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THE TOP 10: Craziest ABA Vagrants of 2017

It is time again for the annual Top 10 Vagrants post, which has become one of our most popular, and most discussed, posts on The ABA Blog every year. I, with help from my ABA colleagues, have looked back and assembled the following list of notable and unexpected birds that got twitchers across the continent pricing plane tickets and rental cars.

As we have in the past, instead of simply rehashing the rarest birds of 2017 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 and attempted to show a diversity of locations (though it’s hard to deny an Alaska bias this year).

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) Tamaulipas Crows – Texas

The return of Tamaulipas Crows to south Texas was definitely one of the more exciting developments of the year. For more than a decade the slim, shiny corvid was absent from the Valley, following many years of reliability at sites like the Brownsville Dump. When a single bird was found 40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico it was pretty strange. When multiple birds were found returning to old haunts, and even turning up as far north as Galveston, it was clear something interesting was going on. The crows are still around, maybe for good so far as anyone knows.

Photo: Ken Oeser

9) Black Kite – Alaska

It was easy to forget this one, as it occurred right at the beginning of 2017 (January 3rd!). Black Kite is a widespread species in the Old World so it stood to reason that one would drift over into North America at some point. It says a lot about the general bird-awareness of the permanent residents of St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea that this bird would be photographed and identified at a time when there are not many people on the island and when the daylight is precious short. But Barbara Lestenkof got the sighting and the photo, the 1st on the continent following 3 previous from the Hawaiian Islands.

Photo: Barbara Lestenkof

8) Bahama Woodstar – Florida

The time between the ABA’s 4th record of Bahama Woodstar–the last in Florida–and the ABA’s 6th record of Bahama Woodstar this past spring was more than 30 years. Florida birders were justified, then, to treat this one with the sort of excitement that typically only accompanies ABA 1sts. The female bird stuck around for several days, allowing for exceptional looks for many excited birders.

7) Swallow-tailed Gull – Washington

In a year that saw a great many Galapagos nesting seabirds sneak into the ABA Area, none were quite as exciting as the ABA Area’s 3rd, and Washington’s 1st, Swallow-tailed Gull. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the bird was discovered within a major American city, Seattle, which made for a particularly easy twitch for those birders making the effort. It’s not common that such a high caliber rarity is found in such an accessible location, making this easily one of the most exciting ABA Area birds of 2017.

Photo: John Puschock

6) Thick-billed Warbler, River Warbler, Red-backed Shrike – Alaska

Is it a copout to stack all three of the major Gambell finds this past fall together at one spot? Maybe, but otherwise this list would be all Alaska and we have to acknowledge that there were other birds in other places last year. This trio of central Asian megas, all ABA Area 1sts, highlighted an exceptional year for St. Lawrence Island, which also saw a great many lower level rarities like Siberian Accentor and Little Bunting. It’s interesting that all three species come from roughly the same part of Asia, along with a fourth species that takes the next spot on the list.

(l to r) River Warbler (Clarence Irrigoo), Thick-billed Warbler (Monte Taylor), Red-backed Shrike (Sue Byers)

5) Pied Wheatear – Alaska

Birders looking for a big rarity year in western Alaska were put on high alert as early as July, when an ABA 1st Pied Wheatear was found by Alexander Harper in Nome, Alaska. Nome doesn’t have quite the pedigree in recent years that the Bering Sea islands do, but it has seen its share of rare birds, none bigger than this one. No doubt twitchers were happy to only have to travel to Nome instead of heading out farther towards Asia.

Photo: Justin Bosler/Macaulay Library

4) Eurasian Wryneck – California

Eurasian Wryneck is a weird bird, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the 1st wryneck in the ABA in more than a decade comes with a suitably weird story. The bird was originally seen by a Naval officer and birder on San Clemente Island off San Diego, California. The observer ended up painting what must be said was a really exceptional rendition of the bird as a placeholder and submitting it to eBird. Photos eventually verified the sighting. The bird’s proximity to Long Beach harbor certainly prompted discussions about ship-assistance (an aside, ship-assisted bird can count on ABA lists), but regardless of the ultimate determination by the California rare bird committee, it remains a highlight of 2017.

Photo: Johnny Galt/Macaulay Library

3) Mistle Thrush – New Brunswick

This list is certainly not lacking in ABA 1sts, and the Mistle Thrush in Miramichi, New Brunswick, certainly counts as an unexpected addition to the ABA Checklist. The large, European thrush was discovered by Peter and Deana Gadd, who had the wherewithal to photograph the strange visitor and seek out its identification. The subsequent confirmation of an ABA 1st sent birders from across the continent to Miramichi, where the Mistle Thrush has delighted without fail. The bird is present well into its second month even into 2018, so long as the Mountain Ash berries hold out.

Photo: Michel Doucet

2) Black-backed Oriole – Pennsylvania

The bird of the year for many, one that goes down in history as not only an unexpected ABA Area bird but a potential addition to Pennsylvania’s bizarre grab bag of a state list (the state boasts Corncrake, Spotted Rail, and Bahama Woodstar). The bird spent the better part of two months at its feeder in eastern Pennsylvania before disappearing. Interestingly, Black-backed Oriole was seen both in Connecticut and Massachusetts in weeks following that disappearance–it seems at least plausible, perhaps likely, that this was the same bird moving in a northeasterly direction. At least one of those committees has chosen to not accept that record, citing concerns about provenance, and whether that makes a difference as to its eventual acceptability by the Pennsylvania Bird Records Committee or the ABA Checklist Committee is a question without a clear answer. In any case, that wild two months in eastern Pennsylvania will not soon be forgotten.

Photo: Brad Carlson

1) Yellow-breasted Bunting – Labrador

The story of the Yellow-breasted Bunting is not a happy one. Once abundant in Asia, the species has been in free-fall in the last decade, the result of unregulated harvesting in their southeast Asian winter range. The species has been recorded before in the ABA Area, in Alaska, but with the population declining as it is it’s a species that could be justifiably not expected to occur again–the ultimate blocker. So it was certainly surprising when one showed up at a feeder at the home of Vernon Buckle in out of the way Forteau Bay, Labrador, not even in the part of Newfoundland and Labrador that sees the majority of the province’s rare birds. Given the species’s prospects one wonders if we’ll see another in the ABA Area. The combination of unexpectedness and melancholy makes this bird first among equals, my best ABA Area vagrant for 2017.

Photo: Vernon Buckle

There were just so so many great birds in 2017 that we could have easily done a Top 20, certainly so if I split up the Gambell birds. Birds worthy of mention that didn’t quite make the cut include the influx of Fork-tailed Flycatchers and Nazca Boobies in the ABA Area, not one but two Loggerhead Kingbirds in Florida along with another Cuban Vireo, Citrine Wagtail in California and Little Bunting in Arizona, Common Swift in North Carolina and Newfoundland, White-winged Tern in Pennsylvania, crazy hurricane birds including Black-capped Petrels in Tennessee, among others.

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?

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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.
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