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Jacobs: Seldom seen bird species show up in the Red River Valley

Trumpeter swans occurred here, probably in fairly large numbers, until the late 1800s, when people swarmed over the landscape.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

July brought reports of several birds that are seldom seen in the Red River Valley. Among these were trumpeter swans, Virginia rails and scissor-tailed flycatchers.

A third brood of trumpeter swans was found in Grand Forks County. The first of these, reported by Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders, was the third modern nesting record for the species in Grand Forks County, thus more than doubling the previous known nests.


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Trumpeter swans occurred here, probably in fairly large numbers, until the late 1800s, when people swarmed over the landscape. Many of these were homesteaders who supplemented what they were able to grow with what they were able to hunt. Trumpeter swans are large enough to feed a family for several days, and so they became tempting targets
The most recent historic record of trumpeter swans in northeastern North Dakota is from 1898, when “a few swans were reported in the Devils Lake area during the breeding season,” as Robert E. Stewart notes in his book, “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” published in 1975.

Lambeth reported, “The first modern-day nesting record for North Dakota was near McCanna in Grand Forks County.” Adult birds without young have been noted in the county.


In a posting to the Grand Cities Bird Club’s listserv, Lambeth gave a brief history of trumpeter swan recovery. “It was reintroduced into Minnesota with eggs that were flown in from Alaska. From that start the population exploded in Minnesota and has spilled over into neighboring Wisconsin, North Dakota and Manitoba. …There are other nestings occurring in the eastern part of the state and as far northwest as the Turtle Mountains. That in my mind is an astounding expansion in just 14 years!”

Swans of a different species are abundant in the Red River Valley in migration. These are tundra swans. Tundra swans migrate diagonally across North America from nesting areas in northwestern Canada and Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound on the mid-Atlantic Coast.

Tundra swans were once called “whistling swans,” a boon for birders because the species can be told apart by voice. Distinguishing them on sight is a trickier business. Trumpeter swans are larger, but in general appearance the species are nearly identical. There’s a checklist of facial features that serious birders use to clinch the identification.

The second seldom seen species is a scissor-tailed flycatcher, seen last week near Buxton, N.D. “How unusual is that?” Lambeth asked in his post. His answer: “Something like winning the lottery even when no ticket was purchased.” He cited three North Dakota records, one near Dickinson, one near Bismarck and the third near Kensal northeast of Jamestown.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher is an iconic bird of the southern Great Plains. In fact, it’s the state bird of Oklahoma, where it receives the kind of loving attention that we North Dakotans show our state bird, the western meadowlark, or Minnesota theirs, the common loon.

The third of the seldom seen birds that showed up in Grand Forks County is not a stranger here, it’s just sneaky: the Virginia rail. The Grand Forks County checklist rates it “fairly common,” and “Breeding Birds of Manitoba” uses the same classification for the southern third of the province.

The trouble with the rail is that it is an elusive species. Just about every account of the species begins with the phrase “more often heard than seen.” And more often heard at dusk and dawn and the middle of the night.

The Virginia rail is not exclusively nocturnal. I’ve seen them scurry across gravel roads passing through wetlands. It’s the wetlands that present the problem in finding rails. They favor shallow water with lots of reeds and rushes, the kind of habitat that humans find it difficult to get through. Much rail watching amounts to listening – and luck.


Drought helps birders seeking rails – but not the rails themselves, of course. Many area wetlands are bone dry, so rails have congregated in those that still have water.


I deliberately omitted noting where these sightings took place. Several years ago, a brood of trumpeter swans fell victim to gunshots. Trumpeter swans are protected by law. There was an investigation, but no one was held accountable.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at

Mike Jacobs In Season mug.jpg
Mike Jacobs

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