The OBNT

Bird-banders keep meticulous records of each bird caught, measured, banded and released at registered stations. Wing length, breeding status, gender, indicia of health, date and time and species are recorded and reported to centralized record keepers. Catching, cataloging, banding and reporting is a lot of work. Call the Audubon Society if you want to help.

Bird-banders have invented four-letter codes for species to save time and space on their charts. It takes time and space to write down vermilion flycatcher. It is quicker to use the four letter code: VEFL.

AMWI is the American wigeon, a graceful and beautiful duck — also very tasty dinner-table fare.

STGR is the sharp-tailed grouse, a quirky ground dweller which likes to roost in trees. Also tasty on the barbie.

BCNH is the black-crowned night-heron, a reclusive but common wetland species in Wyoming. It is illegal to put these on the barbie.

The orange-billed Nightingale-thrush is almost never seen north of Mexico, but one was spotted last summer in South Dakota. (photo by Peter Grube — click to enlarge)

OBNT is the orange-billed Nightingale-thrush.

Excuse me?  Who is that?

There are familiar thrushes which we know in Wyoming: Swainson’s, gray-cheeked, and hermit thrushes we see each year in Little America, Casper, our backyard in Gillette — really all over the place.

The OBNT lives in central Mexico. They are drab and reclusive, although the song is loud and unmistakable.

Until a few months ago, there were only two records of the OBNT observed north of  Mexico —  ever —  even though thousands of birders are out and about searching for birds in Texas, Arizona and points north all the time.

I suspect there have been more reports of sighting Fidel Castro north of the Mexico border than of this reclusive thrush.

But last summer, one showed up in Iron Creek Canyon where Iron Creek flows into Spearfish Creek south of Spearfish, S.D. The Rapid City airport was filled with birders for weeks.

So, here is the true story. A very knowledgeable birder was traveling through western South Dakota and he pulled off the highway in gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, where a quaint, clear and small tributary, Iron Creek, flows into Spearfish Creek. Dragonflies, vireos, kingfishers, warblers and thrushes inhabit this mini Shangri-La.

This birder may have traveled in Central America, or at least was extremely alert. He heard the bright, distinctive song of the OBNT and, astonished, set about to record it and report the news to his birder friends and others. The crowds started to arrive.

The OBNT apparently wandered along with a bunch of Swainson’s or hermit thrushes until the latter species arrived at their ancestral nesting grounds. The guest decided to stay.

Embarrassed I am to state that I delayed the trip until I was too late. Yet even when I showed up a few days after the last sighting, there were others there looking. I even drove back into Spearfish to an Internet café to download the OBNT’s songs, then drove back to Iron Creek to play the songs on an amplified speaker which connects to an iPod or laptop. Returning a week later, I encountered several well-equipped photographers who had flown in from both coasts to seek the rare bird.  Most of these folks actually knew each other, having converged on far-flung sites of rare sightings many times.

I did not see the OBNT, but I saw many other birds and I discovered a new place to photograph and catch dragonflies. This all came to mind today because I am taking advantage of the snowy, windy cold weather to stay indoors and finish cataloguing last year’s collection of dragonflies. Several species each of bluets, spreadwings, darners, meadowhawks, forktails and skimmers can be found in these parts.

If you want to learn more about dragonflies and damselflies, Dr. Dennis Paulson at the University of Puget Sound, retired (yeah, right), suggests contacting The Slater Museum.

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Published on March 8, 2011

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