher is hard to get a bead on as an ABA vagrant. The species has been seen six times times in the continental US and Canada and all over the continent at that (Tennessee, Florida, Ontario, Washington, and Maine). It can basically show up anywhere. Florida became the first to get a second record of the enigmatic austral migrant – which also happened to be its second in three years – with an individual in Fort Lauderdale in October.

Photo by Balaji Devarajan

Photo by Balaji Devarajan

8. Social Flycatcher – California

We put two flycatchers in a row here, but the remarkable thing about this bird is that it’s an example of how a rare bird can show up anywhere and for anyone. Maya Lopez was a keen young naturalist in Los Angeles, dutifully looking for interesting things to report to the app-based iNaturalist program. In late October, she found a weird bird perched on a wire near her home and she did what any young, plugged-in naturalist would do-she took a photo, uploaded it, and asked for help identifying it.  To say the California birding community-one of the most active in the ABA Area-was gobsmacked would be an understatement. Maya’s photos were good enough to document the ABA Area’s 3rd, and California’s 1st, record of Social Flycatcher.

This apparent Social Flycatcher is a potential California first, photo by Maria Lopez via iNaturalist

photo by Maria Lopez via iNaturalist

7. Fieldfare – Montana

The end of 2015 saw a flurry of Asian vagrants in the northwest of the ABA Area. The first,and arguably most remarkable, was a Fieldfare found on the Missoula, Montana, CBC. The stunning thrush was most accommodating for visiting birders for the several days it was there. Most ABA records of Fieldfare unsurprisingly come from Alaska and Maritime Canada, with only a very small handful in the interior of the continent. Even though birders are still finding great Asian birds throughout the region, this one may remain the most surprising.

Photo: Alex Hughes

Photo: Alex Hughes

6. Eurasian Dotterel – Ontario

Dotterel is arguably the plover holy grail for American shorebirders, partly because of its rarity but mostly because its just so cool looking. Most records come from the western half of the ABA Area so one along the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario in October was exceptional, as it represented the 1st record for the eastern half of the continent. Unfortunately, this sharp little immature dotterel did not stick around long. Birders were not able to find it on subsequent days.

Photo by Mike Butler

Photo by Mike Butler

5. Pallas’s Rosefinch – Alaska

It would be impossible to get through one of these lists without including anything from western Alaska, the hard part is choosing which bird to highlight. In terms of both notability (an ABA 1st) and unexpectedness (from Central Asia), it’s hard to go wrong with the Pallas’s Rosefinch, found in late September on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs. The species breeds in Siberia and northeast China and would have had to travel nearly 4000 miles to get to Alaska, approximately the distance between St. Paul and Columbus, Ohio.

Photo: Tom Johnson

Photo: Tom Johnson

4.Common Scoter – California

We continue on our string of 1sts for the ABA with a bird from the beginning of last year. Not long after the AOU split of Eurasian Common Scoter from our North American Black Scoter put the potential of finding the former in the minds of ABA Area birders, one conveniently showed up in northern California. What’s more, the bird put on a bit of a show for visitors, as it was regularly and easily observed in the harbor in Crescent City for several weeks following its discovery in late January. Would that all potential ABA Area 1sts were so easily foreshadowed.

Photo by Bill Bouton

Photo by Bill Bouton

3. European Robin – Pennsylvania

This shocking vagrant did not make a lot of noise when it was first discovered visiting a backyard in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in April. The homeowner’s small backyard, on a busy street with very little parking was not suitable for visitation, much less a crush of invading birders, so the record was kept under wraps for some time. That this short-winged little Old World flycatcher would show up here is surprising, indeed, though perhaps not much less likely than a Pallas’s Rosefinch in the Bering Sea.

Photo: Devich Farbotnik

Photo: Devich Farbotnik

2. Gray Thrasher – California

We keep coming back to California but it’s hard not to, as the state had an exceptional 2015. In terms of unexpected vagrants, the Gray Thrasher that turned up in San Diego in August-a potential 1st for California and the ABA Area-is certainly at the top of the list. The species is a mostly sedentary Baja endemic, and while it’s quite common within its restricted range it’s not often found outside of it. Provenance is obviously something to consider for a bird like this, but the timing seems plausible for natural vagrancy and it wouldn’t be the first Baja species to make its way north.

Discussion is raging over the provenance of this gorgeous Gray Thrasher in San Diego, a potential ABA Area 1st, photo by Dorian Anderson

Photo by Dorian Anderson

1. “Mystery” Shrike – California

So let’s talk about likelihood for a second. Finding a vagrant bird is pretty unlikely. And for a bird to survive its vagrancy long enough to be discovered by a birder who can put a name to it is an even less likely event. Now let’s add a dash of hybridism into the mix. Hybrids are practically by definition unlikely and especially so as vagrants, with few exceptions. And for an apparent hybrid bird from a narrow hybrid zone in central Asia to end up in northern California, where it is observed by birders doing a census in a very underbirded location adds up to one of the single least likely incidents in the history of ABA birding.

But that’s what happened with a weird shrike, originally identified as a Northern, then a Brown, then a Red-backed, then a whatever, was discovered in early March in Mendocino County, California. As the bird underwent molt over a period of several weeks it seemed, bizarrely, to change into something that could not be conclusively identified. In the Fall 2015 issue of North American Birds, Peter Pyle, Robert Keiffer, Jon Dunn, and Nial Moores lay out a pretty convincing case that this bird was a hybrid of Turkestan Shrike x Red-backed Shrike, two species of which neither have been recorded in the ABA Area. It’s a conclusion so mind-blowing that you could make an argument that this single bird was the weirdest thing ever found in the ABA Area. At very least, it’s a shoe-in for our craziest vagrant of 2015.

Photo: Steve Tucker

Photo: Steve Tucker

–=====–

We barely scratched the surface for what was a really great vagrant year in the ABA Area. Birds we considered but which did not make the cut include: Redwing from British Columbia, the incredible Franklin’s Gull invasion in the northeast (and globally), Oriental Greenfinch in British Columbia, Painted Bunting in New York City for media attention and excitement, the Dusky Warbler in California, Piratic Flycatcher in Kansas, the ABA’s 2nd Spotted Rail in Texas, a Pallas’s Reed Bunting and a Blyth’s Reed Warbler both from western Alaska, and the Tufted Flycatchers who attempted to nest in Arizona.

There were just so so many great birds in 2015 that we could have easily done a Top 20.

So that’s our take. 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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