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Happening NOW: Wandering Wood Storks and Spoonbills

For many birders, our first encounter with a Roseate Spoonbill or a Wood Stork occurs during a visit to a hazy, mosquito-filled, wetland on the Gulf Coast. This year however, some of us have been lucky enough to find these charismatic waders far to their north of their typical haunts. It isn’t terribly unusual for birds to move inland or north along the coast in response to local pressures or severe weather patterns, and we at North American Birds have noted this kind of movement this year. But we’re also seeing a much larger movement—Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Oklahoma, even California (!)  have been among the many states to produce records of these species since late May.

A young Wood Stork in Greene County, Iowa, earlier this summer was that state’s 3rd record, and is one of many extralimital individuals this year. Photo: Brandon Caswell/Macaulay Library (S379175710)

It seems likely to us that both Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks are reacting to fluctuations in their most-needed resource: water. In the heart of these birds’ range, below-average rainfall since November of 2016 produced widespread drought conditions. At the beginning of the summer season, these drought-stricken areas were subjected to sudden deluges. This combination of weather-events may have caused enough volatility to send birds wandering well beyond the borders of their normal range. Of course, this is just one possible explanation; a more extensive analysis will be published in a future issue of NAB.

While the focus thus far has been on spoonbills and storks, we shouldn’t forget about other species of southern wetland species that may also be forced to react to changing water levels. Purple Gallinules may already be undertaking a movement of their own—in the last few months, birds have turned up in such far-flung places as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and even Nunavut! Similarly, White Ibis appear to be undertaking an impressive flight into the central and southwestern US—Missouri, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona have all produced recent records. Among the other species we at NAB have our eyes on are Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Reddish Egret, and Limpkin. All of these species have produced at least a couple of outstanding records lately, and we have suspicions that more may be on the way.

So, if you haven’t already grab your binoculars and go birding! Keep your eyes open through the rest of the summer, and as summer turns to fall, and if you find yourself scoping out a rare southern wader, report it. Put your sightings on eBird, send them to your local records committees, and let us at NAB know by contacting your regional compilers and if you’ve already been lucky enough to observe some of the species we’re tracking, let us know in the comments below.

Note: This is another in a series of blog posts from the editors of North American Birds. The idea of these occasional posts is to highlight ongoing bird population phenomena of broad interest to birders and field ornithologists across the continent. Full analysis will appear in print in North American Birds. To learn more or to subscribe, please go online: http://publications.aba.org/north-american-birds/
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Mike Hudson

Mike Hudson

Co-editor, North American Birds at American Birding Association
Mike Hudson is co-editor of North American Birds. He grew up within sight of Baltimore, Maryland. Living in the city, he developed an interest in urban birds, and the differences in distribution he observed between rural and urban areas. He is also fascinated by the forces that drive changes in bird distribution, from climate and weather to competing species. Mike works at the Chester River Field Research Station where he assists with the seasonal bird banding operations there. He has also been an educator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where he taught about ecology and conservation and he has been staff at multiple ABA young birder camps and events.
Mike Hudson

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