One Last Time: Still More Wandering Birds

Do you remember Pink Floyd, the flamingo who spends his winters by the Great Salt Lake in Utah? (See "A Flamingo Flies the Coop to Fame," Jan. 6 Monitor, Page 16, and "More Birds in Odd Places," Jan. 27, Page 17.) The story generated several letters. Monitor reader David Cavagnaro of Decorah, Iowa, recently sent us the photograph above, and we couldn't resist.

All kidding aside, though, the subject of finding extraordinary birds in ordinary places (or vice versa) is a fascinating one. Put yourself in the bird's position: What if you went for a routine walk or drive and ended up hundreds or even thousands of miles off course?

Pink Floyd escaped from captivity. So he's not truly what ornithologists call a "vagrant" (a bird that flies or is blown way off course from its native habitat). Another pink flamingo recently showed up in, of all places, the Dongting Lake Nature Preserve in China's Hunan province.

Wildlife officials can't figure out where that bird came from, but he's about a continent away from where he should be.

While Pink Floyd provides a bit of seasonal color in Salt Lake City, birds that are truly vagrant generate a wider flutter of activity among birders and ornithologists. According to Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, the sighting of a vagrant bird can have a profound ripple effect. Mr. Thompson calls it "the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect."

As Thompson explains in his recent "Bird Watching for Dummies," the name harks back to an incident in the 1960s. A fellow saw a rare bird near Patagonia, Ariz., at a roadside rest stop that had a picnic table. He reported his find, and soon many other birders came to look. And as the number of observers grew, so did the number of "vagrants" they reported. It makes sense: The more people watch, the more they'll see.

Most birders watch from land. But there are 300 or so members of the North Sea Bird Club. They work on ships and oil platforms in the North Sea. The oil platforms are 60 or more miles off the coast of Great Britain. Among other unusual birds, club members have spotted a great spotted woodpecker, Canada geese, and a Siberian thrush.

The sightings are but a drop in the birding bucket. If you can, take a look at some of the many birdwatching sites on the World Wide Web.

You, too, can report rare bird sightings via these Web sites sponsored by bird-watching organizations. There's a ton of them out there, in every corner of the globe. One can discover, for instance, that a pink-footed shearwater (first sighting) and a brown booby (second sighting) were seen in the United Arab Emirates last year. And, in Oman, a first sighting of a Sykes's nightjar.

AS it turns out, there are lots of birds to see. Some 800 known species of birds live in North American. But that's less than 1/12th of the known birds worldwide (more than 9,700). And their numbers continue to grow!

New species may be found in remote areas in the tropics. New species are also announced when it is determined that look-alike birds (chickadees from Louisiana and Ohio, for instance) are genetically distinct. It is controversial to declare a "new species" this way, Thompson says, but splitting species geographically according to their DNA is increasingly the trend.

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