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Flight Lines: Elusive flycatcher found near West Fargo

Joe Gregg, Horace, awaits an appearance from a rare Acadian Flycatcher near West Fargo along with other area birders. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

Last Sunday I asked for a copy of North Dakota's most recent record of Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens); it soon arrived via email. In the dispassionate language of scientific data, the entry simply stated, "5/29/1973 (1 called) Montpelier (LCH)." Translated it means someone with the initials LCH had heard this species calling in Montpelier in late May, 1973. Presumably "LCH" did not even see the bird. Prior to this there is only one other record from the state, a specimen recovered in Grafton in 1927 which now purportedly resides within a collection at the University of North Dakota. These are facts that make what occurred Sunday all the more significant.

The blizzard of migratory birds which had shown up in May had all but completely departed the area for nesting grounds farther north by last weekend. Still, it's instructive and informative to get out and census the species that stay here to breed, determine habitats in which they are found, and observe their behaviors. Plus, in the back of every birder's mind, there's always the exciting prospect of finding something weird, something out of place, something which will generate a raised eyebrow from fellow birders. With all this in mind, I slowly walked along a beautiful wooded trail on property north of West Fargo early in the morning, looking and listening.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks were singing from the upper reaches of mature oak trees, Baltimore orioles were sallying back and forth among the tall stands of woods, and eastern wood-pewees were heard uttering their plaintive "pee-o-wee," from deep in the shadows. I even passed within 30 feet of a huge pileated woodpecker working diligently on dismantling a tree stump; it didn't seem to care I was there.

An hour later I approached within 50 feet of a road and heard a bird song I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing in quite some time. It was short, it was loud, and it was distinctive. "Pizza!," or phonetically, "PEET-suh." Could this possibly be what I thought it was? Could this be an Acadian flycatcher nearly within the city limits of town?

Frustratingly, I was not able to get a glimpse of the bird as it stuck to the dappled dark shadows high among the leafy branches. I was still not ready to accept the evidence I had just encountered so I sped home to find a recorded rendition of the bird's song. I found the entry for Acadian flycatcher and hit "play" on my MP3 player. Out of the speaker - to my relief - came the exact same two-note explosion, "PEET-suh." Bingo! The nearly 40-year drought of Acadian flycatcher sightings in North Dakota had come to an end.

Acadian flycatchers are birds of the southeast U.S. where they are considered common in mature forests during the breeding season. The species winters in South America.

All the members of the genus Empidonax share a very similar physical appearance with an olive-to-gray back color, a light breast, prominent wing bars, and at least the suggestion of an eye-ring. Telling them apart can be extremely problematic. So much so that some sources simply suggest unless you hear the bird (thankfully, all have distinctive voices), you cannot make a species determination.

The similarity contributes to the confusing lore of the common name. The word "Acadia" was given to the early French colony in Southeast Canada. Supposedly, the Empidonax genus was first discovered there. But the 15 species are so alike they were all thought to be the same bird. Today we know differently and the Acadian flycatcher doesn't even get to Acadia, but somehow the name stuck.

Honestly, this was a bird I had been anticipating showing up in the area. It nests regularly as nearby as Southeast Minnesota so an "overshoot" of sorts was nearly expected. That said, unless a person knows what one is hearing, this bird easily passes unnoticed. I would go so far as to say, the species very likely shows up from time to time in our area but no one is there to hear it much less identify the singer.

Luckily, for about a dozen people Sunday, the bird stuck around pretty much all day and called consistently until early afternoon. It was not relocated Monday. But be mindful, though, that in any given location with large mature woods, a fairly loud "Pizza!" might be heard. If you do, I'll expect a phone call.