Instead of showcasing my best photos, I thought it might be fun to add a page on the rare birds that I've seen in the ABA (United States and Canada). These birds are sometimes pretty tricky to get a photo of and for a few of these species, I didn't have my camera at all and resorted to using my phone. Regardless, here are the rare birds that I've managed to see:
Barnacle Goose - 21 Dec 2019
At the end of a cold Christmas Bird Count, we decided to cap off the day by going and chasing this Barnacle Goose at a golf course in Connecticut, the natural habitat of geese everywhere. We had a little bit of trouble finding it spending a lot of time looking around a lake where it had been recently seen until someone pulled over and told us to head to the golf course. We got there right as the light was starting to fade but sure enough, the goose was there and rather easy to pick out from the surrounding Canada Geese. Although, it looks awfully similar to some of the geese around it? In fact, it looks really similar to the 5 geese that are hanging around with it...could they be hybrid offspring? Sure enough, it looks like this goose was hanging out with 5 offspring that it had had with a Cackling Goose. If it weren't for Alex's sharp eyes, we might have missed these unique hybrids.
This goose, with its hybrid offspring, then made its way around the northeast showing up in New York as well as Connecticut. Although this species is classified as a code 4, they've been increasingly regular in the northeast and are almost annual in the state. I'm confident I'll see another one sometime in the future.
Pink-footed Goose - 14 Jan 2020
Speaking of geese that are showing up more regularly in the northeast, my second rare bird was a Pink-footed Goose and yet again, my friends managed to find a rare goose hybrid. This species showed up pretty close to home and was just a short drive away. However, we yet again didn't really know where to look. After checking a few ponds without any success, we found a pond with, by our estimates, 2000 Canada Geese. This seemed like a good place to start. After scanning the geese, we managed to pick out 2 Snow Geese, one goose that seemed like a Snow Goose but maybe too small, a Greater White-fronted Goose, a Cackling Goose, and our target, the Pink-footed Goose. Basically any non-Canada Goose is interesting in Connecticut and it was amazing to get 5 goose day and meant that I had to chase significantly fewer geese in the future for my state list. Yet again though, we had an interesting hybrid sighting and determined after consulting some experts, that our small snow goose was probably a Snow x Ross hybrid.
Our views of the geese were al pretty good but we only managed crappy photos of far away geese and I would have liked to see the pink feet of the Pink-footed Goose but it was still another successful wild goose chase! This is also a species that's become increasingly common the past few years in the northeast and in 2022, Connecticut saw 6 in the state at the same time.
They actually became common enough that I didn't even have to go that far to see one. One day after work I went to see and photograph this one which was remarkably easy to find feeding on the grass next to a popular birding location. This time I got much better photos and managed to see those huge pink feet that I hadn't seen the first time. I don't think this is the last I'll see of this species in Connecticut.
Tufted Duck - 29 Feb 2020
Despite the fact that this bird had been showing up year after year in the same place, and despite the fact that many others were seeing this bird regularly, it took a few tries before I managed to successfully see this Tufted Duck. There are a number of reasons for this, there were a ton of Scaup that you had to sort through, sometimes the ducks were all far away, sometimes they were inaccessible, but I think mainly it came down to persistence. I just had to try a few times before I'd be successful. Success finally came on a day when I was doing a little tour of all the local rarities with a few undergrads who didn't have a car. So far that day we'd been successful with seeing a Harris's Sparrow and a Black-headed Gull but had missed the Tufted Duck. We decided to try one more time for it on our way back and found that the scaup were all pretty close and in good light. It only took a little bit of time scanning to find one with a bit of a tuft on its head. Pleased with out success and pretty good looks at this species, we finished off the day by watching some woodcocks display! This was also a notable day because it was my last real birding adventure in Connecticut before the pandemic. Shortly after this, I headed home to Colorado expecting to be back in Connecticut before the first warblers started arriving, I was wrong and didn't get back to Connecticut until mid-June.
Terek Sandpiper - 30 Jun 2020
Can you see it?! I promise its in that photo! This bird was a real pain and my first time crossing state lines in pursuit of a single bird. This bird was painful because of the long drive but also because of the fact that you could only park for 2 or 3 hours without getting a ticket and you had to walk about a mile out along a beach to the viewing area at Napatree point. Even more annoying was that the first day I tried, I was unsuccessful and had to come back a second day and even then only got these really crappy views. It was pretty difficult in the scope to make out the upturned bill but every now and then, the light and heat haze would be just right that you could see, sure enough, that the bird matched the field guide. I vowed that I'd never go back to Napatree point for another rarity...but of course, Rhode Island was having a weird week and sure enough I'd be back a few days later...
Little Stint - 8 Jul 2020
Finally, a half decent photo! Sure enough, after the Terek Sandpiper, the rarities started raining down on Rhode Island. I actually managed this little fella and the next species on the same day. Even crazier was that earlier that day before we arrived, there was a Ruff seen hanging out with this Little Stint, shame I didn't get to see that bird though. This was one of the nicest spots I've been to for birding. It was near a beach but in a tidal section that was flooded with clear shallow water. We had to wade through some channels to get out to this bird, but it was sunny and warm and the water was lovely so we could hardly complain. The Stint was remarkably different from the other shorebirds around it and the lines running down the back and rusty color made it pretty easy to pick out. We also managed to sneak a little closer to take some great photos and get to see it running around and feeding.
I also managed to see (but not photograph) my lifer Bonaparte's Gull, a species that caused me some pain tracking down for my state list in Connecticut. Plus, I got to spend some time studying some shorebirds and relaxing in the water and warm sun. Definitely better than going back to Napatree!
Red-necked Stint - 8 Jul 2020
I went back to Napatree... By some weird coincidence, Rhode Island had seen 4 (3 of which I managed to see) rare birds in a single week and unfortunately, the only way to get to see this Red-necked Stint was going back to Napatree. It was yet again, a long painful walk down the beach but fortunately, when I got to the end, this little stint was just sitting there waiting for me. The red was obvious even without a scope and I just wish I'd spent a little more time with this guy trying to get a photo where it's beak wasn't tucked away. But after a long day of chasing rarities all over Rhode Island, I was ready to call it quits and head home.
Common Cuckoo - 1 Nov 2020
This is maybe my favorite rarity. And another crazy record for Rhode Island in 2020. When this bird showed up, some friends texted and we headed out right away. At this point, I wasn't really even sure if I knew what a Common Cuckoo looked like, much less was prepared to see one...I hadn't even seen Yellow-billed Cuckoo yet! This bird was found at a farm in Rhode Island and when we showed up, the side of the road was packed with birders.
From across the field, only visible with a scope, we got our first looks at this spectacular Cuckoo! And it was active too. It kept flying down to the field looking for caterpillars and flying back up to the trees to eat them.
For a while, we sat with our scopes just following the cuckoo and watching it slowly work its way along the treeline at the back of the field. Eventually, we had the bright idea to go towards the place where the road met the treeline hoping that maybe if it kept moving this way, we could get an up-close look at it. Oh boy, that turned out to be the right move. The cuckoo kept getting closer and closer until in one spectacular move, it flew down and landed in the road ~10 feet in front of us. Everyone gasped which caused the bird to fly back up in to a tree but it stayed pretty close and posed for some photos. I think this was one of my favorites because of how unexpected and different it was to anything else in the US.
I also managed recently to hear this species in Spain which was just as cool as I had imagined but this one in Rhode Island remains my only sighting and is probably up there in my top birding experiences.
Ross's Gull - 16 Jan 2021
Yep, this is another one where you're going to have to take my word on it... This bird was a drop everything and chase kind of bird so sure enough, some friends and I piled in the car and drove (at the speed limit and not faster) to race out to see this bird. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the bird had flown but since there were a ton of folks looking, someone had managed to stay with it as it flew out over the water. It was subtle, but in the right light you could maybe make out the dark under the wind and the flight style was very nighthawk like which was noticeably different from the other gulls.
Sure enough, we were able to watch as other birders raced in from all over the state to look for this bird. But instead of coming back to land, it flew further and further out towards long island. This bird was a bit of a one day wonder as many people looked unsuccessfully for it in Connecticut and New York and it was never seen again. Hopefully one day I'll get a better look at this species, but I'm glad to have seen one at all!
Redwing - 30 Jan 2021
This is probably a bird I would have written off as being too far away to chase if it weren't for my friends who were very excited about this bird. After it had been seen for a few days in a park near Portland, Maine, we decided on weekend to try to go and see it. We also made the mistake of taking my friends Tesla instead of my gas powered car. The Tesla was awesome, but in the cold weather, we ended up having to stop and charge..a lot. The drive up was pretty uneventful but it was also long, although we left in the morning, we didn't reach the park until after 1pm. Tired of being in the car, and stressed about seeing the bird, we basically ran down through the snow to the spot where there were birders lined up waiting for the Redwing to pop out of the bushes.
We spent a lot of time looking at these bushes The bird took its time but sure enough we saw some movement in the bushes and managed to make out the Redwing through the sticks and bramble. It mostly stayed pretty hidden and hard to see but we did mange to get one clear view when it popped up to feed on some berries (see photo). This wasn't the only cool bird we saw that day. In the same park, I got my lifer Dickcissel which was wintering in the park and hanging out near someones feeder.
.And to make the long drive even more worth it, we were also rewarded with great views of a Northern Shrike.
Thrilled with our success we piled back in the car for the long drive home. Of course, since it was winter in the north, the days were pretty short and combined with the fact that we had to stop 3 more times to charge the car, the drive back was even longer than the drive to get there. It was really a big day in the car but ultimately worth it!
Grey-breasted Martin - 3 Apr 2021
When this bird was found, it was unclear what species it was. People had realized that it was something weird when it showed up pretty early and looked small compared to the very large and chunky Purple Martins. And, with these Pronge martins being pretty hard to ID, there was a chance this bird wouldn't be identified to species. But, it was only in Prospect Park and regardless the consensus was that it was an interesting bird so we piled in the car and headed off to look for it. We ran into several familiar faces who were also chasing the bird in Prospect Park but it took us a little while to lay eyes on it. We first saw it flying around but then it perched and we got a little closer to take some photos and observe the bird. People were right, it sure was interesting.
Next to the Tree Swallows around it, it was bigger, but not by much. It was surprisingly small for a Purple Martin which helped us justify coming all this way. We also watched it poop in front of us and thought about getting a sample as the poop floated away. It took some time for people to come to some consensus about the identification of this bird but after someone managed to get some recordings, people settled on Grey-breasted Martin, my first code 5 rarity! This was also a bird that I told myself, when the heck am I going to get to see that bird again? But of course, I didn't know then that I would be going to Ecuador that summer.
Grey-breasted Martin was actually one of the few species I saw in Ecuador that wasn't a lifer which I found pretty funny. And of course, even though I saw plenty of Grey-breasted Martins in Ecuador, it was still pretty special to get my lifer in New York.
Common Gull - 5 Apr 2021
This is a bit of an odd one because when I saw it for the first time, it wasn't a lifer and wouldn't have been considered a code 3. That's because I saw this bird before Mew Gull was split into Common Gull and Short-billed (which is a stupid name) Gull. This bird was also a bit of a pain to find but we managed to track it down mixed in with a bunch of Ring-billed gulls. This individual was actually the "Kamchatka" subspecies which helped keep everything straight when Mew Gull was split. If you're not confused by all that, then you get a gold star. This also wasn't the last time I saw this species. In 2022, I actually saw this bird twice.
The first time I was coming back from successfully finding some Northern Saw-whet Owls and decided to stop and see it as it was on my way back. The second time I was taking some undergrads out and none of them had seen this species before so we decided to pop down and found it hanging out with some birders looking at it. Now I'm just hoping that I can see a Mew/Short-billed Gull in Connecticut for my state list since this bird no longer counts as that species.
Little Egret - 12 May 2021
Welp, I didn't have my camera for this one. This egret showed up while I was in lab and I decided to immediately chase it without going and stopping to get my camera. When I showed up at the spot it had been seen at, I was quickly told that it had just flown off. This is not at all what you want to hear when you're chasing a bird. Not all was lost though and another birder had some intel that it had been seen nearby at a golf course. I followed him down and sure enough, mixed in with some Snowy and Great Egrets, there was a medium sized egret with two long plumes. Despite the crappy photo, I got some great views of this bird. Of course now, having been to Europe, I have seen a ton of these and have taken much better photos of them.
But of course, its pretty special to see one in the US and to know that you could be looking at the only one in the country.
White-faced Storm-Petrel 8 Aug 2021
This is why ABA rarity codes don't really make sense. White-faced Storm-Petrel is a code 3 bird but its not really a vagrant to the US. Instead, the ABA in its infinite wisdom has decided that code 3 encompasses vagrants and birds that are just really hard to see. This bird falls more in to the later category. The best spot to see these birds, is way offshore, which is where I managed to see one. I took the Brookline Birding Club pelagic out ~100 miles to the continental shelf to look for seabirds with this species being a particular target. And fortunately we managed to see one! Despite extremely calm conditions that made for somewhat mellow birdwatching, on the second day someone managed to spot one in a flock of Wilson's Storm-Petrels and the boat captain was able to follow it allowing for pretty great looks! The best part of this bird is that it skips of the top of the water instead of flying like a regular bird. It just bounces and dances across the surface and really puts on quite a show. I'm hoping that I get to see another one this August.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - 13 November 2021
I was already having a pretty great day of birding with some friends when news of this bird came through the Rare Bird Alert. We'd already seen a Western Kingbird, 2 Cattle Egrets, and had great views of an American Bittern when I started getting messages that this Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had appeared in Rhode Island. My friends and I quickly decided to do a bit of a car swap so that some of us could go chase this bird and before I knew it, I was on my way to Rhode Island. Unlike the other rare shorebirds that I had seen in Rhode Island, this one showed up in November and wasn't easily accessible. We ended up walking though a backyard, crossing some deep channels (without appropriate footwear) and walking though some nice thick mud to go out and find this bird. When we got out to the spot, we found that it was shockingly hard to find because it was very good at hiding in the thick grasses.
Every once in a while, the bird would stick its head up just long enough for someone to get eyes on it and then duck back down out of sight. After half an hour of this, we finally found it in an open enough area to get some decent looks and photos. For a bird that looks very similar to Pectoral Sandpiper in the field guide, we were amazed at how different this bird looked. We were also amazed at the commitment of our friend who showed up after us and decided to go barefoot to avoid getting his shoes muddy. Keep in mind that it was November...Oh well, mega bird!
This was a drop everything and chase kind of bird. It showed up not too far away from my lab but even so, I think I've never driven faster... I mean consistently a safe and legal speed... to see a bird. As I pulled into the already filling parking lot, I was super nervous that it would have flown but someone hustled me over to their scope and I got my first looks at this spectacular bird. Having already seen Southern Lapwing in Ecuador, I was eager to see another lapwing but didn't expect it to happen so quickly. And this bird was truly spectacular, the crappy photo doesn't do it justice. I was also lucky to have seen this bird, I was told by a friend who came after me that I had just missed the bad rush hour traffic and I managed to get there while the sun was still up. I was lucky too since this bird was also a bit of a one day wonder in Connecticut. Interestingly it was part of an influx of Lapwings into the northeast and several other ones showed up in nearby states shortly afterwards.
Garganey - 12 Jun 2022
After getting back from Spain and not having seen a Garganey, I didn't really expect to see one so quickly. However, some friends had just stopped by to see this duck and recommended it as a weekend chase so I decided to go for it. The bird was being seen at a military base so you had to look for it through a fence and the sight-lines weren't very good. The bird often disappeared for an hour or two before reappearing. To add to my growing fears that I wouldn't see it, it started to rain pretty hard on the way down. When I pulled up at the spot, I found one other birder sitting in his car waiting. I asked him if he'd seen it, and he said no but pointed me towards where it was being seen. It took me about 10 seconds of looking with my bins to realize that I was staring at it. I grabbed my camera and scope, alerted the other birder and we got to watch for a few minutes as it swam around and out of view. I was prepared to spend at least an hour here looking for this bird and yet it only took 10 seconds to find it. It felt a little silly to have come all this way to see it and then turn around and drive back. So I decided to see if I could find another lifer, and started looking for a spot to see Prothonotary Warbler.
By this time, it was pouring rain but the forecast said it should lighten up so I set off. The spot I chose was a super neat area. It really felt like rain forest in part due to the fact that it was still raining. I hiked on some boardwalks and through some water in a dense bright green forest and saw...nothing? I heard Prothonotary Warbler sing twice but before getting to see one the rain started up again and I had to retreat back to my car. Instead of hike, I decided to try a road where they were regularly seen and just drive with my windows down. Sure enough I quickly heard two singing and managed to get good looks at one of them. I think this is part of the draw of chasing rarities. You never really know where you'll end up and the places you get to see are probably places you wouldn't have visited otherwise. If I get another chance, I definitely want to go back to this forest but I wouldn't have discovered it, if not for the Garganey
Curlew Sandpiper - 18 July 2022
This bird is exciting not only because it puts me into the top 100 on eBird for Connecticut but also because it's my first rarity that wasn't a lifer. Only a month earlier in Spain, I'd managed to see a few Curlew Sandpipers, one of which was in bright breeding plumage like this individual that showed up in Connecticut. I was a little worried about not seeing this bird so instead of waiting for my friends, I headed out to try and beat the rain. I got to the spot as some dark clouds formed behind me and managed to get some great views of this incredible vagrant.
As expected, shortly after I showed up, it started to rain birders with birders from all over the state showing up to see this bird. It also started raining rain. Just as I was getting into my car, the heavens opened and it poured soaking any birder who was still watching the Curlew Sandpiper. I actually got to see this bird again later that day as I drive down with some friends to help them see it (they don't have a car). This bird stuck around for a few days allowing all those who had missed on the first day, a second chance at seeing it.