Flamingo Fever, Limpkins on the Loose, ‘Mega’ Rare Terns—the Biggest Bird Events of 2023

Birding highlights of a remarkable year included three U.S. firsts, a surprisingly happening Midwest, and, of course, flamingos everywhere!
Three flamingos wade in shallow blue water among plants.
American Flamingos in Florida after Hurricane Idalia. Photo: Matthew Paulson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For many birders across the United States, 2023 was as good as it gets. Rarities turned up around the country, from a spate of Roseate Spoonbills in northern states to a Red-footed Booby more than 100 miles inland in North Carolina. An Anhinga and a Black-chinned Hummingbird took a bite out of the Big Apple, while an arctic-dwelling Ross’s Gull swung south to see Chicago. Some of this year’s surprising sightings fit into well-documented trends, like the ongoing Limpkin expansion (more on that below!) or the northern wandering of South American species in El Niño years, like the United States’ first recorded Gray Gull (also below!). Others are outliers that mysteriously just popped up to surprise ornithologists and birders alike—exciting reminders that no matter where you live, you never know what you might find right outside your door.

As we prepare to welcome a new year, revisit some of the most exciting sightings and birdiest moments of the past twelve months.

SoCal’s Snowy Owl

Southern Californians rang in 2023 with a truly unexpected guest: a Snowy Owl. The arctic species can often be found during the winter in northern states and throughout the Northeast—especially during irruption years—but are exceedingly rare so far south. The bird was first spotted in the area in mid-November 2022 and quickly caused a stir. Hypothesized to be a young female who dramatically overshot her first migration south (though some suspected an escape or release from captivity was more likely), the striking owl settled in an Orange County suburb, just south of Los Angeles, for several weeks before flying off in late January.

Return of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

Scientists estimate there are only around 4,000 Steller’s Sea-Eagles in the world. If you want to catch of glimpse of the massive raptor (females can weigh up to 15 pounds with an 8-foot wingspan), you’ll have to travel to coastal Siberia, Korea, or northern Japan. Or you might try New England. In the summer of 2020, a single sea-eagle crossed the Bering Sea to Alaska and spent the next year winging east (likely even detouring to Texas). After hitting the east coast, the traveler settled down for three months in Maine, drawing crowds and towering over the local Bald Eagles, before heading north into Canada. To birders’ delight, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle returned to Maine in February 2023. Could the visits become an annual event? It seems possible: The famous vagrant, last seen in Canada, appears to be sticking around on the east coast.

Flamingo Frenzy

Arguably the biggest bird event of the year, a “Pink Wave” spread across the United States this September as American Flamingos blown astray by Hurricane Idalia showed up in surprising places. Dozens of the iconic waders landed in Florida, where they were once a fixture but have not had a breeding population since the 19th century. The leggy pink birds also turned up far outside their historic stomping grounds. Flamingos appeared in at least a dozen states, including a flock of 11 in North Carolina and five in Tennessee. Several states had their first-ever recorded appearance of the birds, including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. While most of the storm-blown birds have returned south, some have stuck around Florida, raising hopes for the flamingo’s reestablishment.

March of the Limpkins

Although they garnered fewer headlines, another tropical species also popped up in unlikely locales. This one, though, appears to be continuing what bird experts believe to be an ongoing range expansion. Limpkins hail, historically, from the neotropics, but for the last several years these brown wetland birds with mottled plumage have been edging northward, perhaps following the spread of the invasive apple snail they favor. This year brought sightings in Colorado, New Jersey, and even Nova Scotia, Canada.

A tanager touches down

There’s a strong case to be made that the most exciting place to bird in 2023 was…Wisconsin! The state hosted the aforementioned flamingos and Limpkins along with rarities like a Painted Redstart and a Band-tailed Pigeon. But among the biggest surprises was a sunny yellow female Flame-colored Tanager that arrived in May, a first for the state and far north of any previous U.S. sightings of the fiery hued songbird, which typically ranges in Mexico and Central America.

Tern gets top billing in Florida

Large-billed Terns—and their truly astounding, must-be-seen-to-be-believed oversize yellow bills—had been spotted in the United States just three times before this year, and the last sighting was in 1988. That made it all the more remarkable that not one but two Large-billed Terns were spotted in different Florida counties on the first of June, far from their South American home. At least one of the birds decided to extend the vacation, with sightings continuing into December.

A Gray Gull in the Sunshine State

Just three months after the Large-billed Terns visited Florida, another South American rover came calling. A Gray Gull scored some beach time in the Florida Panhandle, apparently holding its own amid a crowd of squabbling Laughing Gulls. The seabird breeds in the Chilean high desert and spends the rest of the year on the west coast of South America; the Florida jaunt marked the species’ first recorded appearance in the United States. Gull experts have suggested that northward wandering is especially likely in El Niño years like 2023.

One very lost auk

Murrelets—relatives of puffins, Dovekies, and, yes, murres—raise their young largely at sea. The youngest Ancient Murrelets take to the waves as soon as one day after hatching and spend most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean. Even so, the species is a regular vagrant in the interior of the country, though the arrival of one particularly out-of-place individual in Tennessee this fall caused a stir. The murrelet stayed put on a Chattanooga lake for more than a week, charming birders who came to admire the auk.

Irruption from the western pines

This year saw a trio of pine forest dwellers roaming far beyond their usual high-altitude haunts in the western mountains. Likely due to poor pine seed crops, irruptions of Pinyon Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Pygmy Nuthatches led to sightings throughout the United State and Canada. Most notably, a flock of Pinyon Jays appeared in low-lying Los Angeles, while Clark’s Nutcrackers were seen in the Nevada desert, Texas mountains, and that 2023 birding hotspot: Wisconsin. Of the three, the Pygmy Nuthatch is the least likely to rove too far—but one especially intrepid individual made its way to Saskatchewan.

A southern neighbor’s first visit

The Blue-black Grassquit is a common species in its home range from northern Argentina to Mexico, even breeding a mere 300 miles south of the U.S. border. And yet the small songbird had never been seen in the United States—until this year, when an inky black male visited southern Arizona.

A big week in Texas

Not to be outdone by the grassquit, another first-time visitor to the United States. landed this fall in Corpus Christi, Texas. Until it was spotted downtown, eating its fill of local insects, a Cattle Tyrant had never been seen north of Panama. The perky flycatcher drew crowds, treating birders to views of its bright yellow belly and even a glimpse of the typically concealed scarlet patch on its crown. But that was just the pièce de résistance of a whirlwind week of Texas birding, particularly along the Mexico border: Days before a Texan birder spied a Bare-throated Tiger Heron—only the third time the species has been seen in the country—and two Roadside Hawks were spotted about 50 miles apart. Common in much of the Neotropics, the raptor had not been seen north of Mexico for the past five years.

Mystery migrant

Slipping just under the wire of a remarkable year of rare sightings, one more extraordinary vagrant sent birders racing to New Jersey this December. Red-flanked Bluetails are known to undertake long migrations, but their travels typically take them from their winter range in East and Southeast Asia to breeding grounds that stretch from Japan across Siberia and into Finland. The Old World flycatcher has reached the United States before but never further east than Wyoming. Its sudden, shocking arrival in the Garden State left birders wondering whether the traveler had flown over the North Atlantic (maybe even hitching a ride on a ship) or crossed the continent. We’ll never know, but that didn’t diminish the wonder for its many admirers who made their own sojourn to New Jersey to watch the small bird flit through the leaves and bob its distinctive blue tail.