The next few days contained little birding but what I could get out of the window of the car. There were some highlights, nevertheless – White Pelicans soaring over the Mississippi, Black Terns at prairie potholes. But just little nibbles of each. Nothing you would call a full meal of birding.
Then we were in North Dakota, possibly the worst night of the trip. We’d found no bed and breakfast to bed down or breakfast up at, so we holed up in a fraying Motel Six as rain poured down and thunder cracked. We ventured out only to get food at a nearby mediocre steakhouse.
In the midst of this, though, I knew what would cheer me up – birding. Not just any birding. Expeditionary birding, the kind that would take us off the beaten six-lane path and get us in touch with the new territory we were crossing. And I had just the target in mind – the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush.
This heavily-hyphenated Catharus is normally found far south of South Dakota – namely places like Costa Rica and Venezuela. The only U.S. records were a handfull from Texas before a lone individual was spotted in Spearfish Canyon, conveniently located almost directly between Bismarck and Rapid City, SD, where we planned to spend the night. The only change our plan would require was getting off the Interstate for Alt. Route 14 – promisingly aka’d Scenic Route 14. And, of course, getting out of the car. Jochen had tipped me off to the bird back in July, but I’d never dreamed that it would stick around until I could drop in. The Internet, however, assured me that it had.
Not that there weren’t a few potential issues. Like the fact that the thrush was active mostly in the early morning, a time when it was logistically impossible for us to be there. And the fact that, like any lonely male bird facing the onset of autumn, it had been singing less and less and lurking more and more over the past weeks. And, of course, my sad personal history with mega-rarities.
Still, if I didn’t try, there was no chance at all that I’d see the bird.
A lot of things would have been strikingly beautiful after Bismarck. Nevertheless, I can safely say that my perspective was not so warped that I am overpraising Spearfish Canyon. It was a lovely place. The road wound gently along the bottom of the canyon, and even in the middle of the afternoon long shadows fell over the pines and rock faces. I tried to get some photos, but nothing about a still imagine could really do it justice. At least, not with my photography skills. Ansel Adams might have had better luck. But even the greatest photograph on Earth could not have captured the sounds of water and wind on rock, or the smell of the trees.
The road was, not crowded, but appreciably populated with other vehicles. At first I thought they might all be birders, but it soon became apparent, not least from the number of motorcyclists among them, that many were just out enjoying the scenicness. (I’m not saying that motorcyclists can’t be birders, but I didn’t see many carrying binoculars.) In fact, when we arrived at the bird’s usual spot, there were only two other birders present. I was somewhat leery of interacting with them, because I was aware that the inevitable patch-birder backlash to invasive twitchers had begun, and I was in a car with New York license plates. As much as I wanted to run up and say “No, really, I didn’t waste that much gas just for this one bird!” I was too shy.
So I strolled up and down diffidently, one eye on the trees and one eye on the other birders. Occasionally something would move in the trees, but it proved – time and time again – to be the same American Redstart, dedicated to sowing confusion (or eating small bugs, more likely.) A few Violet-Green Swallows wheeled overhead, and above that, some turkey vultures.
The other birders left. They came back. The IT goaded me into talking to them, but they had no new information, and soon went away again.
Shortly thereafter, we entered the most awkward phase of birding – the part where you have to decide whether stay or go. I’d been there before – I suspect we all have. Other obligations, appointments, hunger and thirst and other bodily urges, the knowledge of (or uncertainty of) the drive ahead of you. And against that, the conviction that as soon as you leave the bird will pop out of the bushes and start singing its heart out, or soar in from wherever it was visiting, or flush and show a crucial field mark, or what have you. The dwindling light or growing shadows. The long uncomfortable fading of hope. It’s hard to know whether this is more difficult to deal with when you’re with other birders – dare I be a quitter in front of them? – or a non-birder who is clearly being patient and understanding.
In short, we didn’t leave, and then we did.
It got darker. We drove into higher and higher foothills, looking for our bed and breakfast, growing anxious. Finally, up a dirt road, we found it, populated with a vast flock of Wild Turkeys and a bustling birdfeeder whose clientele included Black-Headed Grosbeaks. Oh, and also a pair of very nice proprietors and their dogs.
We talked briefly about returning to Spearfish Canyon for one more stab at the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush the next day, but we had a long drive ahead of us, a drive that included Yellowstone National Park. It was not to be.
Perhaps it was road-weariness, or maybe I’m just older now, but I couldn’t even bring myself to curse this rarity out.
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