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Ship Happens

Like any birder, I delight in seeing a vagrant—a bird far out of range. Transoceanic vagrants are particularly exciting; there’s something bewitching and inspiring about a bird flying all the way across the ocean. And among the transoceanic vagrants, the passerines are the cream of the crop. It’s one thing for a Whiskered Tern or Little Egret to make the crossing; those non-passerines are relatively big and powerful, seemingly well-equipped for getting across the pond. But when a dinky Brambling or White Wagtail makes the crossing, that borders on unbelievable.

Think about it: Our wagtail, weighing in at less than an ounce, is in Seoul one moment, in Los Angeles the next. A Brambling in Ohio?—Not all that long ago, it was on Hokkaido or the Kamchatka Peninsula or somewhere. And so it is for “our” birds abroad: I’m thinking of the annual appearance in Europe each fall of Red-eyed Vireos, Catharus thrushes, and such. They’re fueling up on bugs and berries on Cape Cod, and, next thing you know, they’re being twitched on the Scillies or the Azores.

But how do they do it? That Brambling in Ohio, the wagtail in L.A.—how do they get here?

Well, they probably don’t swim. They certainly don’t walk. And they don’t necessarily fly—at least not all the way. Many of them, instead, seem to do it the way you or I might: They go along for the ride. Check out this photo from the February 2016 issue of Birding magazine [ABA member account required for full access to Birding Online]:

Bramblings and White Wagtails aboard the Statendam; photo by © David Cooper. See article in Birding, February 2012, pp. 32–44.

Bramblings and White Wagtails aboard the Statendam; photo by © David Cooper. See Gail Mackiernan’s article, “Cruise Ship Seabirding,” in Birding, February 2012, pp. 32–44.

In this photo, I see 21 Bramblings and 3 White Wagtails on the foredeck of the cruise ship Statendam, plying the waters of the Bering Sea. Gail Mackiernan, author of the article in which this photo appears, writes:

“An unexpected feature of many cruises is the number of birds that come aboard, often during stormy weather when the huge vessel is a beacon to weary migrants. On two cruises in the North Pacific, for example, landbirds we found aboard included Eurasian Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Dusky Thrush, Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, Red-throated Pipit, and a flock of breeding-plumage Bramblings; a Temminck’s Stint also came onboard, and it was in U.S. waters.” —Birding, February 2016, p. 36

Did she just say Red-rumped Swallow? That bird’s not on the ABA Checklist! Mind you, most of those detections were beyond the 200-mile threshold for admission to the ABA Checklist, but, still, you get the message: Birds ride boats.

And there’re a lot of boats out there. An awful lot. Here’s a map showing the locations at one point in time of properly registered container ships in the North Pacific:

ABA Blog ship happens

These are only the immense container ships—not smaller vessels like cruise ships (still pretty danged big!) and Lord-knows-how-many fishing boats, pleasure craft, etc. As Han Solo said, “Not the local bulk cruisers, mind you; I’m talking about the big Corellian ships now.” It’s hard to imagine, frankly, how a bird could get from East Asia to California without bumping into a boat or ten.


Does the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—of ship assistance somehow cheapen the experience of seeing a vagrant? I don’t think so. For me, at least, it enhances the experience. I marvel at the resourceful Brambling that found food aboard a freighter or fishing boat, at the enterprising wagtail that hopscotched from cruise ship to cruise ship, container ship to container ship, all the way into Long Beach harbor.

This Brambling in Medina County, Ohio, winter 2015–2016 delighted birders near and far. How did it ever get there? Did it ride a boat some of the way? Is that okay? Photo by © Jen Brumfield.

This Brambling in Medina County, Ohio, winter 2015–2016 delighted birders near and far. How did it ever get there? Did it ride a boat some of the way? Is that okay? Photo by © Jen Brumfield.

We live in the Anthropocene era, and that changes everything. Hummingbirds tend heated feeders, and albatrosses flock to chum slicks; bluebirds nest in bluebird boxes, Tree Swallows nest in bluebird boxes, and Peregrine Falcons still return to hack towers; wintering warblers subsist on suet, migrating geese revel in spillage, and gulls at all seasons swarm to garbage dumps; Ángel Paz lures Giant Antpittas with earthworms, tourists toss peanuts at Florida Scrub-Jays, and certain birders bait owls with mice. (But we’ll not go there, and I would never engage in a willful act of apophasis, haha.)

I’m fine with all of the preceding, and I’m fine with ship assistance. It doesn’t bother me that many Bramblings and White Wagtails in the ABA Area probably got here on boats; it occurs to me that such celebrated vagrants as Red-footed Falcon (Massachusetts, 2004) and Gray-hooded Gull (New York, 2011) may have ridden a boat or boats on their way to America; and I’m intrigued by recent reports of European Robins, Black Catbirds, and House Crows on boats in or near ABA Area waters.

Sooner or later, the ABA Area will get Meadow Pipit, Mediterranean Gull, Eurasian Blackcap (please?), and maybe even European Bee-eater (would that be the most-celebrated mega of all time, or what). Chances are, one or more of those bird species—and more likely, much more likely, something I’m not even thinking of right now—will get here on a boat. I’m fine with that. Ship happens.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Christian Hagenlocher

    Great article, Ted. You present a great case for getting out and checking ports and trade routes for birds! I hope we’ll have at least one MEGA to get excited about sometime later this year!

  • Adam Winer

    European Bee-eater has, in fact, already reached the New World:

  • Anita

    I remember seeing a species of tern that I couldn’t ID with my Petersen’s. It was on a fishing boat in Bar Harbor, ME in August. It appeared to be exhausted and mostly slept while I studied it at fairly close range. These boats fished at night and came back to harbor early in the morning. They collected sea cucumbers. The Tern was smaller than any of the other terns in the harbor but I really don’t remember it’s field marks now. That’s been about 20 years ago.

  • katahdingal

    Hi – I should add that at least one of the White Wagtails in my nephew’s photo above left the ship in Kodiak, and was seem later walking along a stream near the port. Just back from another seabirding cruise, this “around the Horn” and to Antarctica, and we did have a few landbirds on board, including a Fork-tailed Flycatcher 80 miles offshore of Argentina.

  • Lance Tanino

    This article is a great reminder for birders to include checking harbors, etc. This reminds me of a couple species I’ve seen in Hawaii more than likely by riding on ships. In the 1990s, there was a small flock of European Starlings at Sand Island State Recreation Area located at the entrance to Honolulu Harbor (principal seaport in Honolulu). Individual Great-tailed Grackles have been seen along the coast of Pearl Harbor (1980s/90s) and more recently at Ala Moana Beach Park, close to Kewalo Basin (commercial fishing fleet) and Honolulu Harbor.

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