For the Birds Radio Program: Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Original Air Date: June 1, 1992

What kind of a mother would drag her husband and little children a hundred and twenty miles just to see a bird?

Audio missing


On May 6th, Kim Eckert called me up at 4 in the afternoon to tell me there was a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Grand Marais. I’ve wanted this bird ever since my good friend Frank Freese got the first Wisconsin state record on November 13, 1978, in Columbia County. Although Frank saw and photographed the bird several times during the next three days, every time he brought someone around, the bird disappeared. It took almost ten years for a second state record, not far from Superior in June 1988. I chased that one, too, but never did see it.

One or two of these gorgeous tropical birds, whose normal range is in Central and South America, inexplicably wander to the eastern United States most years, usually in autumn. The first one on record for Minnesota was seen just last September in Duluth by Twin Cities birder Peder Svengen. He had a camera handy and photographed it before running for a phone to alert other birders. Kim Eckert and I arrived within 20 minutes, but it had flown the coop, never to be seen again. It was clearly a gamble to drive all the way up to Grand Marais on almost literally a wild goose chase. Since it was already 4 pm, it was even a gamble whether we’d make the 2 1/2 hour drive before dark. But I mindlessly packed up my kids and a few hours worth of toys, picked up my husband Russ at work, and headed up the shore.

I was sure grateful for our Nintendo Game Boy on this long, boring car ride. The birding trait is not an inherited one, and though my kids all pretty much like birds, no way would any of them have been so willing to make the trip for one lousy bird if Mother’s Day wasn’t right around the corner. Russ was wearing the same sardonic grin he had the time I dragged three-year-old Katie and one-year-old Tommy up to Grand Marais for a King Eider that disappeared 10 minutes before we arrived, never to be seen again. I sure wanted this bird to stick around.

The drive was a pleasant one until we got to Silver Cliff, where they’re building the new highway tunnel. They had just stopped traffic to blast, and we were stuck there for 25 minutes. The late afternoon sun sank below the cliff, making me panicky. When we finally got the green light, my foot was pretty heavy on the accelerator.

Three hungry children, a bemused spouse, and I arrived in Grand Marais at 7:15. We went to the sewage treatment plant where Kim said the bird had been earlier that day. It was cold, with a brisk wind off the lake, so everyone but me stayed in the car. I joined forces with two birders from Thunder Bay.

Suddenly, there was the bird, sitting on a rock in plain view, as gorgeous as I knew it would be. It was sleek, with a black helmet and back and snow white underside, looking rather like a chickadee on steroids. Although one tail streamer had broken off and the other had become a bit worn on its long journey, it was more exotic than any bird I’ve ever seen, the remaining tail streamer much longer than the bird’s whole body. We could even see his yellow crown.

Russ and the kids figured as long as they were there anyway they might as well check it out. Usually they take birds pretty much in stride, but this one impressed them all. Every time it flew out to snatch an insect, its exotic tail fluttered in the wind. All the kids were happy, especially because the sacrifice they made that day took care of their Mother’s Day obligations.

That brave little wanderer from the tropics hung around in unseasonably cold Grand Marais for 9 more days, and now graces the life lists of grateful birders from throughout the country. It was last seen on May 15. I wish it godspeed on its way home.