Thursday, August 6, 2015

Avian Vagrancy in the Great Lakes: Phainopepla

Brampton, Ontario. November 2009

Avian Vagrancy in the Great Lakes - a look at vagrant bird species that have occurred in and around the Great Lakes Basin. These notes look at the status and distribution of the species, identification, trends in occurrence, hypothesize on factors influencing their occurrence and what the future may hold for the species in the region.

This is not a complete account of all known records. Records have been retrieved from the following databases:

MOURC - Minnesota
WSORC - Wisconsin
IORC - Illinois
IBRC - Indiana
OBRC - Ohio
PORC - Pennsylvania
NYSARC - New York
OBRC - Ontario

I encourage birders to support their representative bird records committee. Having readily accessible records data allows people to rapidly research topics of interest or produce documents/products that others can learn from or expand upon. Having all databases uploaded to eBird may one day provide the most effective way to conduct these studies. If you know of additional records not found in these sources, please leave it in the comments section below. Additional species accounts on avian vagrancy in the great lakes region will continue.


Phainopepla - Phainopepla nitens

Three records:

December 1975 - Ontario 

27 December 1975 - 21 January 1976, Duttona Beach, Elgin. Photos. Male in first basic plumage.

Crins, W.J. 2006. Ontario Bird Records Committee report for 2005. Ontario Birds 24:54-74. Available online at

October 1993 - Wisconsin

31 October - 30 November 1993, Milwaukee, Milwaukee. Male. Photos.

Domagalski, R.C. 2001-2013. Wisconsin Rare Bird Records. 143pp. Available online at  

November 2009 - Ontario 

9 November 2009 - 9 February 2010, Brampton, Peel. Photos. Male in first prebasic molt. Specimen (skin) at the Royal Ontario Museum

Cranford, M.H. 2010. Ontario Bird Records Committee report for 2009. Ontario Birds 28:58-86. Available online at

The northernmost member of the Silky-Flycatcher family, the Phainopepla is an exceptional rarity to the Great Lakes region; being typically found in deserts and arid woodlands of the southwestern USA into Mexico. Vagrant individuals have likely traveled at least 1500-2000km from their core range to reach our region. The species shows seasonal movements both northwards and southwards, and is known to breed in two distinct habitats at different times of the year. It is generally not perceived as a long distance vagrant, yet a pattern is beginning to appear.

Distribution of Phainopepla records in the Great Lakes Basin.

Documentation: Identification of the Phainopepla is relatively straightforward. Few species show the black or sooty plumage, red eye, crest and distinctive structure. In flight, males show a vivid white flash in the primaries. Similar species do not occur in our region although they may be superficially similar to the Townsend's Solitaire or Northern Mockingbird in plumage and/or habits. Both melanistic and/or albinistic birds of other species could theoretically cause confusion if seen poorly or briefly. All records discussed here have been well photographed. 

Detection: The three records all fall in the late fall to early winter time period and all had extended stays once discovered. The 2009 record was monitored for several months before succumbing to the winter weather. The habitat of staying for extended periods may indicate that the species is truly an exceptional vagrant to our region given the paucity of records, as long staying birds may have greater odds of being detected. The Phainopepla's flashy and abnormal structure would surely draw the eye of the most casual birders, and their habit of feeding on ornamental berries would likewise bring it closer to human habitation. The three records may be a more accurate representation of occurrence in our region, relative to other vagrant bird species. 

Weekly detection and occurrence of the Phainopepla throughout the calendar year 

Factors of Occurrence: Initial dates of occurrence are 31 October, 9 November and 27 December. These fit the pattern of late fall vagrancy, potentially related to extratropical cyclones that occur in the region at this time. Historical weather data for the 1975 and 1993 observations have not been consulted. If the 1975 record were due to a powerful weather event, one could suspect that it had been in the region for weeks before its detection of a Christmas Bird Count. In 2009 a powerful extratropical low pressure system affected the region Nov 6-9th. A surface map is reproduced below form from Nov 7th at 1200UTC (0800 EST) showing a powerful 980mb low pressure centre over northern Manitoba and powerful and far-reaching southwesterly winds from the south-central USA. This event also brought a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher to nearby Oakville, Ontario on 6 November 2009, barely 30km from the Phainopepla. This gives credence to the idea that these birds were displaced hundreds of kilometers in relatively little time, potentially even in one prolonged flight. Additional factors such as local weather (eg,/ drought) and local breeding success have not been researched for this account.

Surface Map via NOAA NWS - 7 November 2009 at 1200UTC

Future records: A species that may have a high detection rate, yet limited records would indicate that active birders should have little expectation of finding such a rarity at any time in the region. Searching after periods of far-reaching southerly or southwesterly winds in May, October or November would increase your chances for this or other vagrant species. 

The Phainopepla is surely one of the most thrilling vagrants to have occurred in the Great Lakes. Being the only representative of its genus here, it combines striking features with great rarity. The three records discussed; all been accommodating to local birders with prolonged stays. One can presume that additional records of the species will occur in time if their vagrancy is correlated to powerful weather systems in the late fall. It will be interesting to see if any future records occur in other seasons, primarily spring (late April to early June). I would like to thank those that continue to document unusual bird observations, which were invaluable in creating this account. If you know of any additional records, references or new thoughts on the status of the Phainopepla in the Great Lakes, please leave it in the comments below. This account can and will be updated going forwards. 

Brampton, Ontario. November 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment