Perhaps you’ve encountered MAPS — Most Alarming Predicament Syndrome. It affects not just those of us wandering without a GPS — it will derail some migrant birds this spring.

They will fly from wherever to a wrong place. With any luck for ardent local birders, they will fly here. These birds have become wanderers, their navigation systems gone gollywhompus (not an ornithological term).

This actually happens. Something goes haywire in the bird’s brain, causing its usually very reliable navigation skill to malfunction. Perhaps its sensitivity to magnetic fields is compromised, like a paper clip stuck to one of the magnets. Maybe it can no longer identify those star formations that offer direction. You can understand that. You learned to find the constellation Cygnus one night while camping with an uncle, and haven’t seen it since.

These wanderers are likely to die, and, if male, die disappointed at that. The birds they seek as mates are where they belong. Not here.

But before the end, these geographically impaired birds could bring joy to one or more of our seriously earnest birders. The birds are accidentals, you see, vagrants, casuals, rarities. They are coup marks on a life list, chase-worthy.

The chase is on

Been there, done that. I’ve left my office (when I had an office, one with an accommodating partner, so good I married her) at literally a moment’s notice to drive from Plymouth to Grand Marais. One year I did it three times in three weeks. (What a fine woman.)

I’ll bet you don’t do that. It’s possible that some birds you’ve seen many times still look casual to you, rare even. That just makes it more fun, right? Always something new.

I’ve come to believe that the pleasure received when seeing a particular species for the first time is worth repeating. It’s not the bird that’s important here. It’s how you feel about the bird.

Seeing a vagrant bird often is something a birder wants to share. It’s like a hole-in-one or at least a 50-foot putt. Birds or golf, proof is essential. What a tragedy to make a hole-in-one while golfing alone.

Same with birds. For a serious birder, it’s absolutely no fun if the birding community finds your story implausible. And believe me, that happens. Been there, done that, too.

For the record

My first two submissions to the Minnesota records committee (with detailed notes, like an automobile accident report for a doubtful insurance company) for supposed noteworthy species died quick deaths. My detail was insufficient. Plus, I did not have a reputation as being undeniably expert at what I was doing. Some birders do; their word is as good as 18-karat gold.

Official records are kept of bird species seen in the state. It’s done for science. Perhaps the species is extending its range.

Also, birds inadvertently overextend migration. Weather blows birds off course. Birds recently fledged sometimes wander. Or, the bird simply malfunctions.

Digital photography has come to the rescue of both science and all-of-a-twitter birders. Today, everybody carries a camera of some kind. A photo of a rare bird easily is worth a thousand words. While the record-keepers still want the thousand words, of course, the photo is a good head start.

But one of the joys of casual, just-for-fun birding is sharing your stories with an uncritical audience. Like they care if you’ve seen a particular bird for the first time in your life, three years in a row.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at Join his conversation about birds at