Birdist Rule #33: What to Do When You Find a Rare Bird

Get ready for your 15 minutes of birding fame—it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Look alive, people: A rare bird could show up at any time. You’ll never know when, and you’ll never know where. It could be during a walk in your local birding patch, or during a visit to a more famous hot spot. It could happen when you’re driving on the highway. It could happen when you’re walking to work.

I know from experience. Back in 2012, I found the first Pink-footed Goose that had ever been seen in the state of Maryland. It was a big deal for me, especially considering that Maryland is a small state with a large number of good birders. I regret to inform you that I didn’t do a good job of reporting the bird; I was new to the area and didn’t know who to tell. Plus, I wasn’t sure of the ID until I was able to check with photos later. Thankfully, the bird stuck around for a couple days and lots of people got to see it. Some birders in Maryland still know me as “the Pink-footed Goose guy.”

Finding a rare bird and then triumphantly reporting it to the rest of the birding community is as close as birders get to celebrity. People congratulate you. If you’re really lucky your name may even appear in a cliche “birders flock” local-news headline. There’s no topping that.

But if you want to get the glory, you’ve got to get the bird, identify it correctly, and spread the word. I’ll tell you how to do that in a second, but first we need to cover just what it means to be a “rare bird.”

There are two kinds of rare birds we birders get excited about. The first group are the species that are hard to find. It could be that there just aren’t very many of them, like the Kirtland’s Warbler, which mainly breeds in central Michigan. It could be that they’re well camouflaged or are only active at night, like most owls. Finding these local rarities often requires a concerted effort and/or a good bit of luck, so it’s always special.

But it’s not as special as the second group: vagrants. Sweet, sweet vagrants. These are birds that, for whatever reason—be it a storm blowing them off-course, an error in migration, or some other mysterious calling—wander far outside their normal range. It happens more than you think. In just the past month there’s been an Old World species of egret in coastal Maine, a Eurasian duck in upstate New York, and a small flycatcher in Arizona that’s completely new to the States.

Vagrants are what birders’ dreams are made of. They’re the birds that people will leave work for, or, in some cases, fly across the country for. So what do you do if you find one?

1. Get the ID

First, you’ve got to make sure you’re actually seeing what you think you’re seeing. This is the most difficult part, because identification is hard, and because you’ll see like a million normal birds before you see a rare one.

The secret here is really no secret at all: Learn your birds. When you’re comfortable with the typical species in your area, a rare one will stand out. This is birding Sesame Street-style, as in, “One of These Things Is not Like the Other.”

2. Snap a photo

I wish it weren’t true, but it is: This day and age, you need to get a photo of the rare bird for anyone to believe you. It’s just the way it is. In earlier times, when photos were hard to take and you had to, like, go to a store and wait a week to have it developed (how did we even), a well-recorded set of field notes might have done the trick. With iPhones and digital cameras, though, it’s a lot easier to get a picture, even a #worstbirdpic, of a rare bird.

Just remember, don’t be offended by people’s’ skepticism. Even the best birders constantly carry cameras in order to back up their rare sightings. Heck, it’s pretty much the same reason why pre-photo-era birders shot everything they saw (with a gun). Proof is proof.

If you can’t get a photo, don’t give up! If you can hear the bird but can’t see it—maybe it’s an owl or a nightjar calling at night—try using your phone to get a recording. Take notes, not just about plumage, but also about the bird’s behavior and any sounds it makes. And bring that camera next time.

3. Tell somebody

Okay, now that you’re sure of what you’ve got, and you’ve got the clue to prove it, it’s time for the fun part: letting everyone else know what an awesome birder you are.  

When there’s a rare bird around, people want to know about it as soon as possible. Vagrant birds often only stick around for a short amount of time, so getting the word out is important. You’ll want to provide as many details about the location of the bird as you can: the time you saw it, how it was acting, what other kinds of birds it might have been hanging out with . . . things like that. Also, any information that might put a pursuing birder on your trail is helpful, such as which parking lot to park in and which trails to take. Birders in Florida will often tie bits of string to trees so people coming later know they’re in the exact right spot.

There are a bunch of ways to get the word out: Text a birder friend of yours; send an email to your local birding listserv (find them here); send a tweet with the hashtag #ABArare (ABA stands for the American Birding Association); post on Facebook to any number of local birding groups.

But there are also some cases where you shouldn’t necessarily tell anyone.  Sometimes a whole bunch of birders coming to stare at a bird isn’t in the best interest of the animal. Some birders get too close. Some birders play calls to lure the bird out that, over time, can stress a it out. A good rule of thumb here is that if you suspect the rare bird is breeding in a new area (maybe you see it carrying nest material, or maybe it’s just in its typical breeding habitat it), you might want to keep things quiet, at least until after the season is over. For instance, it’s common not to report the locations of owls because they’re especially susceptible to harassment from photographers. When in doubt, ask a birder in confidence, or check the ABA’s ethical guidelines.

Another reason you might not reveal the location of a rare bird is if it’s on private property. If a rare hummingbird shows up at someone’s backyard feeder, for example, they might not welcome a crush of birders stomping through their tulips to take pictures. If it were me, of course, I’d hang up welcome signs and start making cocktails—but not everyone wants to host a “Rare Bird Backyard Party” as much as I do.

4. Gloat

Finally, once you’ve identified the bird and gotten other eyes on it, it’s time to bask in the glory. Return to the scene the next day, just so the assembled birders can shake your hand and say, “oh what an incredible find!” Revel in this flash-mob birding convention organized solely because you glanced through your binoculars and noticed something odd. Only birding offers this kind of experience, and it takes both a rare bird and a good birder to make happen.