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Flight Lines: Ten species to watch for in this decade

With verified sightings from Montana, Manitoba, Minnesota, and South Dakota, a glimpse of a curve-billed thrasher in North Dakota is overdue. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

As a young child, one of the stranger memories I can recall is seeing a publication in December of every year featuring the predictions of Jeane Dixon, a prominent psychic of the day. I can't remember if it was National Enquirer or some other tabloid, but the issues trumpeted all sorts of impending doom and mayhem straight from the mind of Dixon. I gave it curious glances, but even at that age it was sort of laughable.

I can't pretend to know the future, no one can. But a recent issue of Birding magazine (the journal of the American Birding Association) revisited some guesses made a decade ago and compared them to today's reality. Ten years past, some prominent and knowledgeable bird experts were asked to foretell which new species of birds would show up in North America. They got some right, but most were wrong. Still it was a fun exercise in bird lore.

So as we approach the end of the new century's first decade (don't quibble with me on when the century started - it was 2001), I thought it would be entertaining to envision North Dakota's next 10 new birds for the upcoming decade.

The state's official bird checklist currently has about 386 species, give or take. More are added almost every year as some odd out-of-place vagrant shows up somewhere to thrill the state's bird folk. The list then, is ever growing, albeit slowly.

I've given this quite a bit of thought recently and had a group of likely candidates ready to reveal about a month ago. Immediately I had to revise it as my number one likely species - Cassin's kingbird - was found last month by a couple of birders in Grand Forks County.

This isn't as easy as one might think. You can't just open a field guide and start throwing darts at birds North Dakota hasn't experienced. No, it takes at least some thought. The way I figure it, there are new birds appearing in the state all the time. It's just that we have so large a territory and so few bird watchers, a great majority go unnoticed. In order to make my prophecy list, a species has to stand out in some way from the crowd; something about the bird has to scream, "Look at me." Those are the more likely candidates.

Also, I looked at data from surrounding states and provinces. In some cases, North Dakota represents a "hole" on the map, where every adjoining state has an occurrence of some bird and we don't.

Then there are the birds with a propensity to wander. Indeed there are a handful of species which make a habit out of roaming well outside what would be considered normal territory. Those were given serious consideration.

After sifting through those criteria and adding my own hunches, I've whittled my 'next-ten-new-birds-for-North Dakota-in-the-next-decade' list to the following species. Get out your field guides; here they are in taxonomical order:

1. Magnificent frigatebird; a large, distinctive, oceanic bird which can cover huge distances on long wings, seen mostly along the Gulf Coast. Saskatchewan and Ontario each had one this year.

2. Black vulture; a Southeastern specialty. But like the species above, this bird can soar for hundreds of miles.

3. Mississippi kite; another soaring raptor with records from Minnesota and South Dakota. It's only a matter of time for this one.

4. Black rail; a tiny, sparrow-sized, marsh skulker, this one makes very distinctive vocalizations and was found nesting in South Dakota this year.

5. Slaty-backed gull; a fairly new bird on the North American scene, this gull has shown up in widely-spaced locales the last few years.

6. Common ground-dove, a far-south species with records as close as South Dakota and Minnesota.

7. Groove-billed ani; a meandering, subtropical species with records from South Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba.

8. Fork-tailed flycatcher; a mostly Central American bird that shows up almost annually somewhere in the U.S. Very distinctive.

9. Curve-billed thrasher; this Southwestern species also wanders north regularly (South Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba).

10. Scott's oriole; yet another Southwestern species with close records--Ontario and Minnesota.

See you in December, 2020, and we'll see how I did.