This weekend was a mega weekend for birdwatchers on the Upper Texas Coast. Saturday morning, avid birder and Gulf Coast Bird Observatory board member Ron Weeks found a very rare bird for this area. It was definitely lost as this fork-tailed flycatcher should be in South America by now.

Ron found it fly-catching along a country road in south central Fort Bend County and soon the word was out. Birders from all over were quickly making their way to the spot, and I’m sure close to 100 people made the trip to see this very beautiful bird. In today’s interconnected, electronic media world, news spreads very quickly.

This is a somewhat regular occurrence in the bird world, and one that birders are constantly watching out for. So why do birds end up so far from home? Why did this flycatcher fly more than 3,000 miles in the wrong direction?

In the case of this fork-tailed flycatcher, it is a resident of the Southern tip of Mexico, Central and South America. Assuming it is a bird from southern Mexico or Central America, it should be migrating south for the winter in Amazonia. It is what we call an austral migrant, migrating south to warmer latitudes.

There are many theories and reasons why birds get lost at times. It mostly happens during migration or weather events. We can easily explain why weather can carry a bird the wrong directions with strong winds, driving cold fronts and hurricanes depositing birds here and there. But what about a bird that just flies the wrong way? In short, their migratory sense failed them – their wires crossed.

Scientists have spent centuries trying to figure out how birds know what direction to migrate and how to find their way. It has been proposed that animal compasses are based on the sense of smell, memorized landmarks, the direction of the sun, polarization of light and even the positions of the stars. Some of these might be true.

But it is known that at least some birds, and maybe all, use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. But how is still being explored. There have been discoveries of magnetic particles in the beaks of pigeons and hens, magnetite in the noses of trout and other magnetic molecules in the ear hairs of bird. However, it has since been found that these magnetic particles are in non sensory cells so that would not work.

The latest groundbreaking work actually shows that maybe birds navigate by quantum mechanics. Cryptochromes, which are light-sensitive proteins, interact and are then responsive to magnetism, creating a radical pair-based compass to see the Earth’s magnetic field. That’s some pretty crazy science. All that to say, when a migrating bird gets lost,that system basically malfunctioned. And as unfortunate as it is to have a bird in the wrong area, birders at least have the opportunity to see a species they otherwise would have to travel long distances to see.

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Martin Hagne is the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

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