Flamingo with the Flow

There are few animals on Earth as universally recognizable as a flamingo. Beloved the world over for their vibrant pink plumage, these leggy, long-necked waterbirds are delightfully contradictory creatures. They somehow occupy the precise intersection of elegance and oddity, equal parts gangly and graceful, with their dramatically attenuated proportions and bizarrely bent bills. Despite their association in popular culture with idyllic tropical lagoons, many species of flamingos are most at home in extreme environments like high elevation salt pans or caustic soda lakes. The iconic likeness of these wacky waders is frequently utilized for cartoons, beach apparel, and suburban lawn ornaments, but the birds themselves have always been a rare and highly sought-after prize for birders in the ABA Area. In recent weeks, however, flamingo fans across the nation have been presented with a unique opportunity to learn more about the fascinating ecology of these famous fowl through firsthand observation. 

The core range of the American Flamingo is centered around the Caribbean Sea, encompassing a wide array of aquatic habitats from Mexico to Venezuela. The species was formerly reported to occur in impressive congregations in southern Florida, and there are even historical accounts of breeding colonies in the Keys. These populations apparently never fully recovered from the exploitative hunting of the feather trade, and for much of the modern birding era nearly all observations in the United States were attributed to escapees from captive flocks at zoos and resorts. Although the frequency of sightings has increased somewhat in the past few decades, accepted records of genuine wild flamingos are limited to occasional flocks visiting the more isolated reaches of their ancestral Floridian strongholds and scattered solitary vagrants further north. Seeing this bird in the States generally requires a fair bit of effort, which is only fitting for such a desirable and striking species.

When Hurricane Idalia made landfall along the Gulf Coast of Florida on August 30th, local birders were surprised to discover that the fearsome tempest had blown in a multitude of wayward American Flamingos alongside the more typical, expected storm waifs like Sooty and Bridled Terns. Tallying up the initial reports in the immediate aftermath hinted at the remarkable breadth and magnitude of this incursion, with dozens of birds documented all across the state. On September 1st, the developing saga suddenly took a shocking turn when a pair of flamingos appeared at a lakefront park in Ohio, of all places. In an instant, the birding world lost its collective mind. If flamingos had been displaced so far afield, where else might they be hiding? As if to drive the point home, this earth-shattering record was promptly followed by a sighting in South Carolina a few hours later. What seemed at first to be a Florida-centric curiosity swiftly turned into a continent-wide scavenger hunt. Over the next several days, additional observations of the rosy-feathered rarities trickled in from new states at a steady rate. A large flock in North Carolina, a small group in Tennessee, a trio in Alabama, a loner in Kentucky, and on and on it went. What’s more, individuals at multiple sites were noted to be banded, which confirmed that the birds associated with this influx evidently originated at the large breeding colonies on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Flamingos from this population are known to disperse across the Caribbean to Cuba, and Idalia’s path up the Gulf was well-positioned to drive birds northwards in unprecedented numbers. Flamingo fever was sweeping the nation on a scale hitherto undreamt of! 

Like many birders, I found myself stricken with a powerful and unshakable case of FOMOOF: fear of missing out on flamingos. A busy schedule for the first weekend of September kept me from actively joining the search effort in my home state, so I was stuck hoping for a shot at following up on someone else’s find. I instated a no-questions-asked Code Pink bugout plan with my loved ones, explaining that there would be no force in the universe that could hold me back if these famously charismatic birds were to show up within easy striking distance. My only prior experience with the flamingo family in the wild was with the flocks of Greater Flamingos I observed in Spain back in 2018, and I had narrowly missed out on a handful of opportunities to meet our own American variety around the Caribbean over the years. I hoped against hope that I’d get a chance to chase before the end of summer break, but unfortunately all of the incoming reports remained out of reach. I did, however, manage to secure a thematically appropriate consolation prize when I connected with a Roseate Spoonbill on Long Island on the last day before I went back to work. This was only my second ever sighting of this species in New York State, and it was a welcome first encounter for Jacqi to add to her steadily growing life list. As a matter of fact, she spotted the bird even before I did, within seconds of our arrival at the site! This pleasingly pastel visitor made for a fine finale to my vacation, but I still found my daydreams drifting to flights of flamingo fancy as I returned to the classroom for a new schoolyear.  

On September 7th, my birthday, the birding fates saw fit to deliver a most wonderful present: news of a fresh sighting soundly inside my established chase radius. While I was busy welcoming my students for the first day of classes, a pair of flamingos was discovered at an unassuming farm pond in rural Pennsylvania, just a few hours drive from New York City. This report made for a whopping 10 states hosting American Flamingo in the wake of Idalia, and it marked a new northernmost record for confirmed wild vagrants of the species. As much as I wanted to drop everything and head out to search for the birds immediately, I knew that I had some crucial obligations to tend to first. Delaying my departure until the weekend helped to keep my work schedule on track, and it also allowed me to host NYC Audubon’s Trivia Night with the Young Conservationist Council as originally planned. Presenting this perennially popular event alongside my friends made for a pretty fantastic birthday evening, and my whole family came out to show their support as well. I even wore my salmon-colored shorts and a tropical-print shirt in celebration of the ongoing national birding phenomenon. As it happens, I was wearing the exact same shirt, which features a few flamingos amidst the pattern of palm trees and beach chairs, when I proposed to Jacqi out at Montauk earlier this year. Perhaps my choice of attire was an auspicious sign all along!

I coordinated my plans for the twitch with Ryan Mandelbaum, hoping for a repeat of our resounding success with the Steller’s Sea-Eagle chase in January 2022. I floated the offer of an air mattress sleepover for Friday night to streamline our predawn departure, which helped us to work around traffic and get on the road quickly and painlessly. Clad in a ceremonial bright pink shirt, I took the helm and set out for the Keystone State in the wee hours of Saturday the 9th. The long drive out to Franklin County certainly passed more easily with a steady stream of quality conversation and birding podcasts, and we managed to make it to the stakeout site on Long Lane a few minutes ahead of sunrise. As soon as we pulled up, we spied a distinctly pink pair of sinuous silhouettes patrolling the shallows of a tiny, unremarkable pool. It was honestly hard to believe that the outlandish scene that lay before me wasn’t some sort of ridiculous dream. Who expects to see their lifer American Flamingo deep in Pennsylvania farm country?! But the were birds were real, and they were spectacular.

Ryan and I were among the first birders to arrive on the scene, but it didn’t take long for a crowd of admirers to assemble as the sun slowly peeked above the horizon. We were joined by a number of friends over the course of the morning, including Brendan, who also made the long trek west from New York, and Anne, who was able to squeeze in a quick visit before returning to Philadelphia for her afternoon appointments. We were delighted to finally meet Alejandra, a Pennsylvania birder who has made invaluable contributions to the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas, for the first time in person. The most surprising addition to the crew was Ryan Stuckey, my sister Kate’s boyfriend, who adjusted his route from DC to Long Island to include a detour for his first-ever birding experience. Beginning one’s life list with a wildly out-of-place flamingo observation is a pretty high standard to set! We all thoroughly enjoyed watching these magnificent birds as shrouds of dense fog rolled across the fields, providing a charmingly atmospheric setting for this extraordinary encounter.

The flamingos spent most of the morning actively foraging, which permitted us to observe their remarkable structural and behavioral adaptations in action. Both birds continuously pumped their lengthy legs with methodical, exaggerated steps, as if exercising on an elliptical machine, to stir up sediment at the bottom of the pond. They then dipped their slender necks to their feet, dunking their heads upside-down and straining the disturbed mud with those marvelously peculiar bills to sift out tiny aquatic prey. Periodic wing stretches revealed the striking contrast between jet black flight feathers and crimson-stained coverts, and we twice watched one of the birds take a short flapping jog across the surface of the water. In between bouts of filter feeding, the flamingos settled down for quick power naps, coiling up and tucking their faces into the bustles of plumes on their backs. Watching these blushing birds of the Caribbean set against the picturesque backdrop of misty Appalachian foothills made for a truly magical memory, undoubtedly an instant highlight of my chasing career.

The diversity of accompanying birdlife at Long Lane Pond was unexpectedly impressive, including a noisy Belted Kingfisher, flyover groups of Bobolinks, and a Green Heron skulking along the far shoreline. A huge flock of Tree Swallows descended on the pool as they emerged from their nearby night roost, swirling around the flamingos in a dazzling swarm, and we picked out a few Cliff Swallows among their midst as well. A tiny Pied-billed Grebe, a local representative of the family of birds most closely related to flamingos, floated on the surface nearby, providing some dramatic direct comparison with its distant cousins. It was difficult to pry ourselves away from such an amazing morning of birding, but Ryan and I knew we still had a long way to go to get back to NYC. Before departing from Pennsylvania, we joined Alejandra for a celebratory brunch of scrapple and omelettes at a nearby diner. We then made a brief but pleasant detour to Big Spring Creek, where we found a lovely stretch of productive habitat along the wooded banks of a stream. Noteworthy birds at this site included a family group of Red-headed Woodpeckers, dueling Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and chattering Carolina Chickadees. We also spotted several Common Ravens performing acrobatics among the circling kettles of vultures overhead, and we even picked out some cool insects like Hackberry Emperor and Least Skipper. When the time came to finally start back towards home, we were more than satisfied with the morning’s haul, and I was grateful as ever for Ryan’s company on the long journey east. Another successful venture in the books!

The big question on everyone’s minds now is how long the flamingos currently scattered across the continent will end up sticking around. Given the unprecedented nature of this phenomenon, birders and scientists throughout the country are eager to see what comes next. The flurry of new sightings immediately following Idalia has mostly slowed down, and it seems likely that most of the birds will eventually start traveling south once they’ve had sufficient time to rest and refuel. It’s certainly plausible that some of the individuals in southerly climes might establish more permanent residences, and there are prior examples of displaced birds from previous storms successfully finding their way back to their preferred latitudes. There may well be some more fun yet to come, with additional flamingo records turning up from other sites as the pink wave begins to recede from its high-water mark. 

As for the Pennsylvania flamingos, the story continues to develop with unforeseen twists along the way. At the time of this writing, the more brightly colored bird, believed to be an adult male, is still hanging around Long Lane Pond, but the paler presumed subadult female was recently brought into rehab after an unfortunate run-in with a Common Snapping Turtle. The bird was transported to the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center, where it received emergency surgery and is presently being housed while it recovers from its injuries. Harrowing tales like this one are regrettably not particularly uncommon for vagrant birds far from home, but we always hope for a happy ending all the same. Another rescued flamingo in Florida has been outfitted with a band and a satellite transmitter, which may serve to shed some light on its subsequent movements now that it has been released from treatment. Events like this incursion demonstrate that there is always more to learn from the natural world, which is a huge part of what makes birding so special.

If you’d asked me in January about my expectations for the coming year, I certainly never would’ve predicted a flamingo encounter in Pennsylvania for my bingo card. Though my birding crystal ball clearly isn’t infallible, I have a hunch that the remaining months of 2023 would be hard-pressed to produce a more unexpected or exceptional sighting! The American Flamingo is a fabulous avian icon, a creature that I have dreamed of seeing since childhood, and the absurdly atypical location of our first meeting serves to highlight the insane unpredictability inherent in birding. Being a part of this incredible happening was an amazing experience, and I look forward to seeing what other surprises the rest of the year has in store! Fall migration is only just getting started!