For the Birds Radio Program: Searching for the Elusive Groove-billed Ani

Original Air Date: Oct. 27, 1995

When a Groove-billed Ani turned up in Lutsen, Laura was on the case. 4:09

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In October, anything can happen along the bird front. Migrants get mixed up, or overly optimistic, or just plain lost. Last Sunday, for example, Kim Risen, a Twin Cities birder, came upon a Groove-billed Ani at the Lutsen sewage ponds. This awkward bird, bigger and more vertical than a Blue Jay, has a thick, heavy bill, a long tail that looks like it’s about to fall off, and black, scruffy feathers. It’s related to cuckoos and roadrunners, and lives from southernmost Texas to South America—ani is a Brazilian name for this colonial nester. It doesn’t belong anywhere near here, but gets lost on a regular basis. It’s been recorded in Minnesota about 10 times, and in Wisconsin an even dozen times. All but one of these sightings have taken place between late August and early December.

Kim Risen saw his ani about five in the afternoon Sunday. He called Mike Hendrickson, who rushed to Hawk Ridge to tell the birders there, who got word to me. But by then it was almost 6—impossible to get all the way to Lutsen before sunset. So the minute Tommy’s school bus carried him off the next morning, I set out in search of this potential lifer.

It was a vivid October morning. The drive up Highway 61 was gorgeous, with eagles and red-tails cruising overhead and Gray Jays along the roadside. I stopped for construction twice, and both times there were pipits and longspurs on the roadside to enjoy at leisure while waiting for the flagman’s go ahead. I’d never been to the Lutsen sewage ponds, but they were easy to find using Kim Eckert’s book.

I arrived at 10:45, hiked in a couple of hundred yards, and came upon two Twin Cities birders that had been searching since 7:30 without luck. They were leaving as I squeezed through the barbed wire fence to check out the ponds. I had to pass some horses first—they were friendly and companionable as I wended my way to the electric fence around the ponds. Three hundred tree sparrows, a hundred juncoes, another hundred Rusty Blackbirds, fifty pipits, dozens of white-throats, white-crowns, and Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a few Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers were feeding on bugs at the mucky edge of one pond. Two male bluebirds flew about and perched on the electric fence, one singing. A Gray Jay winged past on silent wings and started feeding on something in the weeds. Then a shrike bulleted in, and all the little birds scattered in a flurry of feathers. The shrike missed, and flew into the woods to bide his time.

There was no sign of the ani as I worked my way around the ponds. A Pileated Woodpecker called somewhere in the woods, Golden-crowned Kinglets and chickadees carried on a light conversation, and sparrows and blackbirds winged back to the pond. Suddenly in flew the shrike again, and again the birds panicked and disappeared.

I had to be back in Duluth by 2:00, so at noon I gave up. I picked big handfuls of succulent grass and went back under the electric fence. The horses greeted me like old friends, touched and surprised that I’d brought them a snack. Suddenly the shrike zipped over our heads. I like shrikes when they’re hunting grasshoppers, but this one was starting to annoy me. I bet he was the reason the ani never showed up. It would have been the perfect morning to add a lifer, but it turned out to be a perfect morning not to add one, too. I patted the horses goodbye and drove back to Duluth, happy to be alive on a lovely October day, and hopeful that the ani finds his way back to Brazil before the snow flies.