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THE TOP 10: Craziest ABA Area Vagrants of 2016

The annual Top 10 Vagrants post has been one of our most popular, and most discussed, on The ABA Blog for some time. The time has come to look over 2016 and assemble the following list of notable and unexpected birds that got twitchers across the continent pricing plane tickets and rental cars. Literally this time, as an impressive showing of vagrants made 2016 a record-breaking Big Year for no fewer than four birders.

As we have in the past, instead of simply rehashing the rarest birds of 2016, I 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.

Of course, this list is subjective, and being my own personal opinion I encourage you to hash it out in the comments section if you think I’m right on or wildly off base. It’s these kind of discussions among birding friends that make our community so special.

So without further ado….

10. Zenaida Dove – Florida

This little Caribbean dove has turned up in the ABA Area only a few times in the last few years, but the species’s retiring nature and the fact that it used to be a regularly breeding species in the Florida Keys in the 1800s have always made it a little mysterious. In 2016, a Zenaida Dove showed up at Long Key State Park in February, found by Alan Moss, and stuck around for 2 months, allowing many many birders who had missed this often difficult species to finally cross paths with it.

Photo: Christian Hagenlocher

9. Pine Flycatcher – Arizona

It feels a little weird putting a potential 1st ABA Area record so low in the rankings, but Pine Flycatcher in southeastern Arizona was considered by many to be as close to a sure thing as a potential 1st could be. It was only a matter of time, effort, and the right birder with an eye towards weird Empidonax flycatchers, and those three criteria came together in the form of Dave Stejskal, who photographed a weird Empid in the Santa Rita Mountains. Like the Zenaida Dove, this bird put on a show for most birders who made the effort of trekking into the difficult to access canyon, sticking around into July and even building a nest, though it never found a mate to share it with.

Photo: Laurens Halsey

8. Pine Bunting – Alaska

Most of the birding on the Bering Sea outposts in western Alaska takes place in the warmer (relatively speaking) months. By October, most birders have moved off the islands as the encroaching cold and dark moves in. But it helps to have someone there who can recognize birds, as evidenced this past November with Clarence Irrigoo photographed the ABA Area’s 4th record of Pine Bunting at Gambell. Most remarkably, the bird stayed for a few weeks (noticing a theme here?) so that the ABA Area Big Year birders, and others, could make the treacherous journey to St. Lawrence Island to see it.

Photo: Clarence Irrigoo

7. Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Alaska

The story of Eurasian Sparrowhawk in the ABA Area is one of missed chances. Poor photos, no photos, shadowy reports of poorly seen Accipiters on the Aleutians where any Accipiter is unlikely. We finally got confirmation this year when Frank and Barb Haas discovered and photographed a strange hawk on Adak, in the western Aleutians, which was identified as the ABA Area’s 1st Eurasian Sparrowhawk. And in classic sparrowhawk fashion, it was never found again despite serious efforts to relocate it.

6. Ancient Murrelet – Maine/New Brunswick

True, Ancient Murrelet is not an unusual bird in the ABA Area. The little auk breeds throughout the northwest of North America south to British Columbia. And it’s not unknown to wander inland, as well, as records from a few states and provinces around the Great Lakes would attest. The discovery of one in the Atlantic, however, was very strange. It was initially found by researcher Keenan Yakola around Seal Island in Maine in mid-May, where it lingered among nesting Atlantic Puffins before crossing over into New Brunswick waters in June, representing a 1st record for both. It is suspected that the bird crossed over the top of the continent, as climate change affects arctic sea ice and provides easier passage between oceans. And its story may not end there, an Ancient Murrelet reported just last month in Virginia, among a large passage of Razorbills and Dovekies, might well be this bird moving south with the closest things to Ancient Murrelets it can find.

Photo: Keenen Yakola

5. Cuban Vireo – Florida

The jump from Cuba to south Florida can be a tough one for a short-winged, brush-loving songbird, but 2016 was the year that saw Cuban Vireo, one of the more common Cuban endemic species, finally push its way onto our shores. Mark Hedden’s discovery and subsequent fast action saw this one relocated by several birders during its brief stay at Key West, with one notable exception.

Photo: Mark Hedden

4. Great Knot – Maine

I tried to spread the action around to different places in the ABA Area, but it was hard to keep from acknowledging a single birder twice. Not much more than a couple months after his discovery of the Ancient Murrelet, researcher Keenan Yakola turned up another stunner. A Great Knot, known in the ABA Area mostly from western Alaska, on Seal Island NWR was found in July. This represented only the 2nd record of this species in eastern North America, the previous one being an individual in West Virginia, easily one of the strangest single records in ABA Area history.

Photo: Keenan Yakola

3. Amethyst-throated Hummingbird – Quebec

In terms of unexpectedness, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird is perhaps not on the top. The mostly Middle American species comes quite close to the ABA Area in northern Mexico, and one could conceivably expect to end up on the north side of the river at some point. That the river would be the St. Lawrence River, and the place would be Quebec, was a bit more unexpected. But when Annie Lavoie noted the big, unusual hummingbird at her feeder last August she quickly sprang into action, getting excellent photos of a bird that only stayed around one additional day, and was easily one of the highlights of 2016. When another Amethyst-throated Hummingbird was noted on a hummingbird live-cam in west Texas a few weeks later, it made much less of a stir.

Photo: Annie Lavoie

2. Corncrake – Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania may have one of the most bizarre lists of birds of any state or province in the ABA Area. The Black-backed Oriole in the eastern part of the state is getting a lot of attention now, but Pennsylvania has a history of weird birds. The state also boasts Bahama Woodstar, Spotted Rail, and at the very beginning of last year, a Corncrake, taken from the jaws of a cat. Once a semi-regular vagrant to North America, the highly-migratory Eurasian rail has seen significant declines in Europe in recent years, and that, along with the fact that rails can be exceptionally difficult to find even in places where they occur in numbers, suggested that Corncrake records in North America were likely to dry up. But that was not to be, at least with this one. The injured bird was taken to a rehabilitation facility where it was photographed but eventually succumbed to the wounds . Photos were available online for a time, but have since been deleted.

1. Juan Fernandez Petrel – Arizona

Hurricanes stir different responses among birders than they do among the general public. Sure, there’s the worry that a particular storm could be destructive or life-threatening, and this should not be discounted. But there’s also that little bit of excitement in tracking a storm and predicting its landfall and trying to determine what kind of storm birds might be entrained within. For birders, a hurricane is a unopened present, albeit one that might contain something really horrible along with the surprise. It is a crapshoot and we contain multitudes, after all.

When Hurricane Newton charged through the Sea of Cortez and pushed up into southern Arizona in early September, the excitement was palpable. When storm-petrels of various species started turning up in sewage lagoons and golf course ponds, the dial ratcheted up. When Brian Gibbons stepped out of his car in his driveway and spotted, and photographed, a flipping Juan Fernandez Petrel flying over his house it’s fair to say that this one went to 11. There is not likely to be a more unexpected yard bird recorded in the ABA Area and even though the inclusion of Hawaii this year means that this will not represent a 1st ABA Area record (though it did at the time), it doesn’t diminish the mix of serendipity and spectacular that is birding at its best, and thus, the Craziest ABA Area Vagrant of 2016.

Photo: Brian Gibbons

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: Dusky Warbler, Common Pochard, Nazca Booby, Marsh Sandpiper and Ross’s Gull (RIP) in California, Red-flanked Bluetail in Idaho, Kelp Gull and Gray Heron in Newfoundland, Greylag Goose in Rhode Island, Texas’s long-staying Amazon Kingfisher and the short-staying Variegated Flycatcher and Jabiru, the impressive numbers of Western Spindalis in Florida, Common Shelducks in Quebec and New Brunswick, Common Scoter in Oregon, Lesser Sand-Plover in Arizona. Alaska was relatively slower this year but a Pacific Swift was a highlight there. White-winged Tern in Massachusets and a Redwing in New Hampshire, and a Black-tailed Gull in Illinois.

There were just so so many great birds in 2016 that we could have easily done a Top 20.

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

Let us know in the comments!

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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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  • Alex Sundvall

    There was a White-winged Tern in Wisconsin this year too (perhaps more noteable than the Mass bird?). Nice list Nate! I think The Ivory Gull Explosion of the Great Lakes last January deserves a nod too. Bird drama at its finest, and someone ended up getting the single best photo of an Ivory Gull ever: in their yard on their trampoline.

    • You’re right, I did forget about the WWTE in WI. With so many good birds out there it’s hard to keep track of everything!

  • Jared Clarke

    A Common Swift that was photographed (but seen by only 4 very lucky people) in Newfoundland in July 2016 might rank pretty high as well. Definitely a painful one for this guy, who wasn’t one of those four birders.

    • Yeah, great point. I missed that one. Those briefly-staying birds get lost in the shuffle.

  • Laurent Fournier

    Amazing year indeed. I am still amazed by the Juan Fernandez Petrel story. Thanks for the post!

    I am slightly confused about the comment about the storm petrel…”even though the inclusion of Hawaii this year means that this will not represent a 1st ABA Area record “….Hawaii was added to the ABA area (end of october?) after the petrel was seen in AZ (september)…surely it means that the petrel is still a first ABA record, right?

    PS : “so many great birds in 2015″….2016?

    • My interpretation of that is that it will be relegated to an ABA Continental 1st record, as Juan Fernandez Petrel is a regular in Hawaii. Though the language about these sorts of things is something that will probably be worked out in time.

      • Laurent Fournier

        I think it would open a big can of worms….many previous first ABA records would have to be revisited and reestimated. It would make more sense to only consider the birds seen in Hawaii after the addition of Hawaii to ABA (whenever the official date was)

  • Quentin Brown

    That’s a fine list! A couple notable birds here on the west coast could include Redwing (Vancouver Island) and Siberian Accentor (east of Vancouver). Both birds, though shy, stayed long enough for many birders to see.

  • Kirsten Mills

    The purple sandpiper in bc was pretty unexpected too

    • Ted Floyd

      Also, the Purple Sandpiper found in a December blizzard way up in the Colorado Rockies in December by two middle school birders.

  • Matt Brady

    The Great Frigatebird in Monterey seems like it should have been a candidate! Over Dusky Warbler, at least.

    • Yes, good point. Another of those one-birder birds that fall through the crack of my memory because they are here and gone so quickly.

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