American Birding Podcast



THE TOP 10: Craziest ABA Area Vagrants of 2013

By George Armistead and Nate Swick

Every year has its share of doozies, but man, 2013 was a wild one for rarities and vagrant birds. After reflecting on the year that just passed, we’ve assembled the following list of the most mind-blowing birding surprises.

10. Invasions: Northern Lapwing & Snowy Owl

Who doesn’t love a good invasion every now and then? The winter of 2012-2013 was simply amazing in the sheer number of invasions that seemed to occur all at once. (See Ned Brinkley’s fascinating summary in the latest issue of North American Birds The Changing Seasons: Strangers in a Strange Land). In the winter of 2012-2013, Northern Lapwings turned up all over eastern North America in the biggest numbers they had since 1966. Not to be outdone, the following winter’s Snowy Owl invasion is similarly the largest in about 50 years. Clear on down to Florida there are magnificent white owls all over the place, with more being discovered even at the time of this writing.

Northern Lapwings at Montauk, New York on Nov 12. Photo By John Shemilt.

Northern Lapwings at Montauk, New York, on Nov 12, 2012. Photo By John Shemilt.

9. Amazon Kingfisher

Jeff Bouton just about knocked the doors off the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival when he discovered this bird just a few miles from an event that was about 800 large. The 2nd record for the ABA Area, it stuck around for quite a while and was seen by hundreds of birders. That amazing first day just might have been the single-biggest twitch in ABA Area history.

Amazon Kingfisher, Cameron Co, Tx, photo by Jeff Bouton

Amazon Kingfisher, Cameron Co, Tx, photo by Jeff Bouton

8. Common Redstart

St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilofs continued to pull vagrants in both quality and quantity this year. The island added to its list of North American firsts when Scott Schuette, Doug Gochfeld, Neil Hayward, and others discovered and photographed this smart-looking Eurasian vagrant. The bird might have been docked a few places in the Top 10 only because of inaccessibility, but notably, provisional ABA-Area Big Year champ Neil Hayward was one of the few to put glass to it.  (Just about anything is possible on the Pribs. Consider joining the ABA tour to St. Paul Island in 2014! For more info go to ABA Events).

First ABA-area record of Common Redstart, one of Neil's 3 provisional species. Photo by Doug Gochfeld.

First ABA-area record of Common Redstart. Photo by Doug Gochfeld.

7. South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua is annual off both coasts, but Tony and Jim Solario shocked the nation when this bird showed up in central Oklahoma. The local birds had no idea of the kind of trouble that had just come down on them, as the skua spent several days terrorizing the local egrets and gulls before mysteriously disappearing from whence it came. Mind-numbing!

photo by Joe Grzybowski

photo by Joe Grzybowski

6. Common Cuckoo

While nearly annual in remote outposts of western Alaska, hardly anything could be more shocking than a Common Cuckoo in Quebec. Yes, Quebec! This was the second record for the eastern ABA Area (the first in fall) and a first for Canada. A real stunner discovered by Judith Roger.

photo by Judith Roger

photo by Judith Roger

5. Common Swift

On October 30th, Oscar Johnson shocked ABA birders with his discovery of this bird in Riverside county, CA, the first record for the western US away from western Alaska. Even more, Oscar’s quick work with a camera paid off with definitive photos, something very few large swift reports in the ABA Area can boast.


photo by Oscar Johnson

4. Blue-footed Booby invasion

Another unbelievable invasion, this iconic bird of the Galapagos also breeds in numbers off Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. But never before had they moved into the U.S. in such numbers. Blue-footed Boobies invaded the Pacific Coast as far north as British Columbia and as far inland as New Mexico this summer and early fall, allowing hundreds of birders to get looks at this charismatic and bizarre bird.

This Blue-footed Booby in BC marked the northernmost record during the late summer/fall invasion, photo by Kyle Howard

This Blue-footed Booby in BC marked the northernmost record during the late summer/fall invasion, photo by Kyle Howard

3. Red-flanked Bluetail

This well-named snappy-looking bird is dreamed about by birders that hunt vagrants in western Alaska, but certainly no one could have predicted it showing up in British Columbia! A true Mega-rarity discovered by Colin McKenzie. This was the first winter record of the species in the whole western hemisphere and it stuck around for quite a while.

photos by Sharon Toochin

photos by Sharon Toochin

2. Rufous-necked Wood-Rail

This one made national news. Matt Daw was at Bosque del Apache NWR, in New Mexico filming a Least Bittern when this bird walked into the frame. He was stupefied. As Nate said at the time, ”Best photo-bomb ever…”. The bird stuck around and hundreds of people got to see it. And the story was really great. We were all really proud to see birders so well-represented in such a memorable moment by a great young birder like Matt, a past-participant in the ABA Young Birder program. Many folks would argue, with merit (and have!), that the enormity of this event should make it number one for 2013. Sure, rails are famous for their wanderlust, and sure, a wood-rail has been high on the list of potential ABA firsts for a long time (admittedly, though, this was Gray-necked). But we’re we’re talking about a first record for the ABA Area. A bird that is not even easy to see where it is known to occur. This was legendary Phoebe Snetsinger’s 8000th world life bird.

Heck, you could make a credible argument that it should be number 1 for the decade

photo by Jeff Gordon

photo by Jeff Gordon

1. Bahama Woodstar

But nothing was crazier than this. A Bahama Woodstar in Pennsylvania.  A Bahama Woodstar in Pennsylvania!!?? Talk about mind-blowing. Yes there are 3 previous records for the ABA Area, but all of those come from Florida, little more than a stone’s throw from their typical range. To say that this was unpredictable is an understatement in the extreme. Hardly anybody got to see it unfortunately, but for knock-your-socks-off rarity points, nothing scores higher.

photo by Chris Bortz

photo by Chris Bortz

What do you think? Did you manage to cross paths with any of these birds this year? And what did we leave off that we should have included?

Let us know in the comments!


Thanks to Marshall Iliff of eBird, Doug Gochfeld, and Todd Fellenbaum for their commentary and discussion.