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Nature Notes: Vagrants of Winter

Ed Robinson
March 11, 2024

Lately I have been chasing vagrants. My quest has been specific to birds, including some species that are exceedingly rare for this region. In recent months Maine’s birding community has been flush with opportunities to view creatures that would normally involve long distance travel in building a life list.

We should start with a definition of vagrancy in the animal world. The online source Wikipedia defines vagrancy as “…a phenomenon in biology whereby an individual animal…appears well outside its normal range.” These vagrants are most often birds for the simple reason that they are far more mobile than land-based creatures, although we offer special recognition to a mountain lion found in Connecticut a few years back after a long walk from Colorado! Some people use the term “accidental” instead of vagrant to reflect the fact that most of these wandering creatures have ended up in new surroundings because of some accident or quirk of fate.

large brown and white eagle flaps wings over water

A Steller’s Sea Eagle (iStock photo by USO)

The most famous recent vagrant in Maine’s history would surely be the huge Steller’s Sea Eagle from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia that in 2022 stunned the wildlife community by spending a few days in the mid-coast region before heading to the Maritime provinces of Eastern Canada. The bird made a brief return visit in early 2023, unfortunately when I was in Ecuador, but then returned to haunts in Nova Scotia. Hundreds have been hoping to see the bird this winter but so far, despite multiple reports that turned out to be juvenile bald eagles, no Steller’s Sea Eagle has appeared. It may be that the bird has found a comfortable home territory in Nova Scotia, or the mild winter weather has not triggered a migration to more hospitable climes.

A few years earlier Portland played host to another rare bird, a Great Black Hawk normally found in South and Central America. That bird was spotted in Texas during April 2018, the first time ever for the species in the US. It soon disappeared over the sea and there were no further reports of the hawk until the bird reappeared in Deering Oaks Park, Portland, in November 2018. The large hawk was clearly comfortable living in the park thanks to the robust squirrel population and the bird was surprisingly tolerant of human visitors. Thousands of curious onlookers flocked there from all over the country, thanks to national media coverage. Unfortunately, the hawk met a sad ending, not unusual for such vagrants, because it was not equipped for harsh winter weather. The bird suffered frost bite on its bare legs and had to be euthanized. Since July 2020 a lovely statue has marked the bird’s favorite hangout in Portland.

This begs the question: how do such vagrants end up hundreds or thousands of miles from their normal range? There are few hard answers to this despite a good deal of ongoing research. We do know that migratory birds are well equipped for navigation using some combination of learned landmarks (mountain ranges, wetlands, or highways), solar or starlight navigation, and even the Earth’s magnetic fields. We know that major storm systems play a role, with birds sometimes blown far off course during migrations. Other vagrants may be suffering from disease or genetic defects. Of course, humans sometimes play a role by releasing wild animals in wholly inappropriate environments, such as the individuals who set boa constrictors loose in the Everglades.

black orange and white bird hidden in thicket

A Spotted Towhee at Fort Foster (Ed Robinson photo)

So, back to the vagrants that I have been stalking. For months there has been a first-time-in-Maine Spotted Towhee living near the red pavilion at Fort Foster Park in Kittery. This bird was discovered by Derek Lovitch, well known to local birders for the tours he has conducted for HHLT and the shop he owns with his wife Jeannette, Freeport Wild Bird Supply. These beauties are closely related to the Eastern Towhees that grace our woodlands in breeding season, but with more white spots on the wings. Their primary range is west of the Mississippi River, and in winter they migrate to places like Guatemala. The Kittery bird has hung in through the winter, in part thanks to kind-hearted birders who place seed on the ground most days. On a lovely day recently, I was fortunate to see the bird after a wait of only 20 minutes. The attached photo was the best I could do because the bird is partial to thick, shrubby cover, hopping along the ground in search of food.

Other vagrants worth checking out have included a female Eurasian Wigeon, most likely arrived from Europe, that has been hanging with other waterfowl in wetlands south of Portland. A Baltimore Oriole has enjoyed the hospitality in York this winter rather than sojourn to the Gulf Coast or Central America where his buddies are vacationing. Today there is a Mallard/Northern Pintail hybrid enjoying the peaceful waters of offseason Woolwich.

One particular vagrant tempted me for weeks, but it meant driving three hours to Hancock, Maine, with no guarantee the bird would be visible if I committed a day for the long trip out and back. A gorgeous male Hepatic Tanager had been seen for a couple months in that area when it should have been thousands of miles to the south. Then fate intervened one day while I strolled along the quiet paths of the Belize Zoo during our February trip to Central America. Hearing lovely birdsong behind me I spun around to find a pair of Hepatic Tanagers about 15 feet away. Better to be lucky than dogged!

orange bird stands on tree branch

A male Hepatic Tanager at the Belize Zoo (Ed Robinson photo)

Maine has a favorable position along migration routes for many species, and we get birds from the Midwest or the far eastern reaches of Canada. Unusual visitors from Arctic regions often find their way to our shores. Birds far more common in southern habitats sometimes appear here, perhaps aided by a warming climate. Scientists know that many vagrants will perish, but in other cases, a few vagrants of the same species may survive and end up establishing a population in a new territory. Other vagrants breed with local birds that are genetically similar so the resulting hybrids may be fertile and gradually add diversity to the local gene pool.

There were regular reports this winter of an unusual Northern Hawk Owl, a boreal species of the far north that would have been a wonderful species for my own list. Again, the distance made me hesitant since the bird was hanging around about one hour north of Skowhegan and the landowner where the bird was living was less than welcoming to two visiting birders who intruded on his property. I have heard no reports recently although this is not unusual. It is customary to protect the locations of sensitive species like owls and other reclusive raptors, to avoid overwhelming the birds with thundering herds of over-enthusiastic humans armed with binoculars, telephoto lenses, and insufficient common sense.

If you carry the same virus that causes you to seek rare and beautiful avian visitors, then join a group of birding fans who are willing to share information and expertise. Maine Audubon is a great organization that connects people from all walks of life, with a local chapter centered around Merrymeeting Bay. You might sign up for daily email alerts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology using this link.

Maybe this weekend we can jot down to Owl’s Head in Knox County where folks are enjoying a rare Western Grebe at Crockett’s Beach…

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.