A small South American bird has made its way to Texas—and bird watchers are flocking to the Lone Star State for a chance to glimpse the out-of-place creature.
The yellow-bellied bird, called a cattle tyrant (Machetornis rixosa), is thousands of miles from its typical home. Its presence in Corpus Christi marks the first time the species has been spotted in the United States. And according to Texas Monthly’s Christopher Collins, it’s also the first record of the bird anywhere on the continent, north of Panama.
Cattle tyrants are medium-sized flycatchers with light yellow belly feathers, olive-brown back feathers and grayish crown feathers. They usually hang out in pairs or small flocks in farmland and marshes, where they trail behind grazing animals to snap up insects.
It’s not clear how or why this cattle tyrant ended up in Texas, but birders have a few theories: Perhaps the creature hitched a ride on a boat or was blown northward by a storm. Another possible explanation is that something disrupted the Earth’s magnetic field, which birds may use to navigate.
Whatever the reason, it seems fitting that the cattle tyrant landed in Corpus Christi, which has been nicknamed the “Birdiest City in America.” Situated in south Texas along the Gulf of Mexico, Corpus Christi hosts more than 200 species of birds. It’s a popular stopping point for various songbirds, shorebirds and other avians during the spring and fall migration seasons.
The cattle tyrant first caught the attention of David Essian, a biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, in mid-November. When Essian first spotted the bird, he was about 20 feet away and could only see its back, which seemed unusual at first glance. When the creature turned around and Essian saw its bright yellow belly, he still had no idea what he was looking at, he tells Raul Alonzo of Texas Standard.
Since the bird didn’t resemble any of the North American species he knew, Essian began to think about all the birds he’d seen or researched from Latin America. That’s when he finally realized he was observing a cattle tyrant far from home.
“Some people were also confused or like, ‘You mean you saw a cattle egret, right?’” he tells Texas Standard, referring to the common, white, wetland-dwelling bird. “And I’m like, ‘No, I saw a cattle tyrant.’”
He shared his sighting with a local birding group for rare finds, which prompted other birders to begin making their way to downtown Corpus Christi. Ever since, bird watchers have been posting photos and sightings of the cattle tyrant on eBird, a popular citizen science platform.
Well, we went down for the Corpus Christi Cattle Tyrant. First record north of Panama. Most likely ship assisted, but a darn cool bird. pic.twitter.com/CCoJwsRptl— Cin-Ty Lee (@CinTyLeeEarth) November 20, 2023
The bird was later seen near La Retama Park and along the city’s Chaparral Street. It briefly hopped onto an apartment patio, then spent time catching bugs that were buzzing around some garbage.
Mike Williams, a birder from Sugar Land, Texas, hopped in his car and made the roughly three-hour drive southwest to see the cattle tyrant.
“It’s a very obliging bird hanging around a dumpster on the side of the road for flies,” he told Chron.com’s Ariana Garcia. “Not the most photogenic location, but I guess a great source of food.”
Chased a rare bird this morning in Corpus Christi - the Cattle Tyrant. First time this bird has been recorded north of Panama and let us take lots of pics. pic.twitter.com/PoLiEWIb8c— Marline McGuire (@mcguire_marline) December 2, 2023
Another bird watcher, Liam Wolff, drove more than seven hours from Alpine in western Texas to see the cattle tyrant. Like Essian, Wolff is also a scientist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.
“I had just proposed to my girlfriend and we were coming back,” he told KIII-TV’s Bill Churchwell. “I got the news; we had to see the bird.”
Out-of-place birds, like the cattle tyrant in Corpus Christi, are known as “vagrants.” This year, many different vagrants have been spotted in the U.S., creating what can be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for bird watchers to see them. Over the summer, a roseate spoonbill landed near Green Bay, Wisconsin, which was the first time anyone had seen the species alive in the state. A few months later, flamingos were also spotted in Wisconsin, as well as at least ten other states.