My First 5

The ABA ranks species known to occur in North America north of Mexico by order of difficulty, 1-6. Most birds that regularly occur here are 1’s, which covers a lot of ground: everything from House Sparrow to Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, American Avocet to Willet. Some of the 1’s are actually quite difficult to find. Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Yellow-billed Cuckoo both gave me a lot of trouble for a couple of years, and I missed them repeatedly.

2’s cover some of the birds that are mostly isolated to small pockets of habitat within the continental United States and Canada. It also includes some pelagic species and a surprising number of owls. I only have a few of these including

  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Piping Plover
  • Mangrove Cuckoo
  • Dovekie
  • Roseate Tern
  • Iceland Gull
  • Boreal Owl
  • Short-eared owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Snowy Owl
  • Manx Shearwater
  • Monk Parakeet

3’s mostly cover regularly occurring vagrants. Some of these are actually easier to find than 2’s and even some ones. My 3’s include:

  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • Eurasian Wigeon
  • Whooper Swan

Lesser Black-backed Gull and Eurasian Wigeon show up regularly at multiple locations on the Atlantic Coast every year. A winter day in New York and New Jersey spent at known good gull and duck locations is more likely than not to find both of these.

4’s are extremely rarely occurring vagrants. Most of them seem to be Asian birds that have wandered into Alaska, Mexican birds that have overshot into Arizona, or Caribbean birds that got blown into Florida. We don’t get a lot of these as far north and east as New York. I don’t actually have any 4’s in the ABA area, though I have seen a few such as Great Spotted Woodpecker in other countries where they’re more common.

5’s are for vagrants with only a handful of records, maybe no more than a single individual. Many of the 5’s are represented in the ABA area by only a single record, though generally seen by multiple observers. And as of last month I now have exactly one 5:

  • Western Reef-Heron

The original record was from Martha’s Vineyard in the early 80s, and that was it until a couple of years ago when what is widely believed to be one individual began showing up at various locations along the Atlantic Coast, first in New Hampshire and Maine, and now in Brooklyn. It’s still being seen sporadically at Dreier-Offerman Park. Perhaps next year it will come again, or perhaps it won’t. If you want it go for it now (and allot a couple of days, sometimes it skips a day or two). It could be 20 years before we have another chance for this bird.

6’s are extinct. If you find a 6, call Cornell. The only 6 you’re remotely likely to encounter in the wild is California Condor. It doesn’t count for the list, because it’s a reintroduced species and its survival is still tenuous. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is also still listed as a 6, and sadly seems likely to stay that way, barring more conclusive evidence. And a few optimists are still holding out hope for Eskimo Curlew and even Bachman’s Warbler. However I’m afraid the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet are doomed to remain 6’s forever.

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