Ten Most Wanted

Ever wonder what species U.S. birders want to see most? Read the results of our informal survey.

07-12-2010 // NWF Staff
Atlantic puffin

Which species do U.S. birders most want to see? Here are the results of an informal survey conducted by the editors of National Wildlife:

1. Spectacled eider. This Alaskan species topped many bird-watchers’ lists, perhaps because of the male’s flashy breeding plumage: white "goggles" on a chartreuse head. But like some hard-core birders, this species also shrugs at tough conditions. While most birds are flying south, spectacled eiders head for the middle of the Bering Sea, wintering in openings in the sea ice.

2. Ross’s gull. When a vagrant Ross’s gull shows up in the Lower 48, as one did on Plum Island off Massachusetts several years ago, birders rush to see it. A High Arctic species, the bird has a circumpolar distribution, wintering above the Arctic Circle and rarely breeding farther south than northern Manitoba.

3. Ivory gull. The is another Far North species that the birders we questioned want to see. The world’s only pure white gull, it winters at the edge of pack ice in Arctic waters and breeds only in remote parts of northern Canada.

4. Gyrfalcon (white morph). Many birders also long to see a white morph of the gyrfalcon, a variety of the raptor that normally inhabits only parts of northern Canada and Greenland. When one of them showed up in the Lower 48 not long ago, Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He drove hundreds of miles from his home in Colorado to South Dakota to see the bird.

5. Snowy owl. The snowy owl, another white Arctic species, ranks high on many "must see" lists. The largest (or at least heaviest) North American owl, it flies south periodically into the Lower 48 during the cold months when food is in short supply. (Some respondents rated another northern owl, the great gray, ahead of the snowy on lists.)

6. Black-footed albatross. "For many birders, seeing your first albatross is a big deal," says Floyd. The world’s second largest population of the black-footed albatross breeds in remote Midway Atoll at the far northwestern end of the Hawaiian island chain. It is the only albatross that is seen regularly off the U.S. West Coast—but only if you venture out from the mainland 15 or 20 miles by boat.

7. White-tailed tropicbird. Most experienced birders lust for a glimpse of this bird, which comes ashore only briefly to nest on remote islands in the Caribbean and other tropical areas. “They’re just spectacular," says Floyd, "ghostly white with these incredible tail streamers." Your best bet to see one near the Lower 48 is to take a pelagic trip off the coasts of North Carolina or Florida.

8. Atlantic puffin. "Everyone loves puffins," says Linda McCauley, a board member at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Of the world’s four species, the Atlantic puffin is the easiest to see in this country, outside of Alaska. Colonies breed on islands off Maine.

9. Elegant trogon. The appeal of this bird is obvious: It’s a rare sight in the United States, and it has gorgeous plumage, which actually provides effective camouflage in the shady Arizona canyons that are its only U.S. hangout. Birders most often locate the species not by sight but by its croaking calls.

10. Ivory-billed woodpecker. Though the striking ivory-billed woodpecker had long been considered extinct, birders continued to hold out hope that they might see it. A few years ago, several alleged sightings of ivorybills in bottomland hardwood habitat in Arkansas became the talk of the birding world.

Our top ten list might not match your own. Other often-mentioned species include the whooping crane and Kirkland's warbler (both endangered); the greater roadrunner (for its cartoonlike appearance); the American dipper (for its odd behavior of slipping into streams and walking underwater); and Bachman’s warbler (like the ivorybill, thought to be extinct).

Adapted from "Ten Most Wanted" by Cynthia Berger, National Wildlife , June/July 2005

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