RURAL RICHWOOD, Minn. — The crowds have been gathering at a rural Becker County farm recently for a rare sight in these parts.
A peculiar, brilliantly bright red bird caught the eye of Steve Roberts, who lives seven miles east of Richwood. The bird was just hanging out in his yard.
“It looked weird — I’m no bird expert, but I didn’t think I’d ever seen it before,” said Roberts, who got a better look at it the next day and was certain he had never seen anything like it.
When his wife, Patrice, came home that evening, she saw it sitting in her garden.
“And I thought, ‘Hmm, when did I buy that cutsie little ornament?’” said Patrice. “But then I saw it fly away.”
Although the Roberts aren’t what they’d describe as “birders,” they do feed them and watch them in their yard, and they wanted to know what this thing was. Their curiosity was really perked when two of them showed up.
“They’re just beautiful, delicate little things,” said Steve, who called Wildlife Biologist Wayne Brininger, who, based on the description, began rattling off possibilities over the phone for the Roberts to look up on their iPad.
“He was naming them off, and as I looked them up I was like, ‘no, no, no’” said Steve. “And then he paused and said, ‘What about a Vermilion Flycatcher,’ and so I looked that up and boom — that was exactly it.”
And it was. Brininger went out to the Roberts farm the next day and identified it.
What makes this so unusual is that a Vermilion Flycatcher hasn’t been reported in Minnesota in 21 years. It is a bird native to South America, Mexico and the very southern tip of the United States.
So what is it doing in Minnesota?
“We have no idea,” said Steve. “There’s been speculation that maybe the hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico may have blown them up this way, but these are 1,500 miles from their northernmost range, and for two of them to actually be able to stay together and make that whole flight is phenomenal.”
Whatever brought the pair here, the circumstances had to have been rare.
Steve says the birds aren’t eating from their feeders; they’re not even eating the grubs washed up onto their driveway from the recent rains. The Vermilion Flycatcher appears to be staying true to its name.
“It just sits there and catches flies in the air,” said Steve, who says that’s maybe why the southern visitors chose their house.
“We have buffalo, and with buffalo comes flies,” he said. “And the steel siding on our house gets warm, so the flies flock there, so the birds have just been coming up and picking the them right off the side of our house.”
This smorgasbord of flies has kept the Roberts’ feathery friends hanging around for nearly three weeks now, which is another wonder. The Vermilion Flycatchers that have been spotted in Minnesota have only stuck around for no longer than three days.
And while the Roberts may be enjoying the unexpected visit from their feathery friends, they’re not the only ones taking in the view.
Perched at the Roberts
When word got out that there were a couple of Vermilion Flycatchers in Minnesota, bird-lovers began flocking to the Roberts farm.
“We came in one day and I think we had 15 messages on our answering machine — and that’s not counting the calls that I had picked up,” said Steve. “And it’s been like that every single day.”
Inundated with requests from birders wanting to come and see the rare site, the Roberts have opened their home to the birding enthusiasts who are driving many hours to get a glimpse of the birds.
“We have complete strangers just hanging out in our house,” laughed Steve. “So the other day I had leave for an appointment, and I just told them, hey, there’s coffee in the kitchen, some baloney in the refrigerator — you guys just help yourselves if you get hungry.”
In fact, Steve says over the weekend their living room was packed full of birders.
“But they are so excited and so appreciative that they get this opportunity,” said Patrice. “They’re a wonderful group of people, and I’ve learned a lot about birding and county lists, state lists, lifetime lists.”
And when the red-headed beauties come flying in, things get lively.
“You know when you’re watching a baseball game, the bases are loaded and somebody hits a grand slam?” said Steve. “That’s what it sounds like in here when one of the birds comes flying in the yard. Cameras are flashing, people are cheering.”
As of Friday, the birds were still spotted in the Roberts’ yard. Now, however, the Roberts and their large group of new best friends are hoping the birds get going while they still can.
“If they don’t leave soon, I don’t know if it’s a good prospect for them,” said Steve. “I hope they fly south soon.”