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Big, pink, and lost—a flamingo visits Cape Cod

Richard Gifford

This week, we take an in-depth look at the humble House Sparrow. No, I’m kidding - I will of course be covering the major regional news item that this week’s weirdo rare bird has become. What’s lanky and lost and pink all over? It’s the American Flamingo that spent Sunday afternoon at Chapin Beach in Dennis. Only a lucky few got to see it, but this real, actual flamingo was indeed there. But how did it get there, and where did it come from?

On Sunday afternoon, I got a text message from a birding friend in Virginia asking about a flamingo on the Cape. I had no idea what he was talking about. Turns out he had seen a post in the Cape Cod Birders Facebook group in which a woman named Fifi Gifford shared photos her husband Richard had taken that afternoon. They showed an unmistakable American Flamingo, all legs and neck plus that little football body and boomerang bill, standing in shallow water, apparently on the Dennis flats.

The photo was somewhat pixelated due to distance and heat shimmer, which, combined with the seeming absurdity of a flamingo on Cape Cod, led to unfortunate accusations of photoshopping and fakery. A birder I met at Chapin Beach the next day flatly called it a hoax. But the naysayers were all wrong - additional corroborating photos and video emerged Tuesday, taken by a woman named Sam Roth a little earlier on Sunday afternoon, exonerating the Giffords.

But the better birders didn’t waste time questioning the veracity of the photos – they knew it was real because a very real flamingo had just spent Friday and Saturday in a shallow bay on Long Island, then disappeared by Sunday morning. This was almost certainly that same flamingo – it headed to the Cape like so many New Yorkers in summer. The call went out immediately on the rare bird texting group with suggestions to check all tidal flats along the bay shore, plus places like Nauset Marsh, and also Monomoy, where an escaped Chilean Flamingo spent some time in August of 1985. No luck – the leggy, pink visitor had vanished.

Normally we would assume a flamingo in Massachusetts had escaped from a zoo or private collection, as was the case with two American Flamingos that turned up north of Boston back in 1964, and that Chilean Flamingo at Monomoy. But way back last August, something happened that moves the needle toward a wild origin for this one. That’s when Hurricane Idalia ripped north through the Gulf of Mexico, picked up a payload of flamingos on the Yucatan Peninsula, then peppered them around the eastern US. Literal flocks of flamingos were seen from Florida to as far north as Wisconsin, and two even ended up in a farm pond in Pennsylvania. Displaced birds were seen up north into October before they finally disappeared. A small flock was still in Georgia as recently as this week.

What this bird does next is anyone’s guess. We know from past birds that hurricane displaced flamingos can become permanent refugees, wandering for years rather than finding their way back to the Caribbean. It could be in Canada by now for all we know. But we should still be vigilant, scanning any shallow flats for this out-of-place, child’s stick-figure of a bird. This would have been a life bird for me – I’ve never seen one anywhere. I’m trying to remain positive, but with each passing flamingo-less day, I’m losing hope. At this point, I suspect the next pink flamingo I see will be on a lawn at a trailer park.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.