This April, a Great Egret was spotted hanging around a suburban pond in Spruce Grove. For a species rarely seen far north of the American border, this was noteworthy. And it’s not the only out-of-place bird spotted this year. In May, reports of a Sabine’s Gull, a species that breeds in the arctic and winters along the Pacific coast, came in from Calgary. Flocks of another arctic breeder that normally just passes through, the Red-necked Phalarope, were seen in a marsh just north of St. Albert. These are a few examples from this spring alone.
Year after year, birds from other parts of the world end up being seen in Alberta. It’s exciting for local birdwatchers, who take advantage of the opportunity to see a foreign species without going far from home. In 2021 I reported a highly rare Pacific Golden Plover near Grande Prairie, and birders from as far as Calgary made the 7-hour drive to see it.
Rare birds accidentally end up in Alberta for a variety of reasons. “Typically, it’s because they’re caught up in a storm system, show a pattern of vagrancy as a species or they’re young birds who aren’t quite wired right,” said Alberta birdwatching expert Ethan Denton.
Every year a few Eurasian Wigeon ducks end up on this side of the world. Last spring a wayward Garganey duck drew birdwatchers out to the pastures south of Tofield. And Bramblings and Ruffs come through from time to time.
“These birds were likely brought across the Bering Strait by weather,” said Denton, “and unwittingly followed their typical migration pattern on the wrong continent. But others have a better chance of showing up here in small numbers: the Red-headed Woodpecker, Black Scoter and Northern Cardinal can be expected each year."
Other birds, while not unheard of in Alberta, show up less often. Many of these are species from the southern United States that wander northward. “Snowy Egrets, White-winged Doves, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are usually found once every 2-5 years,” he said.
There are a few ways for Alberta birdwatchers to see a rare bird for themselves. If you spend enough time birdwatching, get to know the ‘expected’ birds in your area, and pay close attention to every species you see. With a lot of luck and patience you might just spot a rarity. It helps to check places where birds tend to congregate like wetlands or feeders, especially on major migration routes.
It’s a good idea to double-check your rare bird identification with a field guide, and if you can get a decent photo that shows the distinctive field marks of the species, all the better. You can show that to experts to corroborate your sighting.
Reporting your sighting is a great way to help scientists who study these sorts of things. Many birders use the online database eBird to keep track of and report their sightings, which can then be used by ornithologists to study bird distribution data. The Royal Alberta Museum also keeps an official list of species seen in the province, and reports of rare bird sightings in Alberta can be submitted to them too.
A slightly more reliable way to see a rare bird is to follow up on other people’s reported sightings. You can sign up to receive rare bird alert emails from eBird, which tells you all the rare species recently seen in the province and where they were found. Pick a species you want to see, head to the given location, and try to spot it for yourself.
It doesn’t come with the distinction of being the first to see the bird, and sometimes you show up at the spot and the bird isn’t even there anymore, but at least it’s a good excuse for another outdoor adventure. That’s half the fun of birdwatching, anyway.
Nick Carter is an Edmonton-based photographer and naturalist. See more at naturenickphotography.com.