Southern New England has been a hotbed of unusual bird sightings in the last couple years, with oddities showing up far off course from where they should be. Strangely enough, a handful of different species have turned up in our area when they should be 5,000 miles away in Siberia.
The latest was last month’s appearance of a Steller’s sea eagle on the Taunton River in Dighton, Massachusetts. The massive bird — similar to our bald eagle, but much larger, with a white tail but no white head — should have been on the coast of eastern Russia, Korea or Japan. But one lone individual has been wandering North America for a few months, appearing in Texas and Nova Scotia before stopping off just across the Rhode Island border for a day or two.
It’s not the only one. A University of Rhode Island student stumbled upon a sharp-tailed sandpiper in Galilee in November, a bird that breeds in Siberia and winters in Australia. And a brown booby — a bird that should have been in the Caribbean — was observed on Fox Island in Narragansett Bay last fall. How these birds got to Rhode Island is anybody’s guess.
The summer of 2020 had three more shorebirds from Eurasia making brief appearances in South County – a red necked stint, a little stint, and a Terek sandpiper. None had been seen on the East Coast more than a handful of times before, and it’s unlikely that any of them found their way back to their native range and reconnected with other members of their species.
A few months later, a common cuckoo was found in Johnston, and it was anything but common. The European species had only been observed in North America two or three times before.
All of these sightings generated tremendous enthusiasm among the birdwatching community, not just here in Rhode Island but all over the eastern U.S. and beyond. I talked to a birder from Indiana who drove through the night to see the sharp-tailed sandpiper, and as I joined 100 other birders searching – unsuccessfully – for the sea eagle, I noticed cars from a dozen states at a park where the bird had been observed the day before.
While these super-rarities attract widespread attention, they aren’t the only unusual birds that keen-eyed observers have been finding. At least once a month, another out-of-range bird is discovered in the Ocean State. Some are species that don’t belong here but that seem to show up every year or two, like the pink-footed goose from Europe, the painted bunting from Florida, and the dickcissel from the Plains States. Others, like the western tanager seen in Westerly beginning last month, are species seen only once a decade or so.
Why do these birds go so far astray? There are lots of possible explanations. Maybe their internal compass is off kilter and instead of flying south for a couple thousand miles, they fly east instead. This is probably the case with some juvenile birds making their first migratory flights. Or maybe they get blown off course by a storm or land on a ship that carried them to the ship’s destination. Or perhaps they joined up with a flock of a different species and followed them to their wintering grounds.
We’ll never know how most of these birds got to the wrong place. Sadly, most probably don’t survive long in these new environs. But it sure does get local birders – and even non-birders – excited to track down these rarities.
I wonder what unexpected birds will show up in Rhode Island in 2022.