A tropical wanderer visits the Midwest

Photo © Nathan Goldberg, taken in St. Joseph, Berrien Co., Michigan, on 11 July 2015.

I was riding south on the lakefront bike path, like I do most mornings, on my way to the museum. It was a lovely morning, cool, overcast, and with a nice tailwind. I passed the construction fence at Fullerton Avenue and glanced towards the water, as I do frequently during my ride. Then I nearly fell off my bike. A frigatebird was flying over!

Frigatebirds are big tropical seabirds, instantly recognizable by their huge size, long wings, and long, forked tail. They don't belong in the Great Lakes, or anywhere, really, away from the warm saltwater environs--think of places you'd like to go in winter to lay on the beach (and see the range map below). I knew the significance, so I ditched my bike in the sand and immediately reached for my phone to try to get a picture. I sent a quick email to the Illinois birding list (subject: FRIGATEBIRD heading north over Lincoln Park!!), in case anybody could get to the lakefront to the north of Fullerton and catch the bird as it cruised past.  As it got farther away, I pulled my binoculars out of my backpack, and although it was distant at this point I could see some white on the underparts, indicating it was a female or immature.

In a bit of a daze, I got on my bike, continuing my morning commute. I realized I probably should have tried to follow the bird north--the lakefront bike path providing easy access to this stretch of lakefront--but by this time it was too late. Self-doubt started creeping into my mind--had I really just seen a frigatebird? It's just so improbable, even though it's something that's crossed my mind many times as I rode my bike along the lake. Seabirds like frigatebirds tend to show up inland after being carried there by big storms, but I couldn't think of any recent tropical storms that would have blown it off course. Maybe, just maybe, somebody else would see it, farther north in Illinois, or even in Wisconsin. It didn't take long for word to spread among birders in the other states surrounding Lake Michigan, so birders in those areas would be on the lookout. 

By Thursday night, two full days after my Wednesday morning sighting, there had been no further reports. Maybe it died, I thought, being so far removed from its natural environment, or maybe it's hanging out far from birders' prying eyes. I woke up Friday morning, checked my email as I got ready for work, and saw a message forwarded to me by Amar Ayyash from the Berrien County, Michigan, birding list. The subject of the email was "Possible Frigatebird at St. Joe."

Could it be? I knew that the last time a frigatebird was seen on Lake Michigan, in 2010, it spent several days in St. Joseph (often shortened to St. Joe) around the mouth of the St. Joseph River in Berrien County, the state's closest county to Illinois. The message was enough to pique the interest of at least one local birder, Tim Baerwald, who went out to investigate and sure enough, he found a frigatebird flying over St. Joe! He immediately posted his sightings, with a blurry, distant, but identifiable photo to the Great Lakes Birding group on Facebook. I could hardly believe it, the very frigatebird that I had seen in Chicago had flown across the lake and had been refound in Michigan! Tim talked to local fishermen who indicated the bird had been there since the previous day, Thursday, the day after I saw it flying up the Chicago lakefront. Incredible.

 

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The Facebook post announcing that the frigatebird that I saw two days earlier in Chicago had been refound across the lake in Michigan.

The bird was last seen in Michigan on the morning of Sunday, 12 July. During its four-day stay, it was seen by dozens of birders, many of whom got excellent pictures that helped identify the bird as Magnificent Frigatebird ( Fregata  magnificens), the most expected of the  five species of frigatebirds to be seen in inland North America. It was very gratifying to know both that others got to see it and that it was able to be conclusively identified to species, since from my views I could tell it was a frigatebird, but not which one. I've been glancing at the lake a little more frequently during my commute over the last week just in case it comes back for another visit!

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The normal range of Magnificent Frigatebird is coastal areas with warm water on both coasts of the Americas. The map is from the IUCN (http://maps.iucnredlist.org/). 

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Could the frigatebird have gotten caught in Tropical Storm Bill, carrying it inland? If so, it would have been inland for nearly three weeks before being seen. Graphic from weather.com.

Check out this brief video of the frigatebird flying by Nathan DeBruine, taken in St. Joseph, Michigan, on 11 July 2015.