The last few years has been a great time for birders finding bird species never before seen in the state. Just 2014 itself produced several of this state first records- a young Streak-backed Oriole down in St George found by Russell Schreiner (I know it was technically found in late 2013, but most birders saw it in 2014), a Salt Lake City foothills Mississippi Kite flyby found by Jerry Liguori and a dapper Nelson's Sparrow found by Bryant Olsen at Farmington Bay.
State first Streak-backed Oriole
State first Nelson's Sparrow
2015 has already gotten off to a fast start for new birds with a new state first record being found by Matt Pendelton at Lee Kay Ponds, a juvenile Laughing Gull that has been extremely cooperative and given many birders views of their first Utah Laughing Gull and in some cases their lifer Laugher.
2015's first state record, a juvenile Laughing Gull
Lucky for birders, 3 out of the past 4 newest birds to Utah stuck around a while and enabled many birders to go chase them down and add to their lists. It happens though that a few of these species were on a list that I concocted of my own a year or so ago of what I thought could be the next species to be added to the official Utah checklist. I had Mississippi Kite on that list as well as Laughing Gull since their were a number of sightings for both in states surround Utah (more so for Mississippi Kite) and gulls and raptors often complete long migrations which can serve as a catalyst for vagrancy. Streak-backed Oriole and Nelson's were not on my list due to the limited records of them in states around Utah and in case of the Nelson's, its secretive nature.
With all of these state firsts since my unofficial list, I decided it would be fun to put down my official list here of what I think the next state first birds will be. I narrowed my very long list down to 16 birds that I expect to be found next in the state. I tried to get it down to 10 but I felt I was leaving off too many good candidates and I also wanted to have many different types of birds represented. I will give my reason why I think that these birds will be the next species and even some tips to help birders try to find them for themselves. I know that this list has given me some focus of where to look so I hope that it will help out other birders as well.
I used ebird to plot distribution maps of the last 10 years for the species I thought would show up next. I also left out 3 species with are confirmed for Utah on Ebird but aren't on the official Utah checklist- a 1st cycle Slaty-backed Gull found by Ryan O'Donnell at the Logan Landfill, Chihuahuan Raven in San Juan county by Tim Avery and others and an Eastern Meadowlark also found by Tim Avery in Blanding. All 3 have photos on Ebird that look fine for each of those species to me and the Utah moderator seems to agree.
So without further ado....
The Next 16 Utah State Firsts (I think)
1) Tufted Duck
Tufted Duck pair (picture by Prank F
Tufted Duck distribution over the last 10 years
While in the last 10 years, the only Tufted Duck records away from the Pacific Coast have been in Colorado, there are also records of these species from Arizona and Idaho (with even some Utah birders seeing the Idaho bird). Ducks are typically long distance migrants often breeding up in the tundra or taiga and wintering down in areas like Utah. It seems like only a matter of time before a Tufted Duck gets found on one of the mountain reservoirs or even at a place like Farmington Bay in the winter. In addition to looking like a scaup or Ring-necked Duck, they often tend to hang out with them when one is found in the US. However look for an all black back and white sides on males (in addition to its namesake tuft) and females look for a dark maroon breast contrasting with paler gray-brown sides.
I chose Tufted Duck over Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, even though Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks will show up in unexpected locations, because as of now there are no records of it north of Arizona. However they also seem like a species that will show up sooner rather than later, especially with their expanding Arizona population.
2) Blue-footed Booby
Blue-footed Booby distribution over the last 10 years
Free the boobies! There are no records of boobies in Utah yet, but that doesn't mean there won't be one in the future. Blue-footed Boobies breed in the Gulf of California and each year their tend to be a few overshoots north, some years like 2014 there are many overshoots with dozens being reported in the Salton Sea. One even made it up to Lake Havasu, where I got to see it on a trip down to Arizona. There are even a few records of birds in eastern New Mexico which made me choose the Blue-footed as the most likely booby to show up in Utah although eventually a Brown Booby will be found. The best time to look for Utah's first Blue-footed Booby seems like August or September after a storm hits southern Utah from the south and in one of the reservoirs in Washington County and/ or Lake Powell.
3) Harris's Hawk
One angry Harris's Hawk
Harris's Hawk distribution over the last 10 years
Harris's Hawk seems like a natural to be on the Utah checklist. There are a number of records in nearby Nevada so it seems like one could just follow the Mojave Desert into Utah. Some records in Montana and Colorado though suggest that one could show up just about anywhere else in the state. However any Harris's Hawks found outside of Washington County should be scrutinized as falconry birds since they are one of the more common falconry birds due to their social nature as Harris's Hawks hunt cooperatively in groups. Keep your eye out the next time you are in southeastern Utah for this gorgeous raptor that sports rufous shoulders and a white tail band and rump.
4) Ridgway's Rail
Goodbye Clapper Rail, Hello Ridgway's Rail (photo by Gregory Lis
Ridgway's Rail distribution over the last 10 years
The ABA's newest species, the Ridgway Rail, was recently split from Clapper Rail which is found on the Atlantic coast. Ridgway's Rails breed as close as the Salton Sea and an individual could easily get blown north into Utah. There are records from nearby Overton WMA and even a record west of Utah in Nevada. It seems like most records are either from January or April/ May so keep an ear open for them if you visit any marshes in Washington County in those times of year.
I chose Ridgway's Rail over both Black Rail and Yellow Rail since even though neither of those species have been reported in Utah, both tend to be more secretive than Ridgway's Rail and will be harder to find. Black Rail also breed near Lake Havasu and along the lower Colorado River so could follow a similar pathway as Ridgway's into Utah. Listen for them as well in Washington County marshes. Yellow Rail has a spotty distribution in the west owing to its very secretive nature but prefer wet grassy meadows making a spot in northeastern Utah like Bear River Meadows a likely locale. Listen for its call that sounds like two pebbles being hit together.
5) Great Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backeds dwarf all other gulls
Great Black-backed Gull distribution over the last 10 years
Great Black-backed Gulls are the largest gull in the world and should be easy to identify when one finally shows up in Utah. There are many records nearby in Colorado and it is only a matter of time before one shows up at one of the regular winter gull hotspots. In addition to its massive size, dwarfing all other gull species, the blackness of its back will stand out as it is even darker than Lesser Black-backed Gulls. 1st cycle birds are also easy to identify with their massive black bills and black-and-white checkered upperparts.
I chose Great Black-backed Gull over the other gulls that haven't been seen in the state since there seems to be a pattern of them showing up in Colorado which could lead to one in Utah. Ross's, Black-headed and Ivory Gulls have all shown up in the west in states around Utah, but their vagrancy patterns are more random than the Great Black-backed. Those species would also be more likely at a spot like the Antelope Island Causeway rather than the typical wintering gull spots.
6) Arctic Tern
When will one of the world's longest migrants show up in Utah?
Arctic Tern distribution over the last 10 years
From what I can tell, Arctic Tern has to be one of the most overdue state firsts on this list. It has been records in every state in the west... except for Utah. With a gray belly, it can look like a Common Tern, but has gray and white wings with small dark tips, a smaller head and bill and a longer tail. The best time to look for them in Utah should be the last 2 weeks of May and the first week of June as well as the entire month of September. So if you see a Common Tern during those times, make sure to double check it to make sure you aren't really looking at one of the longest distance migrants in the world! One could show up anywhere in the state but Antelope Island or Farmington Bay seem to be as good of a place to look as any.
I chose Arctic Tern over Elegant and Royal Tern as the next state first tern due to the sheer number of sightings across all parts of the west. Elegant and Royal Terns do seem likely to show up in Utah in the near future as well (Elegant especially) but would seem to be most likely to be seen in Washington County if one were to show up since they tend to be found more to the south west.
7) Blue-throated Hummingbird
Large and in charge- the Blue-throated Hummingbird
Blue-throated Hummingbird distribution over the last 10 years
The second largest hummingbird in the US (only smaller than the Magnificent), the Blue-throated Hummingbird is another species that seems like it is only a matter of time before it shows up in Utah. There have been several records in Colorado including one just across the border in Grand Junction. If its large size isn't enough of a clue that you have a special hummingbird at your feeders, also note the slow wingbeats (slowest of any US hummer), the white stripes on its face and its giant tail with white corners. You can even listen for it to make its frequent high pitched seek call. Look and listen for one at a hummingbird feeder in southern Utah, most likely in the summer.
8) Crested Caracara
Coming to a field near you- a Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara distribution over the last 10 years
The Crested Caracara, the national bird of Mexico, is a goofy looking ground-loving falcon. It seems a likely candidate to show up in Utah soon due to records in just about every state around Utah and even Montana and because of a population boom happening in Arizona. Just like other falcons, they like hanging out in open areas but rather than perching up high, they like to hang out low and are adept at walking on the ground with their long legs. The Washington and Hurricane fields east of St George are a likely location for Utah's first caracara to show up.
9) Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Is this a Pacific-slop Flycatcher? Or a Cordilleran? (photo by Linda Tanner
Pacific-slope Flycatcher distribution over the last 10 years
The first of two flycatchers on the list, the scientific name of the Pacific-slope Flycatcher says it all- difficilis. Virtually identical to the widespread-in-the-state Cordilleran flycatcher, the Pacific-slope is only a little drabber. The calls of the birds are different even though they do sound similar. In the song of the Pacific-slope, listen for the ptik note to have the first syllable lower than the first (in the Cordilleran, the first syllable will be higher than the second). However this only helps if the birds are singing so the best chance of finding the first Pacific-slope Flycatcher will come in the spring. The last two weeks of May and first week of June look like the best time to find one as well as August and October and make sure to record the song if you can. Pictures can't tell the two apart. Pacific-slopes migrate very near to extreme southeastern Utah with a record a few miles from Lytle Ranch even which seems like the best place to find the state's first. Additionally any 'Western Flycatcher' found in Utah winter will be a Pacific-slope. There are numerous winter records of Pacific-slope Flycatcher in Arizona where they winter in low numbers, but Cordillerans do not winter in the US, so take note of any 'Western Flycatcher' found in Utah in winter.
10) Dusky-capped Flycatcher
The somewhat poorly named Dusky-capped Flycatcher (photo by Ron Wolf
Dusky-capped Flycatcher distribution over the last 10 years
The Dusky-capped Flycatcher seems like another possibility for Utah in the future. There are nearby records in Nevada and it seems to be extending its range northward. It is also a regular vagrant into Southern California so it would only take one to go the wrong way and head into Utah. As usual, Washington County would be the most likely place for the first encounter of this small Myiarchus flycatcher. It is smaller than the two other likely species in southeastern Utah, Ash-throated and Brown-crested, with more contrasting plumage.
Greater Pewee and Eastern Wood-Pewee are also honorable mention flycatchers for state firsts as Greater Pewee comes close to southern Utah and Eastern Wood-Pewees have been found in most states in the west. Double check and weird Olive-sided Flycatchers or Western Wood-pewees you find.
11) Sprague's Pipit
A normally hard to see Sprague's Pipit (photo by Terry Sohl
Sprague's Pipit distribution over the last 10 years
Sprague's Pipit looks like another good candidate for state first because of the logic of how birds get from point A to point B. They breed to the north of Utah in central Montana but some also winter to the south of Utah in Arizona and southern California. The easiest route for migration looks to be directly over Utah for such birds so it seems like one will be seen eventually. Sprague's Pipits can look like juvenile Horned Larks so make sure to look for the lack of primary projection on Sprague's, as well as pale legs and a thinner bill. The blank faced look as well as stockiness and shorter tail make it look different from other pipits. Look for one it its preferred habit- short grassy fields in September and October and listen for its nasal high pitched call, squeet.
12) Blackburnian Warbler
The unmistakeable male Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler distribution over the last 10 years
Now we enter the "I can't believe this warbler species hasn't been seen in Utah" phase of the list. As you can see from the map, Blackburnians have been found all around Utah and even within a few miles of Utah at Dinosaur National Monument. As with a lot of the species on this list, the best time for finding one is the last two weeks of May and the first week of June as well as the month of September. They are unmistakeable by both sight and sound with a call that continually rises until it hits pitches that I assume only dogs can hear. Look for them in all of the usual migrant traps in Utah whether they are around the Great Salt Lake or desert oases.
13) Black-throated Green Warbler
A very blurry Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler distribution over the last 10 years
Another warbler I am surprised hasn't been seen in Utah, the Black-throated Green Warbler is the eastern counterpart to two fall only Utah warblers, the uncommon Townsend's Warbler and the only found in Washington County, Hermit Warbler. Like the Blackburnian, it nest to the north of Utah yet migrates around the Rockies... for the most part. There are records in every state around Utah for this species as well. It looks like a Townsend's Warbler, but has greenish upperparts. Like the Blackburnian, they are most likely to be found in spring during the two weeks of May and the first week of June, but in the fall they are more likely to be found in October. In spring listen for its musical call zee zee zee zee zee zo zeet and look for it in the usual migrant traps across the state.
The 3rd eastern warbler that hasn't been seen in Utah yet but has records all over the west is the Mourning Warbler. All the same caveats of the other two apply to this species like timing and location, but it will be harder to find since it is more of a skulker than the other two, much like its western counterpart, the MacGillivray's Warbler. However look for its lack of eye arcs to differentiate it.
14) Red-faced Warbler
Yet another warbler that hasn't been seen in Utah... yet (photo by Tom Benson
Red-faced Warbler distribution over the last 10 years
The next two are birds with large ranges in Utah that come oh-so-close to Utah. The first is the Red-faced Warbler, a very colorful bird of montane forests in canyon areas. You can see that it has come near the border of Utah north of the Grand Canyon. The best bet to see one would be in an area of Ponderosa Pine forest like that along Kolob Terrace Road where one might be found singing up in the pines. Look for them in the summer.
15) Hepatic Tanager
The subtlety beautiful Hepatic Tanager
Hepatic Tanager distribution over the last 10 years
Like the Red-faced Warbler, the Hepatic Tanager is also an Arizona native that has been reported close to Utah. However it seems more likely to get to Utah first. There are many more reports of it from the Grand Canyon region and it does tend to stray northward into Colorado on a regular basis. They resemble Summer Tanagers but are drabber overall, especially on the upperparts for males as well as females. However they would utilize different habitats in Utah. Summer Tanagers are found primarily in riparian areas especially where cottonwoods are found. Hepatic Tanagers, like Red-faced Warblers, like montane forest in canyons so some of the areas in Zion and Kolob Terrace Rd would be likely spots where the first state record bird would be found.
16) Bell's Sparrow
A Sage Sparrow no more, meet the Bell's Sparrow (photo by Tom Benson
Bell's Sparrow distribution over the last 10 years
The final bird on my list of the next state first records has been living near Utah, but just in secret. Recently split from its very close relative the Sagebrush Sparrow, the Bell's Sparrow is primarily found in California as well as western Nevada and Arizona, probably. More study is needed into the distribution of these two species as well, especially the interior subspecies, canescens, of the Bell's Sparrow which looks remarkably like a Sagebrush Sparrow. Look for a darker malar and a lack of streaks on the back as well as less streaking overall on the Bell's Sparrow. Look for for them in similar habitats to the Sagebrush Sparrow ie sagebrush most likely in winter when Bell's Sparrows tend to migrate to the east. Basically scrutinize any Sagebrush Sparrows found in Washington County in the winter as it could be a state first bird.
So there is my list of the next species I expect to be Utah firsts. I hope this list helps Utah birders know what to look for, when to look for and where to look for the species that no one has seen yet in the state. I'm sure most of these birds have been in the state before but now someone has to just go and find them. And I am hoping that person is me!
Additional honorable mentions: King Eider, Black Vulture, Piping Plover, Red-necked Stint, Groove-billed Ani, Northern Hawk-Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Couch's Kingbird, Hutton's Vireo, Cave Swallow, Sedge Wren, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Cerulean Warbler and Eastern Towhee.