Birdist Rule #84: Know the Dos and Don’ts of a Rare Bird Stakeout

When going for a vagrant, it’s important to remember that everyone is on the same team.
A group of people stand in a suburban lawn all looking in the same direction with cameras and binoculars.
Birders watch the rare Snowy Owl that made its way to Cypress, CA in January 2023. Photo: Sipa USA/Alamy

Chasing rarities is one of birding’s unique pleasures. Vagrant birds, whether they be simply lost or blown off track from a big storm, can show up anywhere, anytime. That means you’ve got to be ready to ditch all your plans and head to wherever the bird is if you want to see it. No other hobby includes that unexpectedness—the spontaneity of one minute living your normal life and the next barreling down some backroad or standing in a stranger’s backyard. 

It brings me joy every single time. It also brings me incredible angst. 

Anyone who has ever chased a rarity knows that the worst part of the trip is the anxiety that creeps in before actually seeing the bird. We’ve all been there before: You make the trip to where a bird was last reported, and you show up to a bunch of birders standing around but no bird. 

“It was here this morning,” they might say. Or: “It’s been coming to this feeder for just a few seconds every 45 minutes.” It’s a stressful time, that period where you desperately want all your scrambling and effort to be worth it but all you can do is wait. In these moments, it helps to wait productively. 

I’ve been on more than my fair share of stakeouts, some successful and some not. Here’s what I’ve learned about how best to spend that torturous time, giving yourself and others a shot at seeing the bird. 

Do: Help Search for the Bird

I remember showing up to see Maine’s first Rock Wren in December 2020. There were two photographers standing on the edge of the cove where the bird had been reported, just chit-chatting. “Have you seen the bird?” I asked. “No, but it was reported today, so it’s around.” Me: “Have you looked around?” Them: “Uh, no.” I walked down the rocks about 50 yards and there the bird was, out in the open.

The birders at a stakeout are on a team, working together to find the bird. That might mean taking turns to look, or in this case, fanning out. Too often I show up to stakeouts and people are just standing in one place waiting for the bird to appear before them. Sometimes it works that way, but most of the time it does not. As can be seen below, birder  Ryan Mandelbaum recently exemplified heroic stakeout behavior while chasing an extremely lost MacGillivray’s Warbler in the Bronx. Under a Barbie car! The dedication.  


You’re no longer just a birder when a rarity goes missing;  you’re now part of a search party. Work together with other birders there—communicate with each other—to figure out when and where the bird was last seen and where it could be right now. When it works, you and your new friends can all celebrate together.

Don’t: Let the Bird Disappear

Another story, this time in Texas. My friend Ed and I showed up to the site of a long-staying Social Flycatcher, a bird typically found further south in Mexico and Central America, to see folks high-fiving after just seeing the bird. “Congratulations!” we said. “Where is it?” Their reply: “Oh, hmm, we just had it, but I guess it left.” No one saw which way it went, and no one was trying to find it again. We spent hours and hours at the spot but never saw the bird.

After the anticipation of waiting for a rare bird to show up, it’s natural to relax once you’ve seen it. But you must remember that everyone might not be on the bird and others may still be coming. Keeping a rarity in sight, or taking note of where it was last seen, is crucial to making a stakeout successful for everyone. 

Do: Keep Helpful eBird Notes

In a similar vein, it really helps to put as much information for subsequent seekers into eBird notes as you can. Daily or hourly eBird updates have become the best source for the latest information on rarities, and the comments people put into their checklists can be very helpful for anyone else going for the bird.

Be as detailed as possible. Where, exactly, was the bird?

Be as detailed as possible. Where, exactly, was the bird? Was it there when you left? Did it have any habits? Instead of, “It was in the trees on the edge of the field,” try, “It was last seen on the eastern edge of the field in the tall pine above the white fence.” It sounds annoying, I know, but this stuff is gold to a hopeful birder traveling from several states away.

Don’t: Be a Jerk

This is of course a lesson for all aspects of life, but it applies just as much at rarity stakeouts. Stay out of the road. Don’t get too close. (“Too close” means different things in different circumstances, but, in general, it means “affecting the bird’s behavior” or “much closer than other people are standing.”) If others are being quiet, you should be quiet, too, or take your conversation elsewhere. Be respectful of the person’s home if you find yourself at one. Above all, don’t ever trespass (seriously, never) or act against the wishes of the homeowner, rules of the park, etc. This might all sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people fail this basic rule. 

Do: Celebrate!
You’ve come all this way, you may as well enjoy it. If you got the bird, treat yourself to some Lifer Pie (if it’s a lifer), or Rare Bird Ice Cream (which I just made up). If you didn’t get the bird, console yourself with pie or ice cream anyway. Try a local spot in whatever town you’ve found yourself. Revel in the randomness of life that brought you away from your previous plans and to this new place. Enjoy it, because you might have to do some explaining when you get back home.