Three thoughts on the vagrancy of Tropical Turdids
What will likely be one of the more remarkable reports of vagrancy in North America this year was the discovery earlier this month of an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There are several reasons why this individual sighting was noteworthy, besides the novelty factor which was significant, and in considering this bizarre record, three things came to my mind and as they’re somewhat unrelated to each other and I’m not in the mood to write segues, they’re going to come at you in near bullet point form. It’s up to you as to whether you want to catch them in your teeth.
I guarantee that the first thought had by many birders upon hearing the news of the Nightingale Thrush was, “How the heck did that bird get there?”. Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush is a pretty common bird across Central America (I’ve seen them both in Guatemala and Costa Rica, more traveled birders have certainly seem them everywhere else) and reaches the northern terminus of its range in Tamaulipas, Mexico, not more than 250 miles south of Texas. Even so given it’s proximity, it’s only been found in the US two times before, in 1996 and 2004, and it wouldn’t surprise you to know both of those records are from the Lower Valley. Lots of birders plus adjacency to Mexico equals fabulous and surprising birds. It always has.
So why did the third record of the species in North America become a wild outlier for Central American species in the US? Who knows? Those previous records were considered to be spring migrants overshooting their regular range, and while that might explain a couple hundred miles, this bird went another 1500 miles farther. Across four states. In mid-summer. This species is known to occasionally be taken for the pet trade, but I hadn’t heard that this individual showed any wear suggesting it had a caged past. So there’s a good chance it’s a legitimately wild bird, which immediately prompts the question of whether this sort of extreme vagrancy is just a freak occurrence that one birder was lucky to put himself in the right place at the right time, or is vagrancy in this part of the continent more regular than we know because the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, along with western Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota are significantly underbirded?
When a mega rarity is found anywhere on the continent, the twitcher yen starts to pull at your psyche. Soon after, the “twitchers are bad for birding” folks come out of the woodwork. I’m fairly ambivalent about chasing rarities, mostly because I’m guaranteed bad luck when it comes to finding vagrants (my batting average, as it were, is well below .500), but I don’t begrudge the odd birder the thrill of the chase. The bottom line is that it’s fun, and I figure the amount of good work I try to do for conservation in my local community and the general “green-ness” with which I try to live my life cancels any carbon demon I might incur on the rare occasion a good bird calls to me. I think most birders can say the same. Besides, that part of the continent doesn’t really get much in the way of awesome drop-everything vagrancies, so if they chased it, I hope they got it and had a good time doing it. I know some folks definitely did.
Last, the bird itself was discovered by a fellow bird blogger, Eric Ripma, and the report distributed on his blog. This is the most exciting part of the story for me, as I’m a big advocate of the nature blogosphere being a platform to not only to share and distribute rare bird sightings, but to report them in the first place. This is something that is only going to be more prevalent as technology pervades even our time in the field. I know there are plenty of folks that shudder at the prospect, as if something essential is being lost with the incursion of technology. In the sense that birding and nature study is a way to pull away from the epidemic omnipresence of modernity in what is, in many ways, a pastoral 19th century pastime, I get that. I do.
But the currency of the modern world is, beyond any doubt, information itself, and I can’t help but be excited when news of this magnitude is proliferated this way. I’m strongly of the belief that the more information that is made as widely available as possible the better it is for birding, bird science, and bird conservation. In a practical sense, this means more reports like this Nightingale-Thrush, which besides simply being fun whether or not you decide to go after the bird, lead to more and better information about distribution and abundance for those who are pushing the horizons of our understanding of birds. Information that, in turn, is disseminated back through the internet bird community in a feedback loop that lifts us all.
To be a good birder still takes the experience that can only be gained by time in the field. That will never change, and we’re all better for it, but the barrier for entry is much lower, the starting point much closer, than it ever has been. This is a great thing, and the bird blogosphere has a lot to do with that. It’s a real sea change in the way we think about our hobby. One for the better I say, but I imagine I can be considered sort of biased.
Oh yeah, some photos of the bird can be found here. As of yesterday it was still there, singing away. Really cool stuff.