Monday, July 7, 2014

Vagrants, Before Birding

Everyone knows Audubon's paintings of extinct birds - the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  However, while working on my What Audubon Called the Birds post, I realized that the great American ornithologist also found some pretty incredible rarities.  He saw a male Smew in Louisiana.*  A pair of Snowy Owls in Kentucky.  Not one, not two, but THREE Curlew Sandpipers along the coast.   This left me wondering - what kind of birds were showing up in North America before birding even got started?  This was an age where, instead of reporting a rarity to eBird or the listserv, you shot it into oblivion.  It seems likely that birds such as the Smew and Curlew Sandpiper had much larger populations in the Old World than they do today - so did they visit America in proportionately higher numbers?  Were birds showing up back then that have yet to be added to the ABA Checklist?  Let's take a closer look at some of the more intriguing species recorded during the 19th century.  (Note - Reading Rare Birds of North America a couple times by no means makes me an expert on vagrancy, but it's fun to speculate sometimes. Enjoy.)

The "Mango Humming-bird"

The "Mango Hummingbird" was not actually seen by Audubon, but he received specimens from a friend.  They (at least two) were supposedly shot in the Florida Keys.  The Audubon website lists this species as the Black-throated Mango - which seems unlikely, considering it is a strictly South American bird.  My mind jumped to Green-breasted Mango, the Mango that strays into the ABA area with some frequency.  But the illustration just isn't right.  The juvenile male has a black throat, and the adults look a little "off" too.  The female specimen, Audubon admits, was likely not collected in the US - but the other birds probably were.  All three birds in his illustration closely resemble the Antillean Mango, seen below.  It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a Caribbean hummingbird would stray north into the United States - e.g. the Bahama Woodstar in Pennsylvania.  Additionally, Green-breasted Mango vagrants tend to go North and East from Mexico, bypassing Southern Florida altogether.  It seems plausible (though not probable) that the bird encountered in Key West by Audubon's friend was an Antillean Mango (or another Anthracothorax sp.), a bird not currently on the ABA checklist.
Antillean Mango - a possible 19th Century stray to Florida?
(From Princeton University Press, Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti)

The "Black-headed Goldfinch"

What Audubon depicts here is a perfect match for the Black-headed Siskin, a Mesoamerican species. Audubon claims to have seen five of these birds on "one cold morning in December" near his home in Henderson, Kentucky.  He goes on to say that "their notes resembled those of the Pine [Siskin]..."and that he managed to shoot and procure two birds. His description is quite detailed, and lacks the vagueness that some of his other species accounts are known to have. Finches do wander, sometimes in flocks - it seems highly unlikely, but not impossible (nothing with birds is impossible), that this Mexican species of finch would wander north into the Ohio Valley. The world was experiencing a substantially different climate than that of today - the Northern Hemisphere was still within the grips of the "Little Ice Age."

However, I don't think this report would pass muster with a state bird records committee, had one existed at the time.  It seems more likely that Audubon encountered these birds elsewhere, or obtained them from a friend. He may have wanted to include this striking siskin in Birds of America (which was basically his life list), and simply changed the report to the central US.  After all, birders have been known to see a species in one location and purposefully report it from another.  Maybe Audubon was America's first stringer as well...  At any rate, it is intriguing, especially since Black-headed Siskin has been predicted to be one of the next vagrants to the ABA area.

The Scarlet Ibis

The Scarlet Ibis is on the ABA checklist, but US records have been questioned on the grounds of provenance.  Audubon claims: 
"... I have found the Scarlet Ibis less numerous than even the Glossy Ibis; indeed I have not met with more than three individuals in a state of liberty, in the whole range of the United States. These birds occurred at Bayou Sara, in Louisiana, on the 3d of July, 1821." 
Scarlet Ibises occuring as vagrants in Louisiana make complete sense.  It is safe to say that these birds were natural vagrants (how many zoos had Scarlet Ibises in 1821?), and that Audubon did, indeed, see these birds.  Audubon was certainly lucky in finding this species for is ABA list!  I also like how he considers "even rarer than Glossy Ibis" to be a strong statement of this bird's scarcity.

The Gigantic Fulmar

We don't usually associate pelagic birds with antiquity, but many species were seen with more frequency than today.  Everyone travelled by ship - and although they weren't seeking out rarities, these sailors definitely took notice of tubenoses.  

I saw this and couldn't resist.
Giant Petrel, or "Gigantic Fulmar", from Eve of the Emperor Penguin: A Merlin Mission (Magic Treehouse #40).
Perhaps the most fascinating pelagic report from the 19th century involves a specimen of a "Gigantic Fulmar, shot at some distance from the mouth of the Columbia river" which was sent to Audubon by his good friend Townsend (of Solitaire, Shearwater, and Warbler fame).   It is said to be "frequent in the southern seas", scavenging on the remains of dead animals.  This, coupled with his description of an albatross-sized bird that resembles the fulmar "in form and proportions" matches that of the Giant-Petrels.   Both the Northern and Southern Giant-Petrels, like the Black-headed Siskin, were listed as one of the next vagrants to the ABA area back in 2000 (Pranty et al.).  Could it be that one of these two species strayed north toward the Oregon coast during the early 19th Century?


In writing this post, I think I have proven my obsession with historical records of rare birds.  Hell, these are so old they're not even considered records - more like "unconfirmed sightings".  Hopefully this has been a small glimpse into rarities from before birding was a "thing" - and I'm sure there are more old reports somewhere out there worth exploring, too.  

Thanks to's page on Birds of America for the illustrations and much of the information. 

*Correction 3/12/15: It was a female, not a male, Smew shot (or so he claims) by Audubon in Louisiana.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks for this post, as well as all the links.

  2. Interesting. Could you post a citation to the "male Smew in Louisiana"?

    1. *Correction - it was a Female Smew in Louisiana. Still crazy. From
      "The only specimen procured by me was shot by myself on Lake Barataria, not far from New Orleans, in the winter of 1819. It was an adult female in fine plumage. How it had wandered so far south is an enigma to me; but having found it, and made a drawing of it on the spot, I have taken the liberty to add one of the other sex from an equally fine specimen."