Predicting the New Wa State Birds

What’s Next? Predicting the Next New Washington State Birds

Matt Bartels

Secretary, Washington Bird Records Committee


It is always fun to speculate about the future. In the last issue of WOS News, we ended our article on the WBRC with a call for participation in a contest to guess the next five state birds. Here are the results, along with a bit of discussion of recent trends and how they might inform such speculation.


In 1994, in WOS News # 32, Dennis Paulson asked WBRC and WOS members to guess the next five species that would be added to the state list. Eight WBRC members and nine other WOS participants responded to the call for predictions. In all, 36 species were suggested by at least one person. In the intervening 21 years, 23 of those species have been found in the state. Thirteen have not. In addition, the five species predicted most often by the WBRC members have all since appeared. Likewise, the five species regarded as most likely by participating WOS members have also all appeared. That’s not a bad record on its face, until we note that another 37 species have also been added to the state list during that same period, none of which appeared on any of the submitted lists! With just over twenty years having elapsed, it is time to play the game again!


Before looking at the results of the poll, it might be interesting and perhaps helpful to discuss recent new species for Washington to see whether any interesting trends can be found (Caveats: For the purposes of this article and the survey I treated Little Bunting as if it were already on the state list though it is still under review. I also excluded American Black Duck and Cordilleran Flycatcher from consideration: though on neighbors’ lists and not Washington’s, their complicated status is a topic for a different article rather than this one).



How long will we have to wait to get 5 new species?

Over the past 15 years, we’ve added 39 new species to the state list — a pace of about 2.6 birds a year. That is a little slower than the pace in the 80s and 90s, but still a fast enough clip to be reasonably confident we’ll only need to wait two to three years to find out who guessed most accurately.


Where are new birds coming from?

Can we improve our guessing by looking for patterns in the origin of recent new state birds? I broke down recent new birds into four categories of (very) rough origin: Birds from eastern N. America; birds from south of us (including Mexico, Central & South America); birds from north of us (including arctic birds and Asian strays coming via the arctic); and birds from ‘west’ of us, namely pelagic birds. Almost half of the newest species (46%) have come from the artic/Asia group (“north”): 35% from the East, 14% from the South, and 5% from the West. The proportions mostly hold up if we look further back, from the 1950s to present – we had more come from the East and fewer from the North, but overall the same pattern persists.



2001-2015 1951-2015
“North” 46% 35%
“East” 35% 44%
“South” 14% 15%
“West” 5% 7%



Recent new state birds from each direction:

* Wilson’s Plover listed twice because of ambiguous origin.


What if we look at birds that have shown up in nearby states and provinces but not Washington?

Seven species in particular stand out: Six species have appeared in Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia, but not Washington. They are all also on the California list (but then again, almost everything is):


Least Bittern

Common Gallinule

Red-headed Woodpecker

Pine Warbler

Scarlet Tanager

Blue Grosbeak


One additional bird to add to that list is the one pelagic species present on the Oregon and BC lists but not ours: Black-vented Shearwater. Especially given the Black-vented Shearwater push north last fall that almost reached Washington, it seems that we might want to promote it to this group, despite not having found its way to Idaho yet….


An additional 23 species have appeared in 2 of our 3 neighboring states/provinces, giving us 30 species of ‘likely’ new birds using this metric.


Species seen in at least two neighboring states/provinces (but not WA):

Species ID OR BC
Wood Stork X X
Tricolored Heron X X
Whooping Crane X X
Lesser Nighthawk X X
Chimney Swift X X
Red-bellied Woodpecker X X
Great Crested Flycatcher X X
Cassin’s Kingbird X X
Plumbeous Vireo X X
Juniper Titmouse X X
Winter Wren X X
Sedge Wren X X
Eastern Bluebird X X
Wood Thrush X X
Curve-billed Thrasher X X
Sprague’s Pipit X X
Worm-eating Warbler X X
Virginia’s Warbler X X
Connecticut Warbler X X
Painted Redstart X X
Eastern Towhee X X
Cassin’s Sparrow X X
Black Rosy-Finch X X


What about surprise birds?

But how much does this matter? How often in the past have Washington’s new species been ones already seen in neighboring states, and how often were they altogether new for the region? Eight of the 71 new species added to the WA list in the last 25 years are not on the checklists of Idaho, Oregon or British Columbia. As a rough estimate, then, it appears that one out of every nine new species added to WA’s list is a ‘surprise bird’ that isn’t on a neighbor’s list.  In the most recent decade, four of the 22 new species (Eastern Meadowlark (2012), Greater Pewee (2008), Variegated Flycatcher (2008), and Common Ringed Plover (2006)) fit this description, a rate closer to one out of every five new species. Eight new species have been added to the Washington list since the most recent of these, so perhaps we are ‘due’ for another surprise bird? If there is any meaningful pattern to this, then it appears that in addition to the ‘expected’ new species, we should expect an unexpected bird soon.


The predictions:

So what was predicted this time around? We received guesses from eight WBRC members and 10 WOS members – almost the same number of responses as last time. This time our guesses spanned more species: Instead of naming 36 potential new species, this time the group suggested 51. For the WBRC, 33 species were suggested, with four receiving multiple votes: Neotropic Cormorant (3), Virginia’s Warbler (2), Pine Warbler (3) and Blue Grosbeak (3). 38 species were suggested by other WOS members, with eight receiving multiple votes: Black-vented Shearwater (2), Neotropic Cormorant (3), Least Bittern (2), Brown Shrike (2), Cave Swallow (3), Sedge Wren (3), Field Sparrow (2) and Blue Grosbeak (3). Overall, Neotropic Cormorant and Blue Grosbeak (6 votes each) were definitely the species most expected and the only species shared in both the WBRC and the WOS top choices.


How do our choices compare with the trends outlined earlier? Looking back at the list of the seven species deemed most likely because they have already been seen in all the surrounding states: As mentioned, Blue Grosbeak was a popular choice, selected 6 times; Black-vented Shearwater and Pine Warbler were nominated by three people; Least Bittern, Red-headed Woodpecker and Scarlet Tanager were mentioned twice; and no one chose Common Gallinule. In all 11 species on the list of 30 already seen in at least two nearby states/provinces were not selected by any of our group. On the ‘surprise’ side, 13 of the 51 species listed are not on any of our neighbors’ lists  — 27% is a little more frequent than recent trends, but given the pool of potential birds that fit this category, a broad list seems merited.  Finally, our choices tended to look more to the east (39%) and the south (25%), and less to Asia and the Arctic (29%) than recent trends would advise us to expect.


Stay tuned as the new species arrive, and we’ll see how everyone fared. No matter what, just looking over the list of predicted species makes for exciting anticipation.


Full survey results follow: