Rara Novice, or Learning to Chase Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes

Hiding in South Dakota  photo: D. Backlund

   *** Many of you have no doubt been directed here from other birding blogs.  Thanks for checking out my take on the OBNT. When you're done be sure to click the black&white image at the top of the page to direct you to my most recent posts about working as a birder in Micronesia! Thanks again, enjoy, ***
   I spent most of the morning thinking about why I wasn't going to do it. Then about half an hour laughing at all the types of people who do it. Then, around 11 a.m., I  did it. I went rare bird chasing. Usually I'm able to keep this kind of behavior under wraps, dismissing it to the realm of Tilley hats, multi-pocketed vests, extensive list-keeping, and other such birding tackiness. It's the same reason I don't keep a life list (or, "not yet", as they tell me).

   Flocking like lunatics to rare birds always struck me as unnecessary, slightly cruel, and, moreover, missing the point. These birds, generally blown off course by storms or other freak instances, are usually confused and often doomed to undesirable ends. Being the only one of your kind in a new town is a hard lot (even worse, there aren't any girls of your species around). In this light, flocking en masse to watch these disoriented individuals always seemed a bit...morbid.
   Besides, my greatest pleasure in knowing the birds has always been the understanding they bring to the environment around us. Seeing birds in their habitat, surviving, working, and breeding, opens up an awareness to life that is hard to match. It is the same sublime beauty we feel when watching one thousand Broad-winged hawks flying south in the Fall. A vagrant bird, far off course, is hardly any great expression of this notion.
   These were the things I told myself at breakfast, and these were the things I conveniently forgot about as I climbed onto my bike and raced off towards Spearfish, SD.  The day before, Eric Ripma, a coworker on the Black Hills project had passed along word that he'd spotted what seemed to be an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. His email included some pretty intriguing, if not slightly fuzzy, photos of the thing.

   The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush is a bird of southern latitudes, found in the mountains of Mexico and further south in countries like Colombia and Costa Rica. Outside this finding, the bird had only been recorded in the U.S. twice. Both times were just over the border in Texas. It seemed almost absurd for it to be so far north, a notion Eric was well-aware of (and the reason he waited until securing photographs before reporting it to anyone).

   It was a good excuse for a bike ride, anyway. I blasted off into the Hills, relishing the great twists and turns of the mountain roads. I'd driven these roads many times, but had always been confined to the cage of my company truck. The Hills were beautiful and bright green. I reached the turnoff for scenic-byway 14A and cut right, following Spearfish Creek north. The bird had been hanging out near the gravel parking lot (how nice of him) where Iron Creek met Spearfish. The posting had gone up the day before, so I wasn't sure on what kind of crowd to expect. It was a near certainty that a good number of listers, twitchers, and skeptics would be showing up in the next couple days, but I hoped that I could beat the crowd.

   I pulled into the parking area stopping next to an older couple baring binoculars. A few feet down the trail I could see a high-powered telephoto lens resting on a tripod. A middle-aged guy in shorts and a wide-brimmed hat waited expectantly nearby. Still, that was it, and with only three folks around it seemed I'd made good on missing the throng. I said hello to the photographer and asked about the bird.

   "Yep, he's been pretty cooperative today!" he said, "The guy who found him is up there on the rocks."

   I said thanks and went up to find Eric. We'd never met, having exchanged emails only, but I recognized him instantly, being the only other birder under forty. I introduced myself and sat down on the rocks. We traded notes about the work and talked birds while waiting for the thrush to reappear. It didn't take long. As soon as it sang I could see why Eric had spent so much time looking for it. It stood out like a siren against the usual songs and calls of the Hills. It was flute-like in the typical thrush fashion, but no one with an ear for song would have confused it for the common (but still beautifully-voiced) Veery or Swainson's thrushes.

   It took about an hour (and, admittedly, a minute or two of audio playback) for the bird to come out. He looked pretty sharp for a bird that must have made a tremendous journey to get here. The bright orange of the bill was stunning, reminded me almost of the Great Thrushes I'd seen in Colombia. A few more birders had arrived by this point, but they were too far down the trail to catch sight. The bird sang a few bars, then retreated into the canopy.

   My pace had definitely quickened a bit when my binoculars fell upon the bird. I tried to ignore this, reminding myself that I wasn't this type of birder. I made a few rudimentary audio recordings with my camera's microphone, and reminded myself again that I wasn't this type of birder. I had a fast-approaching dinner date back in Rapid City, but I hung around a while, enjoying the sunshine and talking birds with the other spectators. Something in my brain told me I'd better go. Otherwise, it wouldn't be long before I realized: maybe I was this type of birder.

   I thanked Eric for the find and hopped back on the bike. It was unusually warm and the ride out was beautiful. I'd ridden an hour and a half into the hills for a thirty-second-long glimpse of a completely, ridiculously, misplaced bird. I'd even tried to make a recording of it (not to mention then going home and writing about it). Like motorcycles, birds can be a dangerously sweet addiction.

   Well, I rationalized to myself, it was a good excuse for a bike ride, anyway.

Unless you're really into still shots of t-shirts, you can ignore the video part.
This is the audio capture I got with my dinky point and shoot camera.


  1. You just crossed over into the Dark Side ... ornithologists, avian ecologists & bird research techs like you and I are not birders, but we do like to go birding now and again. As far as life lists go, if you remember it always then you really did see it. So many folks have a life list of xxxx # of species but when asked they can't recall which bird is what.

    Wish I could have been there!

  2. Haha, right on. Good hearing from you too!

  3. best post yet cyrus- i identify with this one 100%-

  4. Man, I know. I'm falling in deeper every day.

  5. Howdy-- from another Honda Shadow rider heading to the hills this week for the obvious show, I'm hoping anyone has current info on the bird. Since I'll be there anyway, is it still around? And where...?

    - Dave in Denver

  6. I left on the 24th of July, and am no longer in South Dakota. I stopped there on my way out and the bird was singing as vociferously as ever. Wish I could be of more help than that! Good luck. There are always Dippers out there to see, if nothing else! Where'd you ride from?

  7. Rode up from Denver, on my Aero 1100. No Dippers, but I did catch a bunch of American Redstarts, and one Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush! I'd hiked in a 1/2 mile a couple days earlier and came up empty, but that was mid-afternoon, and hotter'n shit. On thurs the 12th, at 7:40-ish, the bird was heard and seen (50 feet from the trailhead, duh...) by a handful of us. Freaking THRILLED that I caught it. Wasn't expecting that much luck in 45 minutes of standing there. Other birders helped.