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Rare Birds of North America: The book, and what is a rare bird?

Steve N. G. Howell

After becoming familiar with the commoner and regular bird species in your local area, you often start to recognize what is rare there, and when. With trips farther afield your scope widens, and you come to recognize what birds are rare in your county or region. Thus, sooner or later, most birders develop an interest in rare birds, be it an appreciation for local rarities or an obsession that involves flying across the country to see a species never before recorded.

While several books in Europe have been dedicated to rare and vagrant birds, no comparable work has existed for North America. Following the success of Rare Birds of Britain and Europe (Lewington et al. 1991), the publisher of that book approached Ian Lewington about a similar project for North America, but for a variety of reasons it never got off the ground. The founder and managing director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, Will Russell, has had a lifelong interest in migration and vagrancy in North America, and for many years had contemplated writing a book on this subject. When Will’s time finally opened enough up to make this possible he contacted world-renowned bird illustrator Ian Lewington and me (for my seabird and neotropical experience) about collaborating on the project.

A contract with Princeton University Press was signed early in 2003, with a planned delivery date of the book materials in December 2006… Many hours at the keyboard, plus untold hours at the drawing board for Ian, finally culminated in a manuscript and plates being delivered in December 2012 (do the math!), and we greatly appreciate the understanding of our editor, Robert Kirk – who, fortunately, is a keen birder. The printer, apparently, is not a keen birder; we, like others, have been told publication was first intended for October 2013, then December, then February 2014 – which is now, and apparently the book is available although this author has yet to actually see a copy! (Warning to would-be authors: When you plan a book, no matter how carefully and realistically, it always takes at least twice as long as any initial estimate! And that’s before it goes to the printer.)

Although the writing and illustrating of Rare Birds of North America has taken “only” 10 years, the conception and the fermentation of thoughts needed to produce the book have spanned many decades of collective experience among all three authors. Our goal has been to summarize patterns of occurrence for species that are truly rare in North America as a whole, to discuss vectors and patterns of vagrancy, and to offer criteria for field identification, with amazing color plates by Ian.

Siberian Blue Robin plate (Ian Lewington) from Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington and Russell

What is a Rare Bird?

Not surprisingly, defining a “rare bird” proved to be a challenge – there is an intuitive component that may elude statistical quantification, and what’s “rare” today may be “common” tomorrow. For our purposes, we include species for which, on average, only 5 or fewer individuals have been found annually in North America since around 1950, when birding and field ornithology started to become popular.

Inevitably, our analyses are skewed towards the “modern era” – meaning since the late 1970s, when field birding and documentation capability expanded rapidly throughout North America. This bias may have led us to ignore species that passed our statistical criteria across the whole period, but which have become too “common” beginning at least in the 1990s. The change from “rare” to “not rare” may be real, as with Barnacle Goose, Muscovy Duck, and Black-capped Gnatcatcher, all of which are expanding their ranges. Conversely, the apparent change may simply reflect increased coverage of areas previously not well known, as with Murphy’s Petrel, Fea’s Petrel, and White-tailed Tropicbird in offshore waters.

The emphasis has been on migratory species, and thus we have omitted a few species that today might qualify as rare but which seem to be simply expanding and contracting their ranges at the edges of the region, as with Buff-collared Nightjar, Tamaulipas Crow, and Brown Jay along the Mexican border. Conversely, we have included a few species that are borderline statistically, but which present interesting identification or distribution issues, such as Garganey, Green Violetear, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Other borderline species, such as American Flamingo, Ruddy Ground Dove, and Brambling, are not included – we had to draw a line somewhere.

One goal of the book is to examine processes and patterns of vagrancy, rather than to enumerate and evaluate every single record. Thus our inclusion of a few controversial species does not mean that we “accept” them as valid vagrants, simply that we consider wild occurrence plausible and worthy of discussion, as for Ruddy Shelduck, Demoiselle Crane, and Red-legged Honeycreeper, among others. We have evaluated evidence and presented cases, and others can form their own opinions.

OK, to balance out all this writing, here are a few more of the amazing plates by by Ian Lewington, to whet your appetite for getting out there in the field, where you never know what you might see… More of Ian’s images from Rare Birds, and some of his other work can be viewed by viewing under “original artwork” at:

White-faced Whistling Duck plate (Ian Lewington) from Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington and Russell
Oriental Cuckoo plate (Ian Lewington) from Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington and Russell
Common Cuckoo plate (Ian Lewington) from Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington and Russell

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