An Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, North America’s Rarest Bird this Week

     This week the bird hot-lines were hotter than usual all over the country.  A South Dakota birder working on the South Dakota Breeding Bird Atlas Survey was parked by a stream running through Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota. As he worked on his survey he heard a bird song that he knew was different from the South Dakota birds whose songs he readily recognized.   He began a search for the reclusive singer, got good views and adequate photos, and ultimately determined that it was an Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush.  He published his finding on the internet, and the Black Hills Bird Rush began. 

     Without the photos, I don’t suppose the birding powers that be would have believed him, notwithstanding his solid birding reputation.  This Thrush is a South and Central American bird which has, to the best of my knowledge, only been identified twice before in North America.  Both of the prior sightings were several years ago, near the Rio Grande.  When he posted his finding, members of the birding community “flocked” to Spearfish from all over the country to try to add this real rarity to their North American Life Lists. 

     When I arrived in mid-afternoon at the well described site, there was no one else there so I sat by the stream, ears tuned, to try to hear the bird.  Shortly after I arrived, Jennifer Fowler pulled into the parking area. Jennifer is a local birder, a South Dakota Bird Atlassing field worker, and a science teacher.  She had undertaken the role of keeping track of the bird and the visiting birders, and helping out all the birders who had and were continuing to come to find it.  Her list of birders was at least 150 names long, including some of the nation’s best recognized, and she was certain that she had missed some.  The list included a good representation of local birders, as well as many from far away places, such as California, Arizona and Florida.   

     Soon after she arrived she cocked her ear toward up-stream, and summoned me to follow her, which I readily did.  We continued to hear, but not see, the bird, as it moved about quickly in the heavy understory of leaves in the trees along the stream.  Several more searchers arrived, and as the evening approached we were all thrilled to get good views of the long-singing Thrush.  ( I suppose the name “Nightingale” may be a clue as to its proclivity to proclaim).  Many thanks to Jennifer.

     The next morning I returned to the site and was rewarded with an excellent scope view of the bird as it sunned itself briefly on an open branch.  I should add that I saw several Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes in Costa Rica when I was birding there in 2002.  Mission accomplished, however; it is now on my North American Life List as # 682.

3 thoughts on “An Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, North America’s Rarest Bird this Week

  1. A great account of your birding adventure. I will be in the North Cave Hills unit of Custer National Forest north of spearfish canyon in a couple of weeks. Hopefully the bird will still be there and I can add this bird to my life list. Perhaps I will make contact with Jennifer Fowler as well or another helpful birder. Thanks for the info.

  2. Hello Don-

    I enjoyed your rendition of your OBNT experience. I would like to make a correction, though. Eric Ripma was employed this summer by Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory doing transect surveys on public lands in North Dakota and South Dakota. I, however, was also employed by RMBO but was working on the SD Breeding Bird Atlas.

    Thanks for making the journey and happy birding to you!
    ~Jennifer Fowler, Black Hills, South Dakota

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