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The TOP 10: Craziest Vagrants of 2018

The annual Top 10 Vagrants post has become one of our most popular, and most discussed, posts on The ABA Blog every year. With help from my ABA colleagues, I’ve looked back and assembled the following list of notable and unexpected birds that got birders excited and most blew our collective minds. 2018 was a good year for that at least.

As we have in the past, instead of simply rehashing the rarest birds of 2018 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 often hard to deny a bias to those places on the edges of the ABA Area where vagrants tend to gather.

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.

10) Fan-tailed Warbler — Arizona

This bird was probably the less exciting of two rare warblers to turn up in Arizona in the spring of 2018, but ultimately it was the one that counted as the potential ABA 1st Red Warbler was not accepted by the Arizona Bird Records Committee. That’s just as well, as Fan-tailed Warbler is a pretty fine bird in its own right.  More, this individual was particularly great as this typically skulky and difficult species spent quite a bit of time feeding on the lawn of its host’s home, in full view of the many birders who came to see it.

9) Roadside Hawk — Texas

A young Roadside Hawk in south Texas went though a bit of “is it or isn’t it” with regard to its identification for several days following its discovery. It was fortunate, then, that the ID was confirmed in the few days before the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, one of the tentpole events of the birding calendar. That festival has had a history of hosting very good ABA Area birds, and this tropical raptor was added to an illustrious list.

8) Gray Bunting — Alaska

While western Alaska wasn’t quite the goldmine in 2018 that it was the year before, there was still quite a lot to get excited about. The May trip to far Attu run by Zugunruhe Tours is probably the closest thing to rolling the dice as anything in North American birding–you need a lot to go right but when it does it can be spectacular. This year was a good one, highlighted by the ABA’s 4th record of Gray Bunting.

7) Double-toothed Kite — Florida

Of all the species seen more than once in the ABA Area, few have such odd stories surrounding them as Double-toothed Kite. The ABA’s 1st record of Double-toothed Kite was photographed in Texas and wasn’t identified for weeks, which meant that no one was able to see it. When the ABA’s 2nd record of Double-toothed Kite was found this past October at an out of the way National Wildlife Refuge in western Florida, at least it didn’t take weeks to identify it. But that didn’t mean this one was any easier. While the identification was confirmed the same day, the relatively inaccessible location and the fact that raptors tend to roam meant that it was not found again. Maybe one day we’ll get a Double-toothed Kite that more than one person sees at a time.

6) Great Kiskadee–Ontario

While Great Kiskadee is not an uncommon bird in the south-central parts of the ABA Area, it’s not as prone to wandering as other tyrant flycatchers can be. So that made the discovery of an individual at Rondeau Provincial Park in Ontario last September already noteworthy. And when the bird disappeared a week or so later that seemed like the end of it. But it was found again about a month later, at which point it stuck tight for another few weeks before disappearing again, at which point it was found again in December. No one ever figured out where it went during its two long absences, but it was reported eating fish, frogs, tadpoles, leeches, and whatever else it could fit into its mouth.

5) Spotted Redshank–Michigan

Just about every birder loves a mystery, and this one was one of the best of the year. An ABA Code 4 Spotted Redshank was discovered in Michigan, with photos posted to the well-known Surfbirds website, without any accompanying information about the location. But Michigan birders are a persistent bunch, and after combing eBird reports and likely hotspots, the site was revealed only a few hours later at a relatively innocuous rural crossroads near Ann Arbor. The redshank ended up staying for several days and many birders got to enjoy this Euro visitor before it disappeared.

4) Stygian Owl–Florida

Now we get into the really good stuff. Stygian Owl is one of the oddest birds in the Western Hemisphere. Secretive even by owl standards, it occurs in a handful of disjunct populations throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. It has occurred twice in the ABA Area before–both in south Texas, both at Bentsen-RGV State Park–separated by two years. But those records might conceivably refer to the same individual which just hid out for 24 months. So it was already pretty exceptional when a Stygian Owl was spotted in a private backyard in the middle of Key West, Florida, last summer. A handful of birders saw it during its one-day stay, but it didn’t return to the day roost the next day and was never seen again. It’s most likely that this individual was of the Cuban subspecies, which some authorities believe should be considered a full species. So it might, down the road, be a new species on the ABA Checklist.

3) Long-legged Buzzard –Alaska

St Paul Island in the Pribilofs usually gets a mention in this post every year. The tiny archipelago in Alaska’s Bering Sea is no stranger to amazing records of wayward birds. These are often lost songbirds, but this year’s highlight was much bigger, even though it unfortunately arrived after most of the birders had left for the year. St. Paul resident Barbara Lestenkof, who is quickly building a reputation as a excellent rarity finder (in 2017, she found North America’s 1st record of Black Kite), spotted another great raptor. At the end of November a Euro Buteo caught her eye. That bird is now fairly confidently being recognized as the ABA Area’s 1st Long-legged Buzzard, an extraordinary visitor from Central Asia. And if all that wasn’t remarkable enough, it was still being seen into mid-January.

2) Tahiti Petrel–North Carolina

Birders are sort of inured to the fact that seabirds are exceptional wanderers that can show up at any time at just about any place. It is, in fact, a big part of what makes pelagic birding so much fun. There’s a luck aspect to it, like buying a lottery ticket. Your scratcher is most likely a bust, but that jackpot is always a possibility. Brian Patteson’s Seabirding crew have learned over the years to expect the unexpected in North Carolina’s Gulf Stream. That dynamic environment has produced a lot of unusual birds over the years, including a handful of ABA Area firsts, and they even have a short list of candidate species that haven’t been recorded yet but should be at some point.

It’s probably safe to say, however, that Tahiti Petrel was not on that list. This South Pacific wanderer was not only on the wrong continent, but in the wrong ocean. It’s fairly mind-blowing to think about the odds of a bird like this not only making it to the western Atlantic, but intersecting with a relatively small boat on that vast blue desert. Wheels within wheels. And while it wasn’t an ABA first by virtue of records in Hawaii, it sure felt like one. It would have undoubtedly taken top spot if not for the story of the following bird.

1) Great Black Hawk–Texas/Maine

This had to be the one, right? Let us recount the saga of the ABA Area’s first Great Black Hawk. It was a young bird, first discovered by Alex Lamoreaux and Javi Gonzalez on South Padre Island, Texas. This is, after all, a perfectly acceptable place for a Mexican vagrant to show up, and Great Black Hawk is a species that Texas birders have sort of expected for quite a while. Raptors, especially young ones, are prone to wander and while the bird generated the sort of excitement you see with any ABA 1st, had the story stopped there it would have peaked at 3 or 4 on this list. But the story didn’t stop there.

Fast forward to August, when an unusual raptor photographed in coastal Maine was revealed to be a Great Black Hawk. The ABA’s 2nd! What luck! This is pretty unusual, but not unheard of. Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, for instance, was first recorded in the ABA Area in Quebec and then again the same year in Texas. Except that close examination of the Maine bird’s flight feathers when compared to flight shots of the Texas bird, revealed that we were not in the midst of a historic Great Black Hawk irruption, but that these two records represented the same individual bird who had evidently flown from Texas to Maine over the intervening four months. Cue the insanity.

A great many birders enjoyed the second coming of the Great Black Hawk before it was last observed flying out over the ocean, apparently never to be seen again. Where would it go next? Newfoundland? Iceland? The UK?

The answer, as it turns out, was Portland. Maine. Specifically Deering Oaks Park, where it spent the next several weeks laying waste to the local squirrels and putting on a show for the hundreds of birders who came to see it. At least until the weather turned bitterly cold and those of us following along got a small lesson in tropical ecology. It turns out there’s a reason that northern raptors are a relatively stout and burly bunch, and the long-legged, lanky, and undeniably tropical Great Black Hawk was found in a bad way and taken in by bird rehabbers where it was found to be suffering from extensive frostbite on its legs. It is currently being treated by a local rehab organization and its future is still uncertain at this point (UPDATE: The Great Black Hawk was euthanized today, 1/31).

The joy that this individual bird brought to the North American birding community in 2018, to those who saw it and those of us who were just following along, is truly remarkable. The scope of its story is undeniably epic. There is no other bird that can top it as craziest vagrant of 2018.

–=====–

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

Let me 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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