For the Birds Radio Program: Rare bird reports

Original Air Date: June 29, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about how to report a rare bird sighting. (4:02)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Dipper)

Two weeks ago on KUMD’s “Talkline” program, the subject of Dippers on Lake Superior came up. The American Dipper, sometimes called the water ouzel, is the most aquatic of all songbirds. It’s a medium-sized, dark gray bird with a short, wren-like tail. It lives in the western United States and Canada, all the way to northern Alaska. Its habitat is fast-moving mountain streams—it can swim and walk underwater, and builds its nests under waterfalls.

Although this specialized bird is strictly a western species, there are actually a handful of Minnesota records of this species. On January 29, 1970, a birder found a dipper on the Temperance River, in Cook County Minnesota. Two days later a dipper was sighted on the Cascade River, 19 1/2 miles northeast of the first one. The next day one was sighted halfway between the two rivers, on the Poplar River. Many birders were able to locate it on the Temperance River during most of February and into March. It was last seen on April 4 on the Baptism River, 21 miles southwest of the Temperance. There is a second-hand record of a dipper on the Manitou River in Lake County in the spring of 1969, and a final report on June 8, 1971 at the outlet of Mink Lake in Cook County–that observer reported after the fact that he had seen this species every spring from 1966 through 1971.

The dipper is an example of what ornithologists and birders call an accidental bird—one Kim Eckert, the author of A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, refers to as “X-rated.” At one time or another most people see a rare bird, or a bird that they believe may be rare. Unless they are active birders, though, they usually don’t know how to report these sightings so that they can be added to the official state lists.

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have committees in charge of evaluating rare bird reports. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology maintain these records, and over the past 60 or so years both state groups have compiled impressive lists. The Records Committees have to reject many reports, even though the birds sighted may well have been real rarities, because many of the people who report them don’t know what to write down on their reports.

Some people are offended when the bird they are sure is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is rejected, but most people are pretty fair-minded when even more likely reports are turned down. In order for an extremely rare report to be accepted, photographs or even hand drawings made while you watch the bird are always helpful, but a careful written description of the bird can also be acceptable. It’s essential to include as many field marks, like size, shape, color, markings, type of bill, and other features as you can see. Descriptions lose credibility if they were copied out of a field guide—as a matter of fact, the more information you can write down before opening any book at all, the more valid your report will be.

It’s useful practice to look at common birds and carefully write down their descriptions, and then consult a field guide and see how many features you missed. If you would like to report a rare bird seen in Wisconsin or Minnesota, you can get the address of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology or the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union by calling you local library, or drop me a line in care of this station.

(Recording of a Dipper)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”