The email arrived in my inbox late in the day Jan. 7.
The sender’s address was immediately recognizable as that of friend and fellow bird watcher, Moorhead’s Matt Mecklenburg. But, it was the tenor and tone of the subject line that caught my attention. There, for all addressees to see, was the hastily scribbled, anxious words of a desperate person. It read: “Ivory Gull … I can’t take it anymore.”
Thus, his plea had gone out and the game – to borrow from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character – was afoot.
I’ve pursued rare birds numerous times over the years; some I’ve successfully seen and savored, others I whiffed on in disappointing failure. In every instance, though, there is palpable excitement, a pulse-inducing eagerness, and the giddy anticipation of potentially seeing something remarkable, something rare, something unique. All the while frantically clinging to the hope that the bird will still be there when you arrive. Birders simply call the arguably crazy process “chasing.”
What brings a person to the conclusion that running after rare birds is an acceptable thing to do is probably an area best left for psychology. Yet I’m fairly certain there is a mixture of motivations involved. For some, it might be as simple as alleviating boredom or the satisfaction that comes from being with a group of like-thinking individuals. For others, it is perhaps the excitement of embarking on a sort of adventure or, more likely, the chance to check off a rare species on one’s coveted “life list.”
Then there is surely the competitive angle. For those readers unaware of the sometimes cutthroat world of bird-watching, look no further than the motion picture, “The Big Year,” based on Mark Obmascik’s true account of three highly ambitious birders vying for a world record species total in 1998. Granted, a high degree of artistic license was exercised for the Hollywood comedy, but the movie did an adequate job of informing the general public about the dog-eat-dog nature of competitive birding.
There are bird chases involving every level of attention from worldwide to very local. Just last week, a snowy owl was located on the southwest edge of West Fargo. Even the news of this fairly common winter visitor attracted the attention of local birders with several driving out to see this magnificent white owl.
Once a new-found or even rare species is discovered in a place like Borneo or South America, the race to see it begins with folks around the globe purchasing airline tickets and arranging for local guide services.
Such an event often translates into thousands of dollars being injected into the local economy by itinerant birders.
I’ve had several failures in my chase attempts. There’s the time I drove across the state to a farmstead northwest of Dickinson in hopes of seeing a spectacular male painted bunting. I turned out to be a day late. Or the time a friend and I slogged up a steep foggy mountain in Maine to see a Bicknell’s thrush.
We missed it.
Stacy Adolf-Whipp, a wetland district manager at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge near Jamestown, knows well the highs and lows of chasing rarities. A couple springs ago she and two other North Dakota birders hustled down to Nebraska in hopes of seeing a rare common crane being seen among the thousands of sandhill cranes. They looked for an entire day and part of the next morning only to hear the bird had been located just a few miles from where they were. By the time she and the others arrived, it had flown away.
“It was hard to leave knowing someone had seen it so close to us,” she said, “but we had a long drive ahead of us.”
On the flip side, there are the triumphs. I’ve tallied birds like the U.S.’s third-ever orange-billed nightingale-thrush in South Dakota’s Spearfish Canyon in 2010, an incomprehensible ivory gull on the South Dakota/Nebraska border in 2008, or the state-rare Lewis’ woodpecker in the national grasslands somewhere west of Grassy Butte, all successes for me.
The ivory gull in Duluth continues to generate plenty of buzz in print, radio and television. First found on Dec. 30, this sea bird marks Minnesota’s 12th record. Mecklenburg had considered ever seeing this species a “giant question mark,” it being so rare south of the Arctic Circle. But after his email reeled in another local birder to join him on the one-day Duluth-and-back drive, they succeeded in getting great looks Jan. 9 with about 15 others.
“It was well worth the nine hours of driving time in one day,” he said.
Corliss is a West Fargo native, avid birder and a North Dakota Game and Fish instructor.