Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Reminiscing on Rare Birds
July 30, 2021
by Steve Grinley
I have seen no further updates on the “mystery” disease that has plagued birds in the mid-Atlantic area of the country. The Smithsonian is doing a research survey to try to determine if there is some connection between the cicadas outbreak in the same area and the avian disease. There are still no reports of diseased birds anywhere in New England, so it is okay to continue to feed birds, keeping your feeders and birdbaths clean with fresh seed and water, and keeping an eye on the birds in your area.
To take us back into the field, I am often asked what is the most rare bird that I have ever seen, so I thought that I would share with you again a piece that I wrote about those experiences:
My rarest bird? That’s a difficult question. First, I would have to qualify the term “rare.” Is it rare in the world? Rare in North America? Or is it a more local question?
The most rare bird in the world, to date, that I have seen is the spoon-billed sandpiper in Thailand back in 2010. There are probably less than a hundred breeding pairs of these rare sandpipers today. There are high-priced birding tours that take birders to Russia during the breeding season to see these birds. We saw them on their wintering grounds in the salt pans south of Bankok. This was a popular place to find this rare species, and we ran into David Sibley, half way around the world, on the day we were there!
Before that, I would have to say that the most rare bird that I have seen is the California condor. I saw this bird, in the wild, back in 1966 at Mount Pinos, California. This was back when this bird was near extinction and there were very few pairs left in the wild. It was before the restoration project began which captured the remaining wild birds and bred them in captivity. Condors have since been released back into the wild in California, Arizona (Grand Canyon), and Florida. The condor has successfully nested in the wild for a number of years now, and they are once again “countable’” as wild according to the American Birding Association.
My Mount Pinos sighting was during my five week cross country birding trip back when I was a teenager. Most teens traveling in a Volkswagon bus in the 60’s were part of the hippie, flower-power movement. Not me, I was a bird nerd. I and my friend Bob went with a woman, her 6-year old daughter and 2 miniature poodles in a Volkswagon bus cross-country to watch birds. It was quite an experience, but a story for another day. The condor was certainly the highlight of that trip, though we did stop in Michigan to see the Kirtland’s warbler, another of the world’s rarest birds at the time.
I guess the whooping crane would follow the same line of reasoning. There were less than three hundred whooping cranes in the world and I did see a few of them a number of years ago in Port Aransas Texas. A boat trip through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the summer provided excellent views of these rare birds, including some of that year’s offspring.
If one considers birds that are just rare for North America, I think that my trip to Alaska produced at least one rarity, a gray-tailed tattler from Asia. I would also classify the bristle-thighed curlew, which only nests in Alaska in small numbers, as rare and I was lucky enough to see that bird as well.
There are also Mexican birds that are rare in the United States, sometimes wandering north over the border. My trips to Southeast Arizona and southern Texas have enabled me to find the gray-crowned yellowthroat, Aztec thrush, rufous-capped warbler and Colima warbler. These are all considered rare for the US.
The western reef heron that showed up in Kittery, Maine in August of 2006 was only the third or fourth North American record for that species. It was a striking bird of deep blue with white on the head. It is normally found in Europe and migrates south to Africa. This bird was definitely way off course and I was lucky enough to see it.
Another European stray that was not only a first record for Massachusetts, but for North America as well, was the red-footed falcon. This bird was found on Martha’s Vineyard in August of 2004. It took me two tries, but I finally was able to get great looks at this bird at it hunted dragonflies and other insects at the Katama Airport. Of course I was just one of hundreds of birders that went to see that bird. Many traveled much further than I, from every corner of the United States, to see that rare bird.
The falcon event reminds me of the fervor caused by the appearance of the Ross’ gull in Newburyport harbor in the winter of 1975. This rare visitor from the arctic drew birders from all over the country and put Newburyport on the “birding map” of great places to find birds. That certainly was one of the rarest birds that I’ve seen in Massachusetts and I have only seen one other since, but had to travel to Montreal for that one!
More locally, many may remember the great gray owl that spent weeks in the Hillside St neighborhood of Rowley more than twenty years ago. Birders from all over came to see this rare visitor from the boreal forests of Canada. The bird made front page news in the Boston Globe as well as in many local newspapers. One of my customers reminisced about this when he said his daughter made some money selling coffee and snacks to visiting birders!
If you want to see rare birds, you can actually find a few in Newburyport Harbor today. Right across from 260 Water Street are four penguins sitting on ice floats. Yes, ice floats in July. Yes, penguins. Just go by, during high tide, and check them out for yourself!