Vagrants

 

Red-Footed Falcon. Photo by Ariefrahman/Ron Knight from Wikipedia

Red-Footed Falcon. Photo by Ariefrahman/Ron Knight

Here is a piece I wrote last week for The Hindu BLink on vagrant birds. It’s part of a themed issue on the importance of One, including pieces about how single individuals navigate the world, and the impact they have while doing so. This is the first time I’ve written about an assigned topic, and the time frame from assignment to article was three days, so my method of writing diverged a bit from normal.

I knew nothing about vagrant birds two weeks ago. But the advantage of working in a diverse department of biologists, one that includes a natural history museum, is that I could simply walk upstairs to chat with the ornithologists, asking them what they think about vagrant birds. Most had fascinating stories of encounters with vagrants, some of which went into the piece (all crowded into one sentence towards the end).

I had a sense that birders were often excited about spotting vagrants, but wasn’t quite sure why. In my conversations, however, I learnt about “twitchers”–birders who chase down species to spot them and add them to a list of some kind. This could be a life list, a country list, a state list, a county list, and the more bird species are on the list, the better. But birders who care about more than ticking a species off a list are also fascinated by vagrants: one person described being impressed by the distance that vagrants travel, by just how far off course they managed to get. Another viewed vagrants as providing insight into the process of migration, sort of like how disease can offer insight into how the body functions normally. Both cited a specific example as illustrating these reasons: a Red-Footed Falcon, usually confined to Europe, that made its way to the East Coast of the U.S., the first time the species was spotted in the Western Hemisphere! This particular bird drew in many, many birders, each with their own reasons for wanting to see this special vagrant. The bird also got lots of media attention.

Birders watching the Red Footed Falcon at Martha's Vineyard. Photo by Julian Hough at surfbirds.com

Birders watching the Red Footed Falcon at Martha’s Vineyard. Photo by Julian Hough at surfbirds.com

A second thing that came up in my conversations that I found interesting was the feeling of uncertainty that sometimes surrounds the spotting of a vagrant. Some birds, like this falcon, stay in one place long enough that they can be identified and re-identified until everyone’s certain what species they belong to. But other birds aren’t quite as cooperative, flying off before their identity can be confirmed, before even a photograph can be snapped. And because vagrants are, by definition, in an unexpected location, it can be hard to convince someone else that you spotted a vagrant. There is always a similar looking bird that one expects to find in the that location, leaving the birder with just their own conviction that they saw something extraordinary.

Thanks to all the birders (Cassie Stoddard, Maude Baldwin, Peter Wilton, Alison Schultz, Jeremiah Trimble, Gabe Gartner, and Gautam Surya) who contributed their thoughts on vagrants!

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