Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Incredible birds

Vagrancy in birds is a subject of great fascination and some mystery. This page considers some of the most incredible bird records of all time, focusing on species recorded in the Western Palearctic, though also beyond (see new section below). Assessing which particular records are the most 'incredible' is of course a highly subjective task, complicated by all sorts of uncertainties. However, the following list is a personal view of a few that are up there.

The top places on my list go to seabird residents of the North Pacific, though it's very difficult to balance these against the feats of, for example, small passerine migrants. For top spot I have selected the single Western Palearctic record of Aleutian Tern, a resident of the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific Ocean, which by the early 1990s had not even been recorded in Canada or the USA outside Alaska - a record which will take some beating!

Aleutian Tern (N Pacific only)

Farne Islands, Northumberland, 28-29 May 1979; first seen at 1.30pm by R. Haywood, warden on Inner Farne; seen down to 4m on the following day before last sighting at 5.30pm; little is known about the species, and it has not even been recorded off the west coast of North America south of Alaska, and it has only recently been found to winter off Indonesia and Malaysia.

Parakeet Auklet (N Pacific only)

Lake Vättern, Sweden, mid-Dec 1860 (after a severe Easterly gale); the implication is that this individual was already far from home (e.g. in Baltic or Barents Sea) before being caught up in the storm and blown overland to its final destination, some distance inland; it is hard to imagine what precise route it may have taken, but the species is normally confined to the North Pacific and does not occur in the Arctic Ocean; it is quite numerous with about 1 million breeding in Alaska, but confined to the coast (unlike next species)

Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix, formerly considered as a race of Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus perdix) (N Pacific only)

Zollikon, Lake Zurich, Switzerland, between 15 and 18 December 1997 - 1st-win. discovered dead in a fishing net, presumed drowned; the distribution of this species is confined to the North Pacific where it breeds individually in forest some distance from the sea (up to 70km for sister species, Marbled Murrelet), hence is well able to travel overland and indeed has been recorded as a vagrant in continental North America as far as the Atlantic coast; the population is thought to number 10's of thousands; nevertheless, assuming an eastern origin from the southern part of its range, the feat of this seabird in reaching western Europe, perhaps travelling in excess of 8000 miles overland, surpasses even the most extreme Siberian passerine vagrants; furthermore, there are plenty of large water bodies along possible routes; more likely the bird took a more direct route over the Arctic Ocean/Barents Sea, where it perhaps had chance to rest and feed. [References: OB 96: 172, 1999; NO 47: 40-41, 2000; Maumary, L. & Knaus, P. (2000) "Marbled Murrelet in Switzerland: a Pacific Ocean auk new to the Western Palearctic", British Birds vol. 93, pp. 190-199].

Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix) (N Pacific only)

Reservoir on River Olt at Porumbacu, Transilvania, central Romania, from 21 December 2006; photo; see also BirdForum thread. This occurrence supports the view that all three of these birds recorded in the Western Palaearctic have arrived more via an easterly route than westerly. Nevertheless, so far inland another utterly incredible record!

Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix) (N Pacific only)

Dawlish Warren/Dawlish, Devon, from 7 November 2006 - 1st-win, initially identified as Little Auk, see log. Fascinating that this one appears to be of 1st-win age (on basis of striations on breast) hence has arrived during, or at the end of, its initial dispersal as a juvenile. Hard to know which way it may have arrived, but interesting to note that a further Brachyramphus species had been reported migrating S at Skogsøy, Øygarden, Western Norway, Norway on 29 September 2005 in the company of Little Auk (c.f. Another all-dark alcid amongst Little Auk was reported off Whitburn, NE England, on 13 November 2004 - but not conclusively identified. And recent weeks have seen many thousands of Little Auk off the east coast of Britain (peak day count 7881, Farne Islands, 2 November 2006). Just possibly the bird got lost north of the species breeding range (in the region of Kamchatka and the Sea of Okhotsk) and came over from the same region as the most north-easterly populations of Little Auk. Or, perhaps less likely, it may have dispersed the other way round the pole and joined up with Little Auks off Greenland - this route would also fit with an arrival on the west side of the British Isles. However, neither option looks very realistic, hence this record is high on the "incredible" scale and ranked above the next - a species sharing almost the same breeding range which also reached the same county of Devon in SW England.

Ancient Murrelet (N Pacific only)

Lundy, Devon, 27 May 1989; found at 1.45pm and seen again at 2.45pm before flying out to sea; seen again the following morning before flying out to sea again; a group of birders who had set off for the island, despite the fact that it would be dark when they got there, miraculously encountered the bird at sea about 6 miles east of the island, and watched it at distances down to 2m swimming in the company of a much shyer Razorbill; the bird was subsequently seen by many thousands of birdwatchers up to 26 June 1990, between 4 April and 20 June 1991 and between 30 March and 29 April 1992 when it was last seen.

The origin is most likely from the west. In the 1989/90 winter larger than usual numbers of Ancient Murrelet had been seen along the California coast, with 4 venturing inland. A possible scenario was the bird straying inland and somehow getting into the Atlantic late in 1989, then at spring migration migrating north and east looking for a coast (as it would in the Pacific) eventually arriving off the coast of SW England; congregations of breeding auks may then have carried it into the Lundy area. Crossing continental North America is the hardest step here, but the species is a regular inland vagrant here, far more abundant than any of its sister species. It can apparently survive well for some time on fresh water and there are three previous Atlantic records. A western origin is the expressed view of Rob Hume (BBRC) and Alan Knox (BOURC) in their comments on the original British Birds paper on the record [Waldon, J (1994) "Ancient Murrelet in Devon: new to the Western Paleartic, British Birds 87, 307-310]

Crested Auklet (N Pacific only)

45 miles NE off Langanes, Iceland, August 1912

Tufted Puffin (N Pacific only)

Laholmsbukten, Lagoset, Sweden, Jun 1994 - adult in breeding plumage offshore.

Glaucous-winged Gull (N Pacific only)

El Hierro, Canary Islands, Feb 1992 and Essaouira, Morocco, Jan 1995; both were adults and presumably the same individual.

Slender-billed Curlew (Siberia, winters NW Africa)

Druridge, Northumberland 4-7 May 1998; the breeding grounds of this species remain unknown; neither are there any regular wintering sites with only a handful of sightings of wintering birds in recent years. See linked document for more details about recent occurrences.

Jouanin's Petrel (Arabian Sea, vagrant to Hawaii)

Cimadolmo, Treviso, Italy, 2 November 1953; 3 seen during a storm, one was collected; must have arrived via the Red Sea.

Varied Thrush (USA/Canada W coast)

1st win. male, Nanquidno, 9-23 Nov 1982; an abnormally-coloured individual, lacking the usual orange tone; grey-plumaged individuals are rarely recorded in wild birds, but would seem even less likely for a captive bird; this helped to exclude the escape possibility for such an unexpected vagrant from the west coast of America

Swainson's Hawk (W USA/Canada)

2nd year, Røst, Norway, 6 May 1986; this species is only rarely recorded on the east coast of America

Swainson's Thrush (N America)

Ukraine, November 1893; to reach Europe over the Atlantic is one then continue as far as Ukraine is quite an achievement (presumably a reverse migrant)

Fox Sparrow (N America)

Liguria, Italy, 1930

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (N America)

Yugoslavia, October 1976

Black-throated Green Warbler (N America)

adult male Heligoland, 19 November 1858

Hermit Thrush (N America)

Luxembourg, August 1975; this bird had presumably arrived from America in spring or the previous autumn

White's Thrush (Siberia, winters SE Asia)

Greenland, Oct 1954

Siberian Rubythroat (Siberia/NE China, wintering SE Asia as far as India)

adult male, Iceland, 8 Nov 1943

Lanceolated Warbler (Siberia to NE China & N Japan, wintering between NE India and Philippines)

c. 70 nautical miles N of Bear Island, Arctic Ocean, 15 September 1982

Tickell's Thrush (W Himalayas, winters E India)

Heligoland, 15 October 1932

Long-tailed Shrike (Central Asia, wintering Indian subcontinent)

Howmore, South Uist, 27 October-4 November 2000

Shrenck's Little Bittern (China, winters Indonesia)

1st win. female, Piemonte, Italy, 12 November 1912

Eastern Crowned Warbler (China, winters India/SE Asia)

single collected Heligoland, 4 October 1843

Chinese Pond Heron (China, winters SE Asia/Indonesia)

Hettesylt, Norway, autumn 1973

Brunnich's Guillemot (Arctic Ocean)

Austria, 1882; also recorded in Romania!

Ross's Gull (Arctic Ocean)

Sardinia, January 1906

Royal Tern (USA, West Africa)

1st win. bird ringed USA, Kenfig Pool, 24 Nov 1989; there have been five British Isles records; finding a ringed bird was a remarkable occurrence and proved transatlantic vagrancy

Black-browed Albatross (S Atlantic)

female, Faeroes, 1860-May 1894, i.e. for 34 years

Spitzbergen, June 1878 (rather a long way from home!)

"Albert Ross", a female, first recorded at Bass Rock 1967-1969 and, not finding a mate there, presumably the same bird at the Saito outcrop, Hermaness, Shetland 1970-1995

Ascension Frigatebird (S Atlantic)

Tiree, 10 July 1953 (reidentified as this species in 2002, BB 96, 2)

Killitz's Plover (Africa S of Sahara, also Egypt; resident)

single, S Norway, May 1913

Moussier's Redstart (N Africa resident)

Dinas Head, Dyfed, 24 April 1988

White-crowned Black Wheatear (N Africa/Middle East/Arabia resident)

Kessingland, Suffolk, 1-5 June 1982

In addition to the above, the following two species have occurred on numerous occasions over recent years in the North Atlantic, yet their occurrence here still remains very much a mystery:

Swinhoe's Petrel (Sea of Japan, winters off SE Asia)

Several North Atlantic records in recent years, see linked document for more details. The species had never been recorded on this side of the world in earlier years and its sudden appearance here is still unexplained.

Elegant Tern (Mexico/USA - Pacific coast only)

At least 25 records for the North Atlantic, including known long-staying birds, since the first in France in 1974. The majority of records have been from the French Atlantic coast (especially Banc d'Arguin, Arcachon, Gironde, France) with 1/2 individuals many years to date, but with others reported from Northern Ireland (1982), Irish Republic (1982, 1999, 2002), Spain (1993), Belgium (1998), Denmark (2000), UK (2002), Netherlands (2002), Canary Islands (2004), Germany (2004) and finally an extraordinary record of one of the French birds, of uncertain ID, in South Africa (2005) (see linked document for more details). Some of these records will relate to the same wandering individual, e.g. this is known to be the case for the 2002 records in the UK and the Netherlands.

The amazing thing about these records is that Elegant Tern is both a very coastal, i.e. non-pelagic, species by nature and is also a strictly Pacific seabird in terms of its New World distribution - there had only been one record on the Atlantic side of the USA before 1999! Thus there has recently been an interesting debate about the likely origins (and identification) of these birds, e.g. on the ID Frontiers website.

Beyond the Western Paleartic

Brown Shrike (W Siberia, Mongolia and China, wintering SE Asia)

single, Fairview, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 23/11/97-1/12/97; see this linked page with further information on this occurence; this record is a strong rival to any of those listed above due to the phenomenal distance involved; the location where the bird was observed could hardly be further from its usual range with approximate travel distances of 12000km for arrival from the west of 11000km from the east; the magnitude of the feat can be appreciated by first considering the latter option - this species is an extremely rare vagrant in western Europe and has already travelled a huge distance to get that far; to then imagine it crossing the Atlantic is unreasonable, though ship assistance might be an option (Halifax is a port with ships from Europe); nevertheless, other Siberian vagrants have penetrated west as far as Iceland and even Greenland (c.f. notes on Siberian Rubythroat and White's Thrush above); for arrival from the west, traversing of a major ocean can be avoided if it is assumed the bird crossed via the Bering straight; however, this just extends the travel distance and does not seem reasonable either! Further discussion is here.

Red-necked Stint (E Siberia, wintering SE Asia to Australia, a few reaching South Africa)

various records for US east coast, and Bermuda, e.g. single(s), Connecticut, July-August 2000; again, direction of travel is uncertain but the birds presumably originated in Siberia and followed a west-to-east route. The Little Stint, which breeds in Siberia further west than the Red-necked (as far as the extreme north of Scandinavia) and winters down into South Africa, has also been recorded on the east coast of the US, and Bermuda! Such birds must have followed an opposite east-to-west route, but may have originated from a region in Siberia neighbouring the breeding grounds of the Red-necked birds. Further, the Little Stint has also been recorded on the West coast of the US, e.g. California (Sept 1983). It would be very interesting to know if either species occurs at the southern tip of South America, as might be expected.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Siberia, winters Australia)

Tristan da Cuhna, Jun 1950

Arctic Warbler (Asia)

Kilauea Point NWR, Kaua'i, Hawaii, 13 February 2000 - probably this species, see full account here; this was the first and only passerine vagrant recorded on the main Hawaiian islands.

Would welcome any other suggestions from further afield for this section!

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