Rare Birds in Rare Places
By Marsha Pearson
If a whale beaches itself on the Jersey shore, we are saddened by the loss, and scientist’s often ponder the question, “Why?” Why would a creature that knows the seas so well suddenly end up on shore?
It’s interesting that we love to see birds that we don’t get to see everyday. Birders flock (no pun intended) to any “rare bird alert” that comes up on their radar. To some, it doesn’t even matter why, it’s just a bird one has not yet seen, so let’s get a look at it!
Why Do Birds Stray?
Sometimes the reason for migration changes is simple: food. A few years ago when the trees in Canada’s boreal forests did not produce enough seeds, areas as far south as Maryland, and maybe even lower, were inundated with Pine Siskins. It was really great for us here in Pennsylvania. It provided a teaching lesson for our customers, not to mention an uptick in sales of nyjer seed during that winter.
Sometimes, however, even food is not a good reason for migration variations. During this past winter, America’s mid-section was blasted with a huge Snowy Owl population. Areas as far south as Texas reported sitings. The problem, however, was deep in that the migrating birds, who could not find enough lemmings in their traditional hunting range, were also not able to find sufficient sustenance in moves to the south. Many birds have not done well with these shifts.
There were several articles on the incident, including one in Bird Watching Daily, which focused on our understanding of Snowy Owls as a communal bird vs. more solitary, as was previous thought. Snowy Owls were seen in such large numbers at once, as a parliament rather than singly, that many bird scientists and naturalists are considering redefining ideas in this regard.
A second article from My San Antonio, takes a different tact in pointing out that many Snowy owls did not fare so well in their migration to the south due to lack of lemmings. Although mice and other small rodents might be also possibilities, the varied movement was confounding to the Snowies and they may not have always recognized it as food, causing starvation in some cases.
The Washington Times recently featured an article, “Migrating Birds Straying From Paths”, pointing to the fact that migration patterns are, indeed, changing. So many things come into play. Food is an important one. The other common causes are habitat and changes in weather patterns.
The extreme drought in Texas may have caused some migrants who would normally stay in Texas, continue on to areas of Central America. And habitat changes that are man made – let’s not even go there – it would be a book unto itself.
Still, there are those odd strays which don’t seem to fall into any category, like the redpoll that was seen this winter in the San Diego area. Or the Rufous Hummingbird that was seen and banded in Western Pennsylvania a few years ago. These are just two of the many birds that have “birdie sonar blips” that send them off in a different direction than their typical inborn senses tell them.
How Crazy Are We?
I laughed out loud at this wonderful article by Charlie Gillis, “Birdwatchers Behaving Like Paparazzi“. The premise: A lovely lady in Massachusetts gets out of her shower and, right outside her window, hundreds of birdwatchers have pointed their many scopes and binoculars in her general direction. Why? No, they aren’t peeping at her. Rather, a Spotted Towhee was reported in the near area, and they were doing what crazed birdwatchers do: straining to get a look at it.
Now, Spotted Towhees aren’t so rare in the West, but in Massachusetts they’re big news. Hence, the hoopla!
The point here is, straying birds are always big news and will continue to be. I’m glad for those who take the time to study these patterns and hope that future findings will, more often than not, prove to have positive outcomes, even if it seems strange.