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Chasing Rarities - Bird Finding

Updated on November 18, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Butter Feet

What is a Rare Bird Sighting?

Some birders live to see a rare bird. They sign up for alerts and save travel money just to catch a glimpse of a bird that for unknown reasons, lands outside of its recognized territory. Its a running joke that these birds have dropped their maps or lost their bird guides as reasons for a Common Crane to show up in Alaska or a South American shorebird to land in Texas farm country. Beyond the jokes though, what makes a rare bird sighting and how does a new birder find out about rarities?

A bird can be considered a rare sighting for a number of reasons.

  • Seeing a feral bird can be and unexpected rare sight, such as finding a colony of peacocks in Austin Texas. Suddenly seeing a domestic or exotic bird can make a rare sighting too. However, these kinds of sightings mostly fall into the category of a missing pets or escaped livestock.
  • Seeing a new species counts. New species sightings happen due to either new releases into an area or when a species moves from their normal range into another. The House Sparrow and Starling are such introduced birds that are now called invasive due to having negative effects when competing with pre-existing species. Another is the Cattle Egret that skipped over the Atlantic from Africa on its own accord to find a new home in the Americas. At one time, all three of these birds were considered rare sightings.
  • Sightings most birders seek are endangered birds, those dropping in number or recovering in numbers after coming close to extinction. Seeing a Whooping Crane falls into this category. The other rarity that gets birders excited are vagrant birds that for various reasons are found outside their normal ranges.

ABA Rarity Codes

The American Bird Association (ABA) has published codes to help identify rarities. The difficulty a given bird is to find in a given area determines its code rank. An American Crow may be listed as a Code 1, meaning easy to find. Local but harder to find birds such as a Cockaded Woodpecker in my area could be coded a 2; but true rarities are code 3, 4, or 5, in order of increasing rarity.

Two Rare Birds visit Vancouver Canada

Vagrancy Explained

In the book Rare Birds of North America by Steve N. Howell, et al, Vagrant bird sightings are discussed as birds having reason for wandering, usually in search of favorable conditions. In other words, we may not know why the bird is where it supposedly doesn’t belong, but the bird does. There are six categories or factors for explaining why birds appear where they are rarely recorded.

  • Drift – This is due to unnavigable winds and weather patterns forcing a bird off course to drift with the winds to some landing spot until conditions are better. This often happens with storms.
  • Misorientation – The theory is that birds have a compass and clock migratory agenda. They know to fly a certain direction for so long. This understanding can sometimes be faulty leading a birds estray, sometimes flying in the wrong direction. This happens most to birds that have an easterly or westerly movement such as the Red-flanked Bluetail in the attached video. First-year birds seem to do this more than older birds.
  • Over-shooting – This is also possibly explained by birds getting their clocks misaligned. They may fly to fast for the right amount of time or fly for too long at the right speed. Spring/Summer overshoots happen with first-year males more than others.
  • Dispersal – When birds seek better food supplies or habitat due to changes in the landscape, such as new construction or dried out marshes; the act of finding a new home can label them vagrants. Weather also causes this as birds will leave normal locations in the face of harsh conditions in Fall or Winter.
  • Association – This happens most when a bird follows a flock of closely related species to their next migratory destination. This happens often enough to make you wonder if an ambitious bent makes some birds decide, just once, to see where those other birds go. Common Cranes have been known to show up in Alaska because they attached themselves to a flock of Sandhill Cranes.
  • Disorientation – Unlike misorientation, this involves the bird becoming confused and losing the ability to properly track direction. This is considered the rarest form of vagrancy. Rainy or overcast conditions can confuse a bird for a short time causing it to lose its course.

A seventh category called False Vagrancy involves birds being where they belong, but miss-categorized due to a lack of knowledge on our part. This came up quite a bit in the Aleutian Islands before good surveys of the area bird life had been done. It happens in the Lower Rio Grande region of Texas too as the area is on the northern most edge of many tropical and neotropical Mexican bird ranges.

Recent Rarity in Hargill Texas

Collared Plover
Collared Plover | Source

My First Rare Bird Hunt

I recently joined the ranks of those that trek into unknown places following a report of a rare bird sighting. This first rarity was a Collared Plover that had landed in Hargill, Texas. It was first sighted on July 21, 2015 at Hargill Playa, Hidalgo Country. This wasn’t its first visit. A Collared Plover was found and photographed by Dan Jones in Hargill, Texas on August 2. 2014,” according to a report on the American Birding Association Blog. “Its range runs from Mexico to Argentina or western Sinaloa and eastern San Luis Potosi and Veracruz to the south until Tabasco and Chiapas,” according to Cornell Lab’s Neotropical Bird’s range map. In this case, it appears the plover overshot its course up the eastern Mexican coast. As this bird landed close to the same place one had been seen the year before, it could be a return visitor. The only reported sighting before 2014 in the U.S. occurred in Uvalde, Texas between May 9th and 12th, 1992.

Collared Plovers Normal Range

The Collared Plovers normal range only extends northward to the southern half of the Mexican coast.
The Collared Plovers normal range only extends northward to the southern half of the Mexican coast. | Source

First Hunt

Killdeer were the most abundant birds in the area.
Killdeer were the most abundant birds in the area. | Source
These Shorebirds flew back and forth across the water.
These Shorebirds flew back and forth across the water. | Source
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and a Least Sandpiper walking in water.
Two Pectoral Sandpipers and a Least Sandpiper walking in water. | Source

As luck would have it, I was in the Rio Grande Valley on July 25th visiting new birding spots. I had just finished up a first visit to Estero Llano Grande State Park and was deciding what to do with myself for the afternoon. A husband and wife arrived at the visitor’s office just as I was saying my goodbyes to the staff. (They have been very kind and helpful, giving me a tour and showing me the local summer birds.) When the couple found out I was a birder, they had to tell me about the sighting and encouraged me to get up to Hargill to see the bird. I wrote down the directions they gave me, thanked them and headed out.

I was excited. This was my first rare bird hunt and for a category five sighting; meaning the rarest of the rare. Wow! Actually, before meeting these people, I didn’t know there were rarity categories. Yet now I was heading off to see a rare bird and anticipating the chance to meet other serious birders this little plover was going to scare up. I’m fairly knew to birding, but I knew one thing for sure. Birds flock, yes; but so do birders when things like this happen. I imagined the line of cars I would see and the many people that would be lining the perimeter with spotting scopes and big camera lenses.

I followed the directions and came to a very deserted road side between two harvested fields. There was a water tower with a steady stream of water making a puddle about 12 feet from one intersection corner that stretched some 80 yards along the side of the plowed under corn stalks. I checked my directions. This was the place. So where were all the birders?

I wondered if I had been misled or if the directions were wrong, but then I figured the serious birders likely had been here and gone for the day. It was about two in the afternoon. The sun was pounding overhead. Yep, only a newbie like me would be out at mid-day.

There were birds plenty of birds to see, grackles, sparrows and shorebirds. In a quick survey I identified killdeer, some long legged shorebirds. One bird might have been a Dowitcher . . .

I am not very strong at identifying shorebirds yet. I remembered the picture the couple had pulled up for me. It showed a little bird with one band across its white breast up high and a dark spot on its head above the bill and a white forehead. It had a black tail as well. Otherwise, it had been a general looking shorebird, brown upper parts and white underneath. I looked out on the field where lots of shorebirds were moving back and forth along the stretch of shallow water. Amongst all that could be the plover.

I took to the area in sections, documenting the birds as I went. When they flew, I took shots of them flying to catch their wing patterns. After an hour or more, I gave up and headed back home. I never caught sight of a bird with the right markings, but was hopeful I’d find it as I combed my files that night. My husband wasn’t terribly understanding of my staying up so late scanning photo files, but as much as I searched, I couldn’t find the plover. Lots of killdeer yes; a bunch of sandpipers too, but no Collared Plover.

Second Hunt

One side of the pond with shorebirds and moving through the shallows.
One side of the pond with shorebirds and moving through the shallows. | Source
Two Black-necked stilts strolling on the shore
Two Black-necked stilts strolling on the shore | Source
Two Snowy Plovers in the distance
Two Snowy Plovers in the distance | Source
Common Nighthawk appearing near sunset
Common Nighthawk appearing near sunset | Source

Second Time the Charm?

I had planned to go to Hidalgo County again the next day. I was a bit miffed at missing the plover, and sleeping in after such a late night, but quickly got over it as I spotted my first Monk Parakeet at the Pumphouse Museum. It was a blistering day again. I had intended to visit Bentson - Rio Grande State Park that evening trying to catch a cancellation on the Creatures of the Night tour; but I also wanted to try to see the plover again. I had some time so I called up the American Birding Association Alert on my smart phone and found a completely different location indicated. Either the bird had moved, or someone called up the wrong map the day before. I set the maps locator and followed the directions to Hargill.

It didn’t take long to realize I was traveling much farther than I had the day before. It turned out to be an hour and half away from McAllen. When I found the town of Hargill, I drove slowly about looking for street signs that weren’t there. Depending heavily on my mapping app, I found Lincoln, took a right and found First Street. Again, I didn’t see any people around. It was near 7 p.m. Heading down a dirt road between fields, I found three cars to the left side of the road. There were three people to the right standing along a fence looking out into the distance. I grabbed my camera and went to join them.

There I meet three serious birders watching for the plover. One was a local lady with a nice spotting scope. She had informed the two men with her of the plover’s arrival. They were visitors from the northeast who had come down just for the sighting. The three told me they had seen the plover about an hour or less before I arrived; but it had disappeared into the tall grass.

I looked out on a vast pond. It was a big fenced in shallow water body with birds scattered along a sandy beach. It was a very long way from where I was standing. Between the fence line and the beach was a thick heavy growth of tall grasses and wildflowers. I was there, not with my longest lens, a 300mm; but my good Canon 55 - 250mm. Neither lens was what was needed here. I sighed and considered how to increase my campaign for a big lens Christmas.

Well, no help for it. I scanned the pond edge trying to identify birds and found that if they were within a certain area, I could get pictures. With cropping later, I might get recognizable birds. I stayed until nearly 8 p.m. when any chance of making it to the tour was long gone. We saw a Spoonbill fly by and a Black Crowned night heron. I saw two Black-necked Stilts walking along the shore together. There were also plenty of gulls moving back and forth over the water.

The two men from Massachusetts left after a while. The lady with the spotting scope continued to keep watch for the plover, but it seemed to have bedded down for the evening. She was able to point out some snowy plovers, which were new birds for me. Finally, I had to go. The light was waning and I felt that the lady was staying late for my benefit. Bless her, she even told me she considered her spotting scope the only way I was going to get the sighting. I said goodbye and thanked her for her help and company, but said I had a long drive to get back to Falcon Lake. A Common Nighthawk started its evening hunt as I left.

Ways to Track Rare Bird Sightings

So, would you like to track down vagrant birds? If you do you aren’t alone; and lucky you, you live in the electronic age when finding out about vagrants and their sightings is much easier than before. These are some of the bird tracking sites on the internet that keep up with rare bird sightings.

The American Birding Association (ABA) Birding News – Here you can see reports from the last 30 days on a searchable database. If you want to know where Blue-footed boobies have been seen recently, just type it into the search box. The list is also divided by state to make finding reports for your area easy. The ABA also has mailing lists and phone alerts. Check out the article on subscribing and unsubscribing to alerts for more information.

North America Rare Bird Alert – “Since 1985, NARBA has been the source for fast, accurate rare bird reports in the continental United States, Alaska and Canada. Members receive reports by email or on the web and have access to valuable archives of rare birds for the past decade,” as stated on their website. Reports include maps and photos. Paid subscriptions required: monthly, yearly or bi-yearly.

eBird – “Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution,” as stated on their website. There is no rare bird alert, but the Explore Data tab allows you to search by species, date and location.

Final Word

When all was said and done, the thrill of the chase had been fun. There is something to be said for getting out to see something rare and new. Discovery, even if it is just new to you is part of why I enjoy birding so much. While I never saw the Collared Plover, I did find Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers and some other shorebirds I haven’t been able to identify yet. Three or more new life listers was well worth it. I’ll be keeping up with ABA alerts for now on. Maybe next time the rare bird will show.

Happy Birding

Blue-Throated Hummingbird, female
Blue-Throated Hummingbird, female | Source

UPDATE: Finding a Rarity

Read my article about Estero Llano Grande State Park and see my account of finding the female Blue-throated Hummingbird. This bird may have been driven to the area due to Hurricane Patricia or the storm systems after from the Mexican Mountain ranges. A highly unusual visitor to the Lower Rio Grande in Winter.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • Marla Watson profile image


      3 years ago

      This is awesome! I have been bird watching for a couple of years now and never cease to be amazed by their complexity, fragility, and beauty.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      This is very useful for those who love to see rare birds. . I always enjoy watching birds. It amazes me when I see migratory birds but I don't really make an effort to look for them. Thanks for your hub.

      Voted up and more.


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