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Flight Lines: In pursuit of passion, the chase isn't always easy

Out-of-state birders line up along a South Dakota trail for a glimpse at perhaps the most talked about bird in America this year, the orange-billed nightingale-thrush. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

If Macklin Smith made the pilgrimage to the Black Hills of South Dakota you know it's something special. Really special.

Mr. Smith, for those unaware, teaches poetry at the U. of Michigan. One of his other interests is birds. For him it's more than just an interest though. Smith has seen more bird species north of Mexico than any other person ever (880 at last report). When a rare bird shows up in the country, you can bet Smith is aware.

It was the middle of July, and I was out of town. A message left on my phone was somewhat hard to understand but I got the phrase, "orange-billed nightingale-thrush" out of it. Whatever that was, I'd never heard of it.

A day later, I got a call from a trusted West Fargo friend who described a nearly unbelievable scenario taking place in Spearfish Canyon. It seems someone named Eric Ripma, a field technician for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, had indeed heard and seen an orange-billed nightingale thrush (Catharus aurantiirostris) on July 10. Not only that, it was still there and birders from all over the country were going to see it.

The Internet was buzzing with news of this bird, a Middle-American species which had only been reported twice in the U.S. - in Texas - and one was a dead specimen. This bird is in the same genus as other familiar thrushes seen around here such as veery and hermit thrush, and is about the same size. Setting it apart from the others is its bright pumpkin-orange bill with an unstreaked smoky gray breast and rusty red upper parts. What it was doing in the Black Hills is a question no one can answer with certainty.

If ever there was a bird to chase, this was it. It was extremely rare, it was in an accessible location not too many hours away, and it continued to sing daily. The problem was I didn't have the time to get away. Commitments and obligations stood in the way for two weeks. Nearly every birder I knew had been down to see it. A week prior I had even met a fellow from North Carolina while on a ferry out of Ventura Harbor in California. He had just been to South Dakota to see "the bird." Would it stay until I could get there?

Finally on August 1, the dam broke and I had two days to try for the bird. I hastily packed my tent, sleeping bag and flashlight, checked the Internet - the bird was still there - then headed down the road pumped with adrenalin, expectation, excitement and Mountain Dew. I had gotten a late start (again those obligations) and wondered whether I could get to Spearfish Canyon before nightfall. Compounding my problems was a recent knee injury, which has since been operated on. The pain in my right leg was such that I had to operate my car with the other. It was not a comfortable way to spend eight hours in the car.

The fates didn't seem to like the idea. Every possible hindrance short of catastrophic car failure played out - thunderstorms, strong head winds, endless road construction, detours, and oppressive heat. Was I really meant to see this bird? Still I continued with my left foot on the accelerator, one hand on the steering wheel, the other alternating between trying to silence a maddening vibration in the dashboard and finding the Twins game on the radio.

The miles clicked by, but so did the time. The signs to catch the attention and dollars of travelers became more numerous - "Reptile Gardens, it's a jungle in there," "Cosmos, see it, feel it," "Rushmore Cave, where nature does the carving."

By the time I reached Wall, S. D., I realized I wasn't going to make the canyon until after dark. I looked over at the glut of vehicles parked at Wall Drug and wondered how anyone could succumb to the kitschy madness of the place. It dawned on me at that moment. Every occupant of those cars would likely view my little bird excursion as a bit of madness too.

Just after dark, I pulled into the small gravel parking lot along Iron Creek. Hoping to hear the bird sing, I stepped out of the car for a few minutes. Nothing. In little time I found a campground and set up for the night after setting the alarm on my watch for 4:30.

Morning came and I packed up quickly and drove the few short miles to the site. Three cars were already there. Their occupants included a couple from Boulder, Colo., a young man from Seattle and an older fellow from Ontario. They were there to see the thrush.

At 5:06 the bird began to sing. We had "gotten" the bird. But after making this trip I had to see it. That would take nearly an hour, as the animal moved furtively and quietly through the heavy brush. That first look was brief and unsatisfactory. Nearly three hours later I finally got to see the nightingale-thrush in its full glory from 15 feet away. Yes.

The rule of thumb for chasing rare birds is get there as soon as possible. Often they are one-day wonders at best. Fortunately, the South Dakota bird was cooperative and stayed long enough for hundreds, if not thousands, of people to see it. As of this writing, in fact, the bird is still there.

It's hard to comprehend the lengths some go to pursue passion. Some climb mountains, others sail the world or walk across a continent, or even restore old cars. These are the folks who don't wait for life to come to them, they chase it. Macklin Smith knows of this passion too. Thanks to the orange-billed nightingale-thrush, he now has 881 birds. I'm just a few hundred behind him.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.