Spring is upon us and many birds are migrating north for the breeding season. Along with our usual migrants, a few wayward vagrants will fly off course, either as overshoots (literally flying too far north) or misguided (perhaps misdirected by a strong tail wind) and those birds can cause quite the stir (bird puns intentionally omitted) in the birding world. That happened yesterday when a Vermilion Flycatcher showed up in Bremen, although the story of its finding was almost as unusual as this desert-loving flycatcher showing up in coastal Maine.
The Vermilion Flycatcher in Maine was first spotted by a camera operator in Germany. Yes, you read that right. On Explore.org, you can watch Ospreys nesting in Bremen, one on Hog Island and one on the mainland boat house. It was on Monday (17 April 2017) morning when one of the camera operators, based in Germany, noticed a bright red bird and thankfully took the following recording:
Juanita Roushdy, President of the Friends of Hog Island, Board Member of both Maine Audubon and our Midcoast Chapter (thank you for all you do, Juanita!) was quick to get the word out, posting this sighting on the Maine-birds listserv. This is when I clocked out and hit the road, just after posting this tweet (spelling vermilion wrong in my haste) to help get the word out:
— Doug Hitchcox (@dhitchcox) April 17, 2017
Upon arriving in Bremen, there was an unfortunately thick fog that had rolled in and completely blocked the view of Hog Island. It took nearly an hour for the wind to clear the fog; in that time, I tallied around 25 bird species at the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary, and found my first Garter Snake of the year.
Amazingly, once the fog cleared…from across the water (about 1,260 feet away according to Google Maps)…sitting on one of the buildings on Hog Island…was the VERMILION FLYCATCHER!
There were a lucky few birders that also managed to ‘drop everything’ and make it up later that afternoon. We watched the bird foraging, chasing insects from the rooftops for a couple hours, before it disappeared shortly before 5:00pm. Unfortunately (as of 2:00pm on 18 April), the flycatcher has not been relocated. Any updates will be posted on the Maine-birds Listserv or eBird’s Maine Rare Bird Alert.
Despite the headlines asserting “this is Maine’s first Vermilion Flycatcher,” there are of course always complexities. Below you can find a great write-up provided by Louis Bevier regarding a previous ‘hypothetical’ record from Maine — and a thought on why this might not even be a Vermilion Flycatcher:
The Hog Island Vermilion Flycatcher is catching a lot of buzz (http://www.audubon.org/news/maines-first-verified-vermilion-flycatcher-captured-live-hog-island-web-cam). The title of that Audubon news article has evolved over the course of the morning, playing with how to modify “first.” This is the first verifiable record for Maine, but there is a report that has long been regarded as hypothetical (published that way by Vickery et al. 1994, Checklist of Maine Birds) and listed under that category by the Maine Bird Records Committee since 2005. The ME-BRC has never reviewed the report. What is hypothetical? Well, in bird circles it is a plausible report lacking corroboration. Usually these are mere mentions of species without details or sight records lacking evidence that can be independently verified (e.g. photo or audio recording).
The previous Maine report is a sight record with a description that sounds fairly convincing–9 May 1994, an “adult male” on Isle au Haut, Knox Co. Details were published in Maine Bird Notes 7(2): 32-33, 1994. Copies of Maine Bird Notes are available on the ME-BRC website, and the issue with the old Vermilion report can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/msgx454
Nearly all vagrant records of this species to the Northeast are fall, and this pattern may have influenced the decision to regard this older record as hypothetical apart from the fact that it was only sight report. A sample of previous records in the Northeast (as of 1992, when I did a compilation of records for Connecticut) are: Pelham, MA, 12 Aug 1959 (AFN 16:13); Blandford, MA, 23 Jul 1961 (AFN 16:13); Barnstable, MA, 7 Oct 1962 (AFN 16:10); Jones Beach, LI., NY, 24 Sep 1987 (AB 42:51).
Including the current record and, tentatively, the Isle au Haut bird, there are three spring records in the Northeast, with the third from Delaware–Burtons Island, near Indian River Inlet, 2 and 5 May 1993, an “adult male” that was photographed (see Hess et al., Birds of Delaware, 2000). The conundrum: The migratory Austral breeding populations of Vermilion Flycatcher, nominate P. r. rubinus, would be in fall migration now and headed north to northern South America where they “winter.” Overshoots of Austral migrants is a pattern we have seen for other species. Could spring records involve these populations? These Austral birds have different songs and vocalizations from the North American (mexicanus group) birds but otherwise look very similar. Identification of males in the field or from photographs is unexplored territory. The southern South American birds have long wings, typical of migratory birds in general, and the Hog Island bird shows long primary projection. That said, long wings are a character of the migratory North American birds too. On top of all this, recent genetic work suggests nominate rubinus is distinct and perhaps worthy of species recognition (Carmi et al., 2016, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 102:152-173). If split, we could potentially end up being able to add only a “slash” to the state list (mexicanus/rubinus).Whether any of the Northeast spring records are of South American origin is unknown. North American (mexicanus group) Vermilion Flycatchers are found as vagrants in spring, but well to our west. The coincident appearance of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Washington Co. now, may suggest that the Hog Island bird is “merely” of Southwest origin.-Louis Bevier