First-Ever Sighting of Tropical Bird in USA Sparks Birding and Media Frenzy

The Rufous-necked wood-rail that everyone's been talking about. Photo by Matt Baumann (used with permission).

This is what some birders live for. A Rufous-necked wood-rail has been spotted in New Mexico, marking the first time this species has ever been seen in the United States. Birders have been streaming by the hundreds to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico, for a glimpse of the rare bird.

The Rufous-necked wood-rail normally hangs out on the southwestern coast of Mexico, as well as some parts of Central and South America. Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, drove nearly seven hours from Colorado to see the bird, the Associated Press reports. “To see a big, colorful rail and to see it walking around out in the open is just really special. Then, you can add the dimension that it is not only far, but hundreds if not thousands of miles from where you would typically see it,” he told the AP.

“For many birders this is their first opportunity to see this species, and possibly their only chance,” says Marshall J. Iliff, a project leader for eBird. The site, which helps birders keep track of their sightings and share them with other avian aficionados as well as scientists, is a joint project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Iliff explains that the sighting is not only exciting for birders, but it also “is a suggestion of biology in this species that is previously unappreciated.”

What’s not yet clear is how exactly the bird got all the way to New Mexico, Iliff says that the Rufous-necked wood-rail isn’t known to migrate or disperse very far. Though it’s possible that it was kept as a captive bird and released, Iliff says that’s unlikely. If it is indeed a wild bird, determining its point of origin will be difficult, as the species has little plumage variation across its range.

Eventually, two official committees will make final judgments on where the bird most likely came from: the New Mexico Bird Records Committee and the American Birding Association Checklist Committee.

If you can’t make the trip to New Mexico, fear not: there’s plenty of video footage and photographs that make you feel as if you’re there! The Bosque del Apache Refuge has a Facebook page where they’re posting photos and updates, and here’s a great compilation of footage of the bird:

Of course, some people just have to see it with their own eyes, like one birder from Iowa, the AP reports:

Refuge officials also recalled the story of an Iowa man who flew into Denver, rented a car and drove down to see the wood-rail only to be disappointed. After driving back to Denver and turning in his rental, he got a phone call that the bird had reappeared. It was enough for him to change his flight, get another rental and drive back down.

Now that’s some serious commitment.

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