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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Westerner makes rare appearance in GF County

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Ordinarily, I’m not much of a chaser of birds, but Say’s phoebe is special, so when Dave Lambeth reported a Say’s phoebe in Grand Forks County last week, I went after it.

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Say’s phoebe is a bird of desolate places, so says Wikipedia’s account. In his “Guide to Birds,” David Allen Sibley says it occurs in open spaces. Robert E. Stewart, in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” calls Say’s phoebe “characteristic inhabitants of rough, severely eroded badlands and steep, dissected slopes of buttes in the southwestern part of the state.”

Yet here it was, in a closely enclosed, overgrown and waterlogged farmstead in Grand Forks County, far to the east of its usual range, well away from the kind of dried out desolation associated with this bird.

This is not the first Say’s phoebe to show up here. I have chased two others in Grand Forks County.

Say’s phoebe is a plain bird, grayish green on the upper side and tinged with cinnamon below. It took some looking to find it.

This bird was perched on a barbed wire fence, not far from a bridge — both familiar phoebe preferences, even if the overall setting seemed alien to the bird.

Its behavior also betrays its identity. Say’s phoebe darts from a perch, then returns and darts out again. This is a hunting technique employed by members of the flycatcher clan.

Say’s phoebe’s closest local relative is the Eastern phoebe, a fairly common nesting species here. It is also related to the kingbirds, but it’s a bit smaller than the either the Eastern or the Western kingbird and not nearly so loud or so bold as those familiar birds.

The Eastern phoebe may be even plainer than Say’s phoebe. It’s a gray bird, overall, with weak wing bars and a muted white breast, often with a gray wash.

Both birds have relatively long tails, and in both species the tail is dark — a useful field mark.

Equally helpful in identifying these birds: They habitually pump their tails, and this makes them appear nervous. Perhaps it’s a build-up to a quick hunting foray.

The phoebes are members of a family called “tyrant flycatchers,” named because of the aggressive behavior of some species, specially the kingbirds. Neither of the phoebes is especially aggressive, though, but they fit in the family because they are alike in body structure and environmental adaptations.

The tyrant flycatchers are a complicated group, amounting to about 400 species in the Western Hemisphere. The Old World has its own flycatcher family, somewhat similar but not closely related to the New World group.

Sibley lists 37 species for North America, about a 10th of the total. The number jumps to more than 80 if Central America is included. That still leaves the biggest share of the flycatchers to South America.

Stewart lists nine nesting species for North Dakota, seven of them in Grand Forks County.

The county lists totals 11 flycatchers species, including the vagrants such as Say’s and the rarer Cassin’s kingbird, a southwestern specialty. Tim Driscoll found that species in Grand Forks County in November 2010. I chased it, too. It was the first Cassin kingbird record for North Dakota.

Maybe I have an affinity for flycatchers.

Certainly for Say’s phoebe.

Say’s phoebe was the unofficial “yard bird” at our place near Blaisdell in northwestern North Dakota, where it nested in the ruins of a hip-roofed barn. This represents an adaptation for Say’s phoebe. In his description, Stewart adds, “This species is also found in the vicinity of little-used buildings (farmhouses, sheds and country schools) throughout its range.”

Perhaps this has contributed to the Say’s phoebe’s reputation as a melancholy denizen of deserted places.

The American Ornithologists Union’s Checklist of North American Birds, while verifying its preference for “arid scrub, desert and partly open situations in arid habitats,” notes, too, that Say’s phoebe ranges “into more humid open country.”

So, it fetched up in Grand Forks County.

Say’s phoebe has a historical connection to the Red River Valley. It is named for Thomas Say, a member of the Stephen H. Long Expedition of 1823, which searched for the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The expedition failed in that endeavor, but it succeeded in claiming Pembina for the United States. Long proved the settlement — then the largest in the valley — was south of the 49th parallel and thus American territory.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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