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Event Birds: When seeking a rare bird becomes an obsession

As your interest in birding develops over time, you will become familiar with birds that appear regularly in your region. Very few birds are either lost, driven off course by weather systems, or are pioneers looking for new sites to survive in. When a very unusual bird sighting occurs, we call these “event birds”.

On the odd occasion a bird is seen thousands of miles off course or is just plain rare, serious birders will stop what they are doing, make hasty plans to drive to that site, and pray that it is still visible when you arrive. Some of these birds are from the far west, far south, far north or from Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America. Some rarities are here and gone while others find their new far-away home ideal for building up body fat and stay for days or even longer.

We used to rely on calls from fellow birders or taped telephone rare bird alerts. Today the hard core birders will check for rarity reports on eBird or state site such as MassBird. These sites provide instant updates on the bird sightings along with map locaters. If a bird sighting is particularly rare or the species is “sexy”, the event bird can create hysteria in the birding community.

Two famous Event Birds

Two major event birds in New England stand out. In 1975 a Ross’s Gull came to winter in Newburyport harbor. It was America’s first major event bird. It breeds in northeast Siberia and was known to winter only in the Arctic Ocean including off the north slope of Alaska, but never found in the lower 48. It stayed for 3 months and was seen in its first few weeks by an estimated 25,000 birders. I heard about it while in Tucson, Arizona and hurriedly flew east that day. One never knows if its kind would ever do an encore visit south of the Arctic. It was featured on 60 Minutes!

In August 2004 a Red-footed Falcon was found at the height of the busy season on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. This bird breeds in the Ukraine and migrates to winter in southern Africa. It had never been seen anywhere in the entire Western Hemisphere and is not kept by falconers. Despite the difficulty in getting to this popular island an estimated 20,000 people came to see it over its two week stay. I recall showing it to Walter Cronkite while Vernon Laux who found the bird was featured as ABC News Person of the Week!

Rare Birds of New England

Event Birds from this past summer

Just this summer I was involved in a couple of such chases. A small sandpiper with a long upturned bill that breeds along rivers in Siberia showed up by Taylor Swift’s home in Westerly, Rhode Island. Not a spectacular bird, but there was only one previous brief sighting in New England. I joined Simon Perkins as we dragged his boat to Stonington CT. We found the bird on an islet and encouraged it to cross a channel to a crowd of 100 birders on Napatree Point RI. These land bound hordes finally got to see it, some who drove from Michigan!

In August we drove to a secret nest of Mississippi Kites in New Hampshire. This species has not been found nesting in Massachusetts despite increasing spring records, especially on Cape Cod. These kites fly over Central America and the Andes to winter in southern Brazil. While there we checked some apps that said a huge adult Crested Caracara was present in nearby Amesbury, Mass. We rushed down and found 80 birders and this spectacular raptor whose closest home is south Florida and south Texas. It was a one day wonder and I will likely never see another up here.

Birding in New England
An immature Mississippi Kite, photo credit: Duggar

Hopefully I will see you at the next event bird!

Peter Alden, October 2020


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