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This glaucous gull represents the first recorded appearance in Cass County. Photo submitted by Dean Riemer.

Flight Lines: West Fargoan adds species to county bird list

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A 2006 poll conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed North Dakotans among the least likely Americans to be bird watchers on a per capita basis at 14 percent. Only Hawaiians polled lower among the 50 states. I've got my own theories as to why this might be the case but let's put that aside for another time and assume the data are reasonably accurate.

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Consider what this means to bird biologists. A lot, if not most, of what we know of birds and their distribution in this country originates not with various biological studies, but with the efforts of passionate citizens spending time looking at birds. Reams of data and records spring from elsewhere - like Montana (40 percent birders) and Maine (39 percent) - but relatively little flows from our fair state. This leads to comparative gaps in the total understanding of species migration and distribution. What it means for the few who do partake in the study of birds around here, however, is the landscape is ripe for exciting finds. It's not quite the Brazilian rainforest, but in this country North Dakota is as open to discovery as it gets.

A number of Cass County firsts have entered the books within the last few years mainly because of great efforts made by certain individuals. A contributing factor is the wide and growing array of tools available to birders to aid in identification. Not all that long ago the Peterson field guide was all there was. Today we have scores of field guides, in-depth studies of specific families, not to mention the Internet, all contributing to a body of resources anyone can tap into, some nearly unimaginable a few decades ago. Despite all that, it still takes individuals willing to go out and put in the time.

I only mention this because of an interesting episode which occurred April 12. That was the day West Fargoan Dean Riemer located and positively identified a glaucous gull, a first-ever record for Cass County. If anyone needs to be congratulated for this find it's Riemer, who has spent many hours in the field searching for this rare bird. "I've been looking for it since 2006," Riemer said.

Gulls are typically associated with large bodies of water. The Fargo area is not blessed with a nearby ocean or even a large inland lake such as Duluth enjoys. Nor is it situated beside a major river along which gulls can easily travel like Bismarck. Still, the birds do show up here but in somewhat lesser numbers.

As a group, gulls are ripe fruit when it comes to new records. These are large birds with long wings capable of long distance travel, thus vagrancy has come to be expected of them. Glaucous gulls, for instance, breed in the high Arctic.

Finding the birds is one thing - around here the flocks tend to center their activities near the landfill - identifying them is quite another. Larger ones like glaucous gulls take four years to achieve adulthood. Until that time the birds are in a near-constant state of molt, changing their feathers and their appearance every season, which can make for very frustrating identification problems. There are some bird watchers who simply refuse to wade into the murky waters of gull identification.

Which is what makes Riemer's find all the more deserving. In addition to spending countless days looking at gulls and other birds, Riemer does his homework by studying books and communicating with experts.

Cass County's gull list has grown by a few species over the last decade yet there are still some which have not ever been found. "Any gull that we don't have I've been looking for," said Riemer, "Great black-backed, slaty-backed, and glaucous-winged gulls are my next targets."

In addition to gulls, other species undoubtedly show up locally but go unnoticed by the scant number of people looking at them and for them. When asked what the next new species for Cass County might be Riemer was quick to respond, "Glossy ibis is my next bird for the hit list."

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