Birders are always hoping to find a rare bird or witness amazing behavior. But even the most optimistic birder would never dream of spotting a Snowy Owl in Hawaii, a flamingo in Utah, or an Asian Duck in New York. Yet all of these sightings have been real and spectacular. How do such unusual appearances happen?
Types of Unexpected Birds
There are three general types of unexpected birds. How these birds are classified depends on an individual bird’s origin, its typical native range, and how it reached its unusual location.
A vagrant is a wild bird found well outside its expected range. These are usually solitary sightings, with just one bird wowing birders who are lucky enough to find it. Vagrants may arrive at their unusual destinations because of storms, faulty navigation during migration, or simply wandering much further afield than expected. When more spectacular vagrants appear, birders travel significant distances to see it, and high-profile vagrant sightings can even make the news.
A bird irruption is a massive movement of birds outside their usual range. This is typically a winter phenomenon, when northern birds such as Evening Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, or Common Redpolls suddenly appear much further south than typical. This movement is often tied to food supplies or population increases, which forces more birds south to find enough resources for survival. When an irruption happens, birders may not need to travel to see these unexpected birds because the birds come to them.
When a truly spectacular bird shows up thousands of miles from its typical range and seems unusually tame or calm, it is most likely an escaped bird. These may be escaped or deliberately released pets, or they could have gotten loose from a zoo, aviary, petting zoo, or private collection. In some cases, these birds may also escape from rescue centers or airport quarantine facilities. These birds are often tagged or banded and are usually much more exotic species found in relatively urban settings. If conditions are right, these birds may even form feral colonies and could be seen regularly for years.
Weirdest Birds in the Most Unexpected Places
There are many documented sightings of strange birds appearing where they’re least expected, but listed below are some of the most unusual.
The Chilean Flamingo in Utah
While Utah’s Great Salt Lake is an amazing refuge for many types of birds, flamingos aren’t typical visitors. In 1987, however, a Chilean Flamingo—native in South America from Argentina to southern Ecuador and southwestern Boliva—escaped from Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City and took up residence along the lake’s shore. Nicknamed “Pink Floyd” by enthusiastic locals, the bird enjoyed celebrity status for many years and was known to spend summers in Idaho. The bird was not spotted again after the breeding season of 2005, and though its fate was never discovered, it was believed to have died of natural causes during the winter of 2005-2006.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
San Francisco is known for its colorful population, which includes a thriving colony of Cherry-headed Conures, also called Red-masked Parakeets or Red-masked Conures. These birds first appeared on the city’s iconic Telegraph Hill in approximately 1990, and there have been enough birds to create an independent feral colony. The flock occasionally wanders to other nearby areas but seems uninterested in returning to its native range in Ecuador and northern Peru.
The Snowy Owl in Honolulu
Snowy Owls are usually found only in the Arctic, venturing down to the very northern border of the United States in winter, with a similar range in Scandinavia and Russia. In late 2011, however, one of these elegant birds was confirmed thousands of miles away from its range at Honolulu International Airport, the first record of a Snowy Owl ever appearing in Hawaii. Unfortunately, because the bird was unable to be removed from the runways where it posed a threat to aircraft, it was ultimately shot after failed attempts to relocate it with flares, nets, and other non-lethal means.
The Blue-Footed Booby in British Columbia
Well known for their colorful feet, Blue-footed Boobies are tropical birds found from the coast of Peru to the Baja peninsula, with occasional forays into extreme southern California. In 2013, however, a Blue-footed Booby was seen, photographed, and confirmed off the coast of British Columbia, more than 1,500 miles north of its typical range. The sighting was brief but confident enough to be an amazing record for Canadian birders to enjoy.
The Yellow-Nosed Albatross in Iceland
Albatrosses are the ultimate must-see seabird for many birders, with their astonishing wingspans and tremendous flight capabilities. To see most albatrosses, birders have to visit southern oceans, but whale watchers on an excursion near Reykjavik were astonished in 2015 to spot a Yellow-nosed Albatross. These powerful seabirds are typically found in a southern range stretching from South America to sub-Saharan Africa to Australia and New Zealand.
The Mandarin Duck in New York
You can find almost anything in New York City, but birders wouldn’t expect to find one of Asia’s most stunning ducks enjoying itself in Central Park. In October 2018, however, a male Mandarin Duck was found in the park, and while it is banded and therefore likely an escapee, no one came forward to claim the duck, and it continued to delight birders for several months, even drawing strong attention on social media. These ducks may be common in Asia—from China and Taiwan to Japan and southeastern Russia—but for birders, this duck will always be remembered as a famous New Yorker.
Every year, there are more astonishing birds found in unexpected places, giving birders plenty of options to see new and unique species nearly anywhere. There’s always the hope that a new and unusual bird could show up in your neighborhood!