Sometimes in the birding world, the most memorable finds are the most unexpected. I had quite the experience a few weeks ago while birding in the northwestern part of the state.
I have talked many times about trying to maximize the chances of finding unusual birds by watching the weather. A friend and I watched the forecast and noticed the first fall cold front was coming down from Canada. After several days of strong south winds, just the northwest sliver of the state forecasted a shift in winds switching to the north and a good chance of rain coming through in the early hours of the morning.
To a bird, running into a wind switch and water pelting down on them is a good sign they should find a local rest stop to spend the day after migrating all night. For a birder, finding these places where birds pile up makes for a good birding day.
After picking up a friend in Minot and another in Powers Lake, we birded our way northwest, where we arrived at one of our favorite places, the Crosby Country Club.
Situated on Long Creek, it has a nice grove of trees for birds to hole up in after migrating across miles of agricultural fields. Unfortunately, the last several years have not been good to the woodlot as the big windstorms have topped the large cottonwoods from time to time, but the birds still seem to be there.
As soon as we exited the car, there were birds all around. Flashy yellow and Wilson’s warblers worked the red osier dogwoods down low. Tennessee, blackpoll and magnolia warblers worked the green ashes up higher. It was tough to decide which birds to look at with so much fluttering all around.
Soon a friend pointed out a bird sitting on the large slash pile of dead trees and branches. It was a flycatcher, but didn’t look right. Our most common is a least flycatcher, which is a small brownish bird, size of a goldfinch, with a bold light-colored eye-ring.
This bird in question had yellow flanks and a greenish back, which strongly resembled a more unusual yellow-bellied flycatcher. However, the bill was all dark, and the head and throat had a strong gray cast to it. We didn’t know what we were looking at.
Experienced birders know of the family of empidonax flycatcher, which consists of a dozen very similar species quite difficult to distinguish visually, and are mostly identified by call. Unfortunately, we are now in fall, so they will not sing or call much. One of us had a camera and started to take some pictures. This family of birds has a habit of perching in place and snatching unsuspecting bugs as they sally out and catch the little morsels to eat. Getting a photo of the bird was not difficult as it was perched at times only 15 feet away.
Shortly thereafter, a northern parula stole our attention. This very flashy warbler is more at home in Minnesota than North Dakota, so completely unexpected. It is a light blue-gray color, with bright white wing-bars and belly contrasted with a flashy yellow throat and rufous necklace cutting through.
After a couple hours of birding and a good burger for lunch at the club, we reluctantly headed home. While en route, we discussed more about the mystery bird. Pulling out the trusty Sibley guide, we studied the drawings. Only two species of empidonax have dark bills we observed, but neither was in our area. Coupling the bill with the gray head, we concluded it was a Hammond’s flycatcher. This was the first sighting ever recorded of this western species in North Dakota.
We circulated our photos to contacts out west, and all seemed to be in agreement and congrats were in order. Finding a first state sighting is definitely an accomplishment and this experience will be one of our fondest memories.