The incredible kiskadee mystery in South Dakota

I just returned from leading a bird trip the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. This is a birder’s Disneyland as bizarre and wild-looking birds like green jays, plain chachalacas, and great kiskadees are common all over the valley. I just learned, however, that I didn’t need to travel so far to view a kiskadee. I could have gone to South Dakota, just across the Minnesota border.                                                                

Great kiskdadees are a large, noisy, and brightly colored flycatcher considered an endemic to south Texas. They aren’t known to be migratory and they rarely found north of Corpus Christi. Just the fact that there is one in South Dakota is pretty amazing, but the story of how the birding community discovered it is strange, too. 

According to the blog BirdTeach, birders became aware of the kiskadee presence during the South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union fall meeting in Brookings when Lorna Jost submitted a sighting to eBird. “During the meeting, Scott, who is an eBird reviewer commented that someone reported what they believed to be a Great Kiskadee near where we were.  We all looked at each other in disbelief trying to process that information. We tried to think of what other bird would fit that description, but her description did sound like a great kiskadee.”

Everyone attending knew how unlikely a kiskadee would be so a bird like that wasn’t going to get cleared on eBird without proper documentation. “Chris emailed her back asking if the observer would please send a photo. We were surprised when the photo came through at the end of the meeting! The distant photo appeared to be a great kiskadee at a ground birdbath. Some of us raced over to the house in the country where it was reported.”

Since everyone left late in the day, the bird wasn’t visible. But first thing the next morning they headed out and found not only one bird, but three separate kiskadees. It turns out that at least one of the birds has been seen on the property for at least three months. The landowners knew it was strange, but didn’t realize how unusual it was to have a kiskadee much less who to tell about the bird. This prompts many questions! Did the birds all come up at the same time? Did two birds come up and raise a chick in the three-month period? How did they travel so far without another birder noticing? This is a fly-catching type of bird, but will visit peanut butter dough mixtures at feeders in south Texas. Will the three survive a South Dakota winter?

So I just returned from a week and a half chock full of kiskadees, yet these birds are a mere four-hour drive from my Minneapolis home. I’m half tempted to go check them out this weekend. It’s a bird that’s worth a drive!

Sharon’s Note:

Here’s a video of a green jay and great kiskadee feeding on a peanut butter feeder. The first half is regular time, the second is in slow motion but shows the kiskadee hovering to get the food.

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