On November 27th, 2014, Ruben Rangel ran across a bird at Estero Llano Grande State Park (Hidalgo County) in far south Texas that he couldn't identify. He brought this to the attention of a few others, including Mary Gustafson, who identified it as a Red-legged Honeycreeper. Word quickly spread about this bird and a fair number of birders altered their Thanksgiving plans in an effort to see it. Several folks were able to see and photograph it over the next couple of days. The last sighting of the honeycreeper in the park was on November 29th, 2014 despite extensive efforts to refind it on subsequent days.
The photos by themselves leave no doubt about the identification. Thus, the voting and decision on this record centered on the obvious question of provenance.
Red-legged Honeycreepers are migratory in the northern part of their range which extends to southeastern part of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, roughly 300 miles from Estero Llano Grande State Park. They are found there during the summer months and typically retreat a couple hundred miles or more to the southeast to southern parts of Mexico and central America to spend the rest of the year.
Red-legged Honeycreepers are also very colorful birds and can be found for sale by pet/bird breeders, vendors and likely by locals that capture them. Florida has had a couple records of this species reviewed by their records committee and, as of this writing, all have been NOT accepted due to questions about their provenance.
For this particular record, the photographs of it during its three day stay were analyzed by experts who independently concluded that the bird in question was a hatch-year bird (hatched either in the spring or summer of 2014), likely a female. The brown juvenal primary coverts and the thin/worn retrices are consistent with a bird of this age.
The TBRC was able to consider all these factors during their review of this record. The voting members independently voted 9-0 to accept it to the Texas state list. Factoring heavily in the vote was the bird's age (hatch-year) and that it showed no signs of feather wear nor bill or feat abnormalities that might be associated with captivity. Hatch-year individuals of many migratory species are known to wander off course, particularly in the fall, and it is certainly conceivable that was the case with the Estero Llano Grande bird.
Though the TBRC does not claim to KNOW that this particular bird arrived at Estero Llano Grande of its own free will, the plausibility of this happening does not seem to be out of the question and the TBRC members unanimously deemed it more likely than an unnatural scenario where a captively held bird would appear under the same circumstances. We acknowledge that this was a judgement call where definite proof of provenance is unattainable and recognize that others may come to different conclusions. Indeed, the ABA Checklist Committee will be voting on this same record in the next few months to decide if they see the circumstances the same way as the TBRC.
Secretary, Texas Bird Records Committee, September 2015.