Last Saturday, Keenan Yakola was casting a line off Maine's Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge when something extraordinary caught his eye: a lone, spotted bird looking completely out of place on the rocky shoreline. Despite being a seasoned birder, he was mystified. “I am originally from Cape Cod and have spent a lot of time looking at shorebirds, and this bird immediately stuck out as something I never seen before.”
Being the Project Puffin supervisor on Seal Island, Yakola decided to get to the bottom of this "mystery bird." He proceeded to rearrange his research team’s schedule for the day, allowing them to work in obscure locations around the island and follow their new guest. Just as Yakola and his crew rounded the western tip, four birds flew up: three Ruddy Turnstones and an avian with a stout, unmistakable bill. Every eye stayed on the target until it descended on a new rock. Then, Yakola moved in closer.
“It wasn't until I was within 30 to 40 meters that I realized that the bird was a Great Knot—and in breeding plumage none the less! I knew that it was an incredibly rare experience and we were so lucky that at least four of the field crew members were able to get excellent looks,” Yakola says.
It seems that Great Knots have no business vacationing on the Maine islands. The species, which is considered globally endangered and is closely related to the native Red Knot, breeds in the northern reaches of Siberia and spend its summers in the heat of the Australian sun. This sighting was the first time a Great Knot was spotted on the East Coast; the next closest one was recorded in West Virginia in 2007. So how did this solo bird end up flying to the wrong side of the world?
Audubon's field editor Kenn Kaufman says that lots of shorebirds stray off their migratory patterns, taking refuge on little isles that dot the coast. “Offshore islands—if they're not too far offshore—tend to be really good places to find birds that have wandered out of range.” Kaufman points to the Farallon Islands of California as an example of a rare-species hangout. Uncommon avians from eastern North America, parts of California, and Asia have all made pit stops on the archipelago. Furthermore, many shorebird species, such as Great Knots, travel thousands of miles each year to get to their nesting sites. If they happen to get mixed up along the way, it’s not so strange for them to fly thousands more off course.
For all the birders who are drooling over this bit of news: Seal Island is one of the national wildlife refuges that aren't open to the public. Thankfully, there are hundreds of beaches across the country that are—who’s to say where the next rare shorebird will land.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the article previously said that the discovery was made on Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, which is separate from Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge.