The Great (Northern) Kiskadee

IN SEARCH OF THE ELUSIVE GREAT NORTHERN KISKADEE !

My interest in birding started at an early age. My cousin was filled with alarm and excitement when he identified a new species at the Blue Mounds State Park in South Western Minnesota. He willingly shared his enthusiasm by handing me his expensive binoculars. He pointed out onto the open prairie allowing me to view a Marbled Godwit. His binoculars were the most important tool of his trade. Handing the binoculars to me represented trust and the willingness to pass on his eventual occupation and avocation.

Fifty two years later I am judging whether I can out run the first big snowstorm of the season. There is a bird that is considered a rarity in the upper midwest. My interest in birding ebbs and flows. Could I possibly want to drive for a couple of hours to Volga, South Dakota to see a bird that has frequented a couple of farmsteads close to Volga? I lamented the fact that I didn’t “give it a go” the previous weekend.

The bird of topic is called the Great Kiskadee, it is found in Coastal Mexico, Central America and South America, East of the Andes. It is a large stocky bird in the flycatcher family. Its scientific name is Pitangus Sulphuratus and it is an omnivore. It has been known to enjoy fruit and even pet food. The bird has a name that is “onomatopoetic”, that means the sound it makes…is it’s name! A Black Capped Chickadee makes a sound of “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, a Bobolink says “spink, spank, spink” just like a Mourning Dove makes a sound of “mourning”, not “morning”. Put Onomatopoetic in your storehouse of “ten dollar” words! Lets move on!

I’ve had some better than average luck in seeing a few very elusive birds in the past few years. A Streaked Backed Oriole that is found mainly in Mexico down to Costa Rica and an Elegant Trogan normally found south of the border. These were seen in southern Arizona. Recently in Peru we hiked Machu Pichu and we enjoyed identifying an Andean Condor soaring at eye level.

With an impending snow storm….Volga South Dakota sounds nearly as remote….and the likelihood of success in finding this bird ….dubious. Renown birding friends from Taiwan emailed me and inquired why I haven’t gone to Volga? Criminey, now I have peer pressure from world birding experts prodding me to sally off to find a small farmstead in Eastern South Dakota!

On the heels of this snowstorm we set out early morn for Volga not knowing what our future would hold. Neither my wife or I seem to like standing in the cold for hours at a time. Surely somebody must like doing that, but not us.

We headed down the interstate ane our G.P.S. was turned on just in time, when it connected, it immediately said “turn in nine hundred yards. We veered off to the east, then headed west down a clean blacktop road heading westerly for another dozen or so miles. Turning south for two or three miles we slowed down and noticed that (out of no where) there were cars in front of us and also cars following us. These cars were all driving a little to slow to be “normal people”. They must be birders! As a sign of predestination! we all slowly come to a halt in front of a farmstead. We look at each other wondering what other birding enthusiasts must look like? We all slowly smile at one another, yeah….we’re birders and we’ve found the right location!

With this confidence we all pull into the driveway and get out of our cars. This is the promised land of the Kiskadee and we begin our quiet vigil. We birders range from Minnesota to Aberdeen to Willmar, we’ve traveled a thousand miles total to be here! Binoculars in hand, socking hats on heads, we zip up our hoods and wander around a farmstead that we have been told is amenable to our trespassing. No one is at home, it is Sunday morning and we are the only people not in church. We see dozens of bird feeders in the yard and venture to guess that they too enjoy wildlife and birds. Our hopes lessen as we wander around this farmstead, the acreage is filled with English Sparrows and not a Great Kiskadee in sight.

There is another farmstead within walking distance, about two hundred yards to the north. It has been rumored that it also shows up at their bird feeders. They too are considered bird friendly and don’t mind people visiting. We hunker down, saunter up north and begin to prowl around. The owner meets us as we walk down the lane and points up into a tree. He smiles and states “I think this is what you are looking for.”

We all slowly and respectfully approach, not wanting to be the person to scare the bird into flight. The bird is quite taciturn and we all get our chance to photograph and observe its habits and beauty.

Our morning has been spent out of doors on a mild winter day. Nobody is frost bitten, nobody has suffered meaninglessly. We’ve all seen the spectacle called the Great (Northern) Kiskadee.

Tonight I will email my friends in Taiwan and let them know that we can add another rarity to our life list. I tell them that we escaped the impending snowstorm and that we have arrived home safe and soundly.

My cousin has long since passed away. His kindred spirit lives on in the form of a Great Kiskadee seen on a wintery day in Volga, South Dakota.

Billkeitel UnVarnished Essays-Road Notes

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2 Responses

  1. Hello Bill — I’m in the Duluth area and my family in-laws own farms in the Meadowlands / Sax / Zim area, which we visit often. They have a sizable birding event each winter up there in the “Sax-Zim Bog” area. Have you visited there and / or written about it? I’d love to give the article a read, if you could direct me to the correct archive month. Thank you,

    1. bill keitel

      Hi Ed, I have not been to Sax-Zim Bog but have heard great things. Do you have the date of that event? billkeitel

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