The Story of the Vagrant

What is a vagrant? Why do they cause such a stir in the birding community? Let’s look at that, and I’ll tell the story of my vagrant and how my birding group made history.

Vagrants are animals that wander outside of their usual range or established migration route. The term is most often used to describe birds, and there are a handful of reasons why a bird may wander off its usual course. Perhaps it was carried away during a particularly violent bit of stormy weather, or maybe the bird, impacted by global climate change and tired of local competition, went searching for resources in new places. Vagrants are fascinating, both to behold and to study, and birders especially love rare sightings. The bird does the traveling for you, and you don’t even have to leave your home patch to add another species to your life list. Rare birds draw crowds as people clamor to see the oddball. From a behavioralist standpoint, vagrants prove that the predictable can be unpredictable, that the natural world is ever-changing and adaptive. Vagrants are important conservation data points.

You may have heard recently of the lost Steller’s sea eagle that has been enjoying the eastern seaboard since mid-December. This bird had birders afire. Native to the Atlantic coastal regions of east Asia, scientists and birders alike are stumped as to why this particular bird is halfway across the world from its family, enjoying the company of the much smaller, United States natives, the bald eagles. It seems to be thriving in its current habitat, where the weather and resources are similar to its home territory. Over 300 photos of this single bird have been submitted to eBird as the locals tracked its movement from Massachusetts to Maine. But we’re not here to talk about the sea eagle. We’re here to talk about a different rare bird. What is it like to find a rare bird? Let me tell you the story of my vagrant.

January 2, 2022. Field notes log.

It was a beautiful day for birding, as my birding group gathered at di Rosa. We were treated with bluebirds and buffleheads, a great egret, and a red-tailed hawk. I wasn’t the first to spot the odd flycatcher. “Is that a kingbird?!” someone exclaimed, and I didn’t believe him. “No, I think it’s a Say’s Phoebe,” I pondered, lifting my binos to my eyes. We were standing on a hill above the bird, while it swooped and hovered over the grassy slope in flycatcher-like fashion. I could see the grey back, dark head, and thick bill, but from the angle, I couldn’t determine the color or extent of coloration of the pale belly. Maybe it WAS a little bigger than a Say’s Phoebe, maybe a little grayer than brown, but it was active and disappeared around a bush. Probably not a kingbird, I thought. Napa County doesn’t get kingbirds in the winter. I was certain we’d missed out on a positive identification. We moved on with question marks and luckily, we got a second chance.

30 minutes later, we came back across the berm between the di Rosa parking lot and Winery Lake, and there. on the For Veronica statue, was our bird, it’s bright yellow belly prominently displayed as it perched on a wire. I turned to the group, “There’s our bird! And it is 100% a kingbird! You were right! Very rare for Napa at this time of year. Grab your cameras!” And grab our cameras we did. As I alternated between photos, camera, and scope, I noted the following field identifiers:

– Bright yellow belly with coloration all the way up the breast to the neck

– Gray back; gray head; gray, notched tail with no white flashing along the edges or tip

– Thick, powerful-looking black bill

– No white chin/mustache, ruling out Cassin’s Kingbird

Now, I have not seen many kingbirds in my birding career. The tyrannus genus boasts thirteen kingbird species, and I have seen two – Eastern and Western. The Merlin identifier app was little help in this case, because the bird was a rarity – a vagrant far away from its home range that it wasn’t even listed in the Continental U.S bird pack. I assumed Western Kingbird, because that’s what I was most familiar with, and it is strikingly similar save for a couple of field marks. Western Kingbirds can be found in Napa County mid-March through late August, as they find suitable breeding territories in our mild, Mediterranean climate. This being January, a Western Kingbird would have been odd enough as is. The other experienced birders in my group were equally perplexed and unfamiliar with the species, and also voted that Western Kingbird was our best guess. I knew that by submitting the rarity with a detailed description and photos to eBird, the expert ornithologists in town would flag it and clarify if needed.

That night, after uploading the photos, I got an email from eBird peer reviewer, Murray Berner, author of Breeding Birds of Solano County and prominent Napa-Solano Audubon member. This is a man whose identification skills are surpassed by few others, and I have appreciated his coaching, and perhaps involuntary, mentorship as I have honed my own bird identification skills over the past two years. Murray has inadvertently mentored many a beginning birder in the Bay Area, emailing to clarify odd sightings or to point out misattributed photos. This time, he was emailing to congratulate me on the rare find. He noted that the yellow-green coloration on the chest and lack of white flashing on the tail sets this bird apart. It was not, in fact, a Western Kingbird, which has a gray chest and prominent white edges on the tail, but a Tropical Kingbird. The range for Tropical Kingbirds is extensive throughout Central and South America, sometimes venturing into southern North America. The odd individual is occasionally spotted along the West Coast during the winter. According to eBird, in the last 30 days in California, individuals have also been sighted in Los Angeles County, along San Francisco Bay, and as far north as Eureka. Our sighting, however, was a first for Napa County. Never before had a Tropical Kingbird been in the County. On January 2, 2022, the di Rosa birding group made history.

Every day since, birders have traveled to di Rosa and Domaine Carneros, and every day another birder has gotten to see this spectacular visitor. I don’t know how long it will stay, but it sure has been a great treat for local birders.

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