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Year in review: The 50 most important stories about birds and birdwatchers of 2015

2015 Year in Review

Initial Cap T_82x82he Big Year listing record was broken — no, shattered. Kirtland’s Warblers in Wisconsin and Peregrine Falcons in Florida set records, while counters in Duluth tallied 90,000 birds. In a single day. Zapata Rail was finally spotted, a long-lost hummingbird was photographed, and a parrot once thought extinct was tagged. Travel to Cuba became easier, and accord was reached on climate change. Wisdom came back. Again. And two of our favorite birders received some well-deserved recognition. 2015 was truly an extraordinary year. Our annual list of the year’s 50 most important stories about birds and birdwatchers is below.

Just so you know: We reported our 50 stories, and many more, as they happened, here on our website and via our social-media outlets, and we’ll do the same in the year ahead. To stay in the know, check back daily, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


1. Half-male, half-female: Everyone went a little gaga about a half-male, half-female Northern Cardinal spotted a few years ago in Rock Island, Illinois, and described in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. The bird is known as a bilateral gynandromorph.

Bilateral gynandromorph Northern Cardinal, photo by Brian D. Peer.
Bilateral gynandromorph Northern Cardinal, photo by Brian D. Peer.

2. Goo in San Francisco Bay: Hundreds of Surf Scoters, Horned Grebes, Buffleheads, and scaup along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay were found coated with a rubber-cement-like goo that state labs later determined was a “polymerized oil, most similar to vegetable oil.” At least 170 birds died. The incident remains under investigation. January 16

Kim Kaufman, executive director of Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
Kim Kaufman, executive director of Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

3. Kim Kaufman honored: Kim Kaufman, executive director of Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory, received a well-deserved high honor: the prestigious Chandler Robbins Award, bestowed by the American Birding Association in recognition of her many contributions to bird education and conservation. Kim is the driving force behind the Biggest Week in American Birding and a founder of the Ohio Young Birders Club.

4. Travel to Cuba made easier: The U.S. Department of the Treasury eased rules for U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba, home of the Bee Hummingbird. The United States and Cuba would agree in July to reopen long-shuttered embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., and, in December, to restore commercial flights between the two countries.

5. First in North America: A Common Scoter was recorded in North America for the first time. The duck showed up in the harbor in Crescent City, California, in late January. The species was split from Black Scoter by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2010. January 25


6. AOU-COS website: Two of the nation’s leading ornithological societies — the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society — launched a new joint website, February 5

7. Great backyard count: Birdwatchers around the world submitted more than 140,000 checklists during the Great Backyard Bird Count, which took place February 13-16. Incredibly, over 12 million individual birds, more than 42 percent of the world’s species, were tallied. February 16.


Jerdon’s Babbler, rediscovered in 2014. Photo by Robert Tizard/Wildlife Conservation Society.
Jerdon’s Babbler, rediscovered in 2014. Photo by Robert Tizard/Wildlife Conservation Society.

8. Zapata Rail spotted: One of the world’s most threatened waterbirds, Zapata Rail, was spotted for first time in four decades. The critically endangered bird was first described in the early 20th century and is endemic to Cuba. The rail was seen in the Zapata Swamp in November 2014. March 2

9. Long-lost babbler found: A team of scientists in Myanmar rediscovered (and photographed and took blood samples) from Jerdon’s Babbler in May 2014. The bird, currently considered one of three subspecies of the babbler, had not been seen in Myanmar since July 1941 and was considered extinct. March 5

10. A reprieve for Mute Swans: In response to public pressure, New York released a revised plan to reduce its population of invasive Mute Swans. A proposal issued early in 2014 had called for the abolition of almost all of the state’s 2,200 swans. The new plan shifts the focus from destroying the swans to reducing their negative impact. March 9

11. More cranes in Texas: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that aerial surveys had revealed that as few as 267 or as many as 350 Whooping Cranes overwintered on the Gulf coast of Texas. The statistical midpoint of the population range, 314, was slightly higher than the previous year’s midpoint (310). March 16

12. Hummingbird re-discovered: The spectacular Blue-bearded Helmetcrest — a hummingbird that was last seen in 1946 and had been feared extinct — was photographed in Colombia. The bird is found only on the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. March 17

13. Success in Israel: Organizers of the second Champions of the Flyway bird race announced that the 2015 event raised more than $50,000. The money will be used by BirdLife Cyprus to fight widespread illegal bird killing on the island. (See No. 28.) March 31

14. The amazing Blackpoll: Researchers confirmed that tiny Blackpoll Warbler really does fly nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean each fall, just as we thought. Said one of the investigators: “We’re really excited to report that this is one of the longest nonstop overwater flights ever recorded for a songbird.” March 31

Blackpoll Warbler. Photo by
Blackpoll Warbler at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, Chicago, Illinois, by spiecks.


15. Hunters win in Malta: In a crushing defeat for bird conservationists, voters in Malta rejected a referendum that would have banned the annual April hunting of Turtle Doves and quail. The margin of defeat was only 2,200 votes. April 12


Peregrine Falcon in Van Nuys, California, October 7, 2011, by Alexander Viduetsky.
Peregrine Falcon in Van Nuys, California, October 7, 2011, by Alexander Viduetsky.

16. Treatment for WNS: One hundred and fifty bats that had been successfully treated for the deadly White-Nose Syndrome were released back into the wild outside the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, Missouri. The bats were part of the first field trials of a novel, and encouraging, way to protect bats from WNS. May 20

17. Protection for boreal birds: Leading bird and nature organizations in Canada and the United States kicked off a campaign aimed at educating governments, industry, and the public on the need to set aside at least half of North America’s boreal forest from industrial development. The Boreal Songbird Initiative and Ducks Unlimited are spearheading the effort, called Boreal Birds Need Half.


18. Our first Whoophill: A male Whooping Crane and a female Sandhill Crane paired up at Horicon NWR, in Wisconsin, and produced a Whoophill, a Whooping Crane x Sandhill Crane hybrid. The youngster, nicknamed Whoopsie, is the first documented hybridization case in the Eastern Migratory Population. June 5

19. Falcon removed from state list: Illinois officially removed Peregrine Falcon from its Endangered and Threatened Species List. The falcon can be found at 28 different locations in the state. Nineteen are breeding pairs. June 8

20. Britain’s national bird: Voters in Britain chose the European Robin as their national bird. More than 224,000 people cast ballots. Robin took 34 percent of the vote, beating Barn Owl (12 percent) and Blackbird (11 percent). June 10

21. An eBird app: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the release of a free iOS app for mobile data entry. The new app replaces Birdlog, which since 2012 has been the only app that ties into birders’ eBird accounts. A version that works on Android devices would become available in early December. June 18


22. Record fine for oil spill: BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion, a record, to settle law suits resulting from the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. More than four million barrels of crude oil leaked during the disaster, 11 crew members died, and at least 820,000 birds perished — 700,000 birds within 25 miles of shore and 120,000 farther out. July 2

Magnificent Hummingbird in Costa Rica by Paul Kusmin.
Magnificent Hummingbird in Costa Rica by Paul Kusmin.

23. Checklist changes: The species Herald Petrel, Townsend’s Shearwater, Great Skua, and Bahama Woodstar were split by the American Ornithologists’ Union, but LeConte’s Thrasher, Painted Bunting, and Northern Cardinal were not. The decisions came in the 56th Supplement to the AOU’s Check-list of North American Birds. July 2

24. First in Canada: A Magnificent Hummingbird, a species that normally occurs no farther north than Arizona and New Mexico, was photographed near the city of Kamloops, which is in south-central British Columbia, northeast of Vancouver. The sighting was a first record for British Columbia and a first for Canada. July 4

25. Crane population threatened: Twenty-four Whooping Crane chicks, a record number, hatched from 37 nests in Wisconsin this year, but only three of the chicks survived to mid-July. The result threatens the development of a self-sustaining population. “I would have hoped that 10 or 12 of them would have survived,” said George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. “We’re not out of the woods.” July 26

26. Black-capped Petrels return: Scientists at the annual meeting of BirdsCaribbean in Kingston, Jamaica, announced that one of the world’s rarest seabirds, the endangered Black-capped Petrel, appears to be breeding again on the island of Dominica, where it last nested over 150 years ago. July 29


27. Night Parrot tagged: Scientists in Australia announced that they had captured and tagged a Night Parrot. First discovered in 1845, it had rarely been seen alive for most of the next 170 years, but it was rediscovered in 2013 by Queensland naturalist John Young. It is unclear how many of the birds remain. August 9

28. Hunting’s horrific toll: According to a scientific review by BirdLife International, illegal hunting in Malta, Italy, Greece, and other eastern Mediterranean countries claims 25 million birds every year. “This review shows the gruesome extent to which birds are being illegally killed,” said BirdLife’s CEO. August 20

29. Plastic in the sea, and in seabirds: Researchers announced that the amount of plastic crap floating around in the world’s oceans is so huge that no less than 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten the stuff and are likely to retain some in their gut. Even worse, the investigators say it is “virtually certain” that any dead seabird found in 2050 “will have a bit of plastic in its stomach.” August 31


30. Largest flight ever: Birders at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, in Duluth, Minnesota, counted over 90,000 migrating birds on September 1. The total included more than 33,000 warblers, over 28,000 Common Nighthawks, more than 12,000 Cedar Waxwings (a state record), and 198 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (another state record). The official counter called the total “one of the highest counts ever recorded in Duluth.” September 1

Noah Strycker (left) and guide Nicky Icarangal (right) with local birders in the Cinchona Forest Reserve, Philippines, October 26, 2015. Photo by Noah Strycker, courtesy Birding Without Borders.
Noah Strycker (left) and guide Nicky Icarangal (right) with local birders in the Cinchona Forest Reserve, Philippines, October 26, 2015. Photo by Noah Strycker, courtesy Birding Without Borders.

31. New Big Year record: With a Sri Lanka Frogmouth spotted in Thattekaad, India, author Noah Strycker set a new world year-listing record. He passed the previous record of 4,341 species, set in 2008 by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller and featured in the book The Biggest Twitch (Christopher Helm, 2012). Strycker’s goal for the year was to see 5,000 species, but he would pass that total on October 26, in the Philippines, and never look back. By December 27, when he was in Singapore, he had spotted no fewer than 5,989 species. September 16

Update, January 2, 2016: While we were ringing in the New Year, Noah, in Tinsukia, India, was finding Scaly Thrush, Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush, Nepal Fulvetta, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, White-hooded Babbler, Buff-chested Babbler, Large Woodshrike, White-cheeked Partridge, White-winged Duck, and Silver-breasted Broadbill, bringing his final total to 6,042

32. A swan for the Duck Stamp: For the first time in half a century, swans, not ducks or geese, will appear on the Duck Stamp. An acrylic painting of Trumpeter Swans by Joseph Hautman, of Plymouth, Minnesota, took first place at the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp art contest. The painting will be made into the 2016-17 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, or Duck Stamp, which will go on sale in late June 2016. September 19

Trumpeter Swans, by Joseph Hautman, of Plymouth, Minnesota, winner of the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp art contest. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Trumpeter Swans, by Joseph Hautman, of Plymouth, Minnesota, winner of the 2015 Federal Duck Stamp art contest. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

33. No protections for sage-grouse: The Interior Department rejected federal protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The decision reverses a 2010 finding that the bird was headed toward possible extinction. Protection could have brought sweeping restrictions on oil and gas drilling, grazing, and other activities from California to the Dakotas. September 22

34. An honor for Julie Craves: A new species of owl, Craves’s Giant Barn Owl (Tyto cravesae), was described by ornithologists William Suárez and Storrs Olson. The researchers wrote that they had named the owl “after Julie Craves, of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, for her dedication to avian conservation and her boundless appreciation of Cuban friends and birds.” September 23

35. Atlas makes history: The organizers of the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas announced that 700 observers surveyed 2,600 blocks during season one. Atlassers submitted 23,900 checklists, documenting 1.7 million birds and adding eight species not found in the first Atlas: Bufflehead, Eurasian Collared-Dove, White-eyed Vireo, Great Tit, Kirtland’s Warbler (see No. 43), Yellow-throated Warbler, Whooping Crane, and European Goldfinch. September 30

36. First in the U.K.: An Acadian Flycatcher was recorded in the U.K. for the first time ever. The North American bird landed on the beach at Dungeness in Kent, sparking one of the biggest mass gatherings of twitchers in years, then it died. September 22

Contributing Editor Julie Craves. Photo by Darrin O’Brien.
Contributing Editor Julie Craves. Photo by Darrin O’Brien.


37. Record Peregrine count: A team at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, at Curry Hammock State Park, about three miles northeast of Marathon, tallied 1,506 migrating Peregrine Falcons on October 10. The total broke the record for falcons counted in a single day. October 10

38. Wilson’s Warbler in the U.K.: A North American wood-warbler, a Wilson’s Warbler, was discovered near the northernmost tip of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, 30 years to the day after the species was last recorded in Britain. The sighting was the first record for Scotland, the second for Britain, and the third for Britain and Ireland. October 13

39. Red List updated: The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, publishers of the IUCN Red List, announced that 40 bird species are now considered a step closer to extinction. Species judged to be at higher risk include six of Africa’s 11 vultures, eight shorebirds, and such iconic species as Helmeted Hornbill, Swift Parrot, Atlantic Puffin, and European Turtle-dove. Overall, about 13 percent of all birds are now listed as vulnerable to extinction. October 28

40. Turbines shut down: The company Altamont Winds announced that it would shut down hundreds of its old turbines in the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, between San Francisco and Stockton, California. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the company’s turbines there have been associated with the death or injury of 67 Golden Eagles between 2004 and 2014. October 29


Kirtland’s Warbler in Marinette County, in northeastern Wisconsin, in late May 2015. Photo by Jack Swelstad.
Kirtland’s Warbler in Marinette County, in northeastern Wisconsin, in late May 2015. Photo by Jack Swelstad.

41. Redpoll record: Tadoussac Bird Observatory, on the St. Lawrence River about 150 miles northeast of Quebec City in Canada, recorded an astounding number of Common Redpolls during the last week of October — more than 125,000. Over 33,000 were counted on October 27, and more than 55,000 were spotted on Saturday, October 31. According to Kenn Kaufman, the Saturday total probably represents a one-day world record. November 2

42. Pipeline rejected: President Obama rejected the Keystone XL project, a 1,200-mile pipeline intended to transport Canadian crude to the Gulf. The announcement came weeks ahead of a UN summit on climate change in Paris, where Obama pressed nations to adopt stronger measures to slow global warming. (See No. 50.) November 6

43. Wisconsin warblers do well: In April, a male Kirtland’s Warbler that had hatched and been banded in central Wisconsin in the summer of 2014 was found in the Bahamas, on Cat Island. It was the first time ever that a Kirtland’s banded in the state had been re-sighted on its wintering grounds. Then, in November, we learned that the endangered birds had attempted 16 nests in the state, and that 13 were successful. Between 36 and 53 young were fledged. The percentage of successful nests and the estimated number of fledglings were the highest on record. November 9

44. Western birds in the East: Franklin’s Gull, a resident of the northern Great Plains, and Cave Swallow, a bird from Texas and southern New Mexico, showed up from Quebec City to Miami, and in big numbers in places. The birds are thought to have been whisked eastward by strong winds associated with a storm that swept across the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes. November 13

45. Windows that work: American Bird Conservancy published a list of products that it and its partners have verified as Bird-Smart. That is, the products not only have been proved effective at minimizing the frequency of bird-window collisions but also are affordable and aesthetically pleasing. November 19

46. Wisdom returns again: The Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom, the oldest known banded bird in the wild, returned to the colony on Midway Atoll NWR. She was spotted with her mate on November 19, almost a year to the date since she returned in 2014. On November 28, she was observed incubating an egg. Incubation lasts 62-66 days. November 19

Wisdom (left) with her mate at Midway Atoll, November 21, 2015. Photo by Kiah Walker/USFWS.
Wisdom (left) with her mate at Midway Atoll, November 21, 2015. Photo by Kiah Walker/USFWS.


47. Northwestern owl in decline: Researchers who analyzed data collected in Washington, Oregon, and northern California between 1985 and 2013 reported that Northern Spotted Owl populations are shrinking in all parts of the subspecies’ range. The threatened owl is declining nearly four percent per year. According to the study, there’s “strong evidence” that Spotted Owl populations are being harmed by invasive Barred Owls. December 9

48. Cross-continental Blackpolls: As if making an annual nonstop flight over the Atlantic weren’t amazing enough (see No. 14), Blackpoll Warblers that breed in western North America first complete a marathon journey east across the continent. Researchers announced that the birds depart from their summer homes earlier than eastern-breeding birds do, leaving them a shorter amount of time each year to nest and raise their young. December 9

49. Birds before dinosaurs: Researchers suggested that modern birds arose before, not after, the extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Birds arose around 90 million years ago in what is now South America, write scientists with the American Museum of Natural History, and then moved to other parts of the world via multiple land bridges while diversifying during periods of global cooling. December 11

50. Worldwide agreement: Representatives of 195 nations reached a landmark accord that will, for the first time, commit nearly every country to lowering emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The talks had been called the world’s last, best hope of striking a deal that would begin to avert the most devastating effects of a warming planet. December 12

Like BirdWatching magazine on Facebook.

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Early December’s 10 most important news stories about birds.

See the 50 most important stories about birds and birdwatchers of 2014.

50 Important Stories photo: Hawfinch in Bayreuth, Germany, June 1, 2015, by Alzira Alaniz. Photo of the Week, September 21, 2015.

Updated on January 2, 2016, to include Noah Strycker’s final Big Year total.

Updated on January 4, 2016, to clarify the 2013 rediscovery of the Night Parrot.


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