Kingbirds, eBird, and the Quest for Knowledge
Somehow, the Couch’s Kingbird is still there. Or was as of yesterday, according to the New York birding list serv. Given that a lively discussion of its chances (and those of the Cassin’s Kingbird – unreported since Sunday the 4th) had broken out on the self-same list serv in light of our recent chilly weather, I got to wondering what we actually know about vagrant flycatchers in snowy climes.
The vast majority of eBird records of vagrant kingbirds in New York are, unsurprisingly, fall birds. They start in September, peak in October and November, and some hang around through December, but there are no January records of Cassin’s, Gray, or Western Kingbirds until this year. (I checked Scissor-tailed Flycatcher as well and the same held, although that species did have a handful of summer records that the kingbirds lacked.)
Of course, half of getting information out of any data set is knowing what questions to ask. You have to switch from a species search to a site-specific search, for instance, to be sure that the Cassin’s was searched for but not found after the fourth, as opposed to not being seen because seriously, who was going to go out to Floyd Bennett in that weather. And unless predation was witnessed and recorded, or a specimen was turned in to a museum, you can’t truly know if a bird died or moved on to less frigid pastures. But whatever they’re doing, up until now they were doing it before Christmas.
It was about this time I started asking myself ‘what is truth?’ all philosophical like and went looking for literature. What I found was often interesting in ways I couldn’t imagine and they both confirmed and expanded my findings. Historically, you don’t see vagrant kingbirds in New York in January. You do, however, see them in January in places like Florida and North Carolina.
Is this a glitch, then, or part of a larger trend of later, lost-er, more lingering kingbirds? Obviously, one year cannot tell us. But with so much of birding being dependent on knowing when, as well as where, to look for things, it seems worth finding out.
Images courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Western Kingbird by Gary Kramer; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the snow by Robert Burton