BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at First State Records (Part II)

Or, perhaps this two-part article would more accurately be entitled “Birding by Foresight”, since it involves trying to predict what will eventually appear in the state. In any event, just how did the predictions turn out since the earlier installment of this discussion appeared a year ago (

[Author's Note, August 2010 – A Hindsight article with updated lists of potential first state records was published in 2010; see]

A total of 33 species was included then, species which were thought to have the highest potential of being future additions to the Minnesota list. In case you missed them, 22 of these were simply listed, those which were thought not to present too much of an identification challenge:

• Northern Gannet

• Brown Pelican

• Roseate Spoonbill

• Wood Stork

• Smew

• White-tailed Kite

• Spotted Redshank

• Wandering Tattler

• Heermann’s Gull

• Royal Tern

• White-winged Tern

• Sooty Tern

• Black Skimmer

• Thick-billed Murre

• Black Guillemot

• Inca Dove

• White-throated Swift

• Gray Kingbird

• Cave Swallow

• Pinyon Jay

• Phainopepla

• Virginia’s Warbler

[Author's Note, July 2016 – Brown Pelican, Wood Stork, Smew, Black Vulture (see below), White-tailed Kite, Black Guillemot, Inca Dove, and White-throated Swift have now been recorded and accepted on the state list.]

The other eleven species or species groups, which involve more in the way of identification difficulties, were then discussed:

• Arctic Loon

• Anhinga

• Tufted Duck

• Black Vulture

• Pacific Golden-Plover

• Mountain Plover

• Red-necked (or Rufous-necked) / Little / Temminck’s / Long-toed stints

• Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

• Rock Sandpiper

• Western Gull / Slaty-backed Gull

• Roseate Tern

But, again, before the identification of the last 11 species is considered, some fair questions to ask are what was added to the Minnesota list since that article, and were they included in the article? At the time of this writing (December 1996), five new species recently were either added or being considered. Two of these, Spotted Towhee and Bullock’s Oriole, were added by default: that is, they are birds already recorded in the state, then recently split, and thus added as species to the Minnesota list. Another species, that Rock Ptarmigan in Grand Marais last May, was not on the predicted list, but it probably should have been: after all, there had been at least four previous records from southern Canada, three of these not all that far from Minnesota.

However, at least the other two species were included (sort of) in this two-part article. First, a gull is currently present and under study in Duluth-Superior, and it may prove to be a Slaty-backed by the time this Hindsight article is published. And, second, a controversial Pygmy Nuthatch was seen in Fargo-Moorhead last October, and it was on my list of the eleven species to be discussed below (honest — I didn’t just squeeze it on my list after the bird showed up!).

So, here is the rest of the list, bringing the total to 44 species or species groups. All have good potential as future additions to the Minnesota list, and all involve some identification difficulties. Note that the IDs of some of these are beyond the space limitations of this journal, and the reader will then be referred to some other references. Still others are so difficult to confidently identify in the field that it would take photos, tape recordings or even a specimen before the record could be safely admitted to the state list.

Eurasian Collared-Dove [Author's Note, August 2010 – This species is now well established on the Minnesota list of Regular species.]

Here we have a species that isn’t even illustrated in the North American field guides — Geographic included! So how could this possibly be a bird to look for in Minnesota, and, besides, if not in the field guides how is anyone supposed to identify it? It was only during the 1980s that Florida birders realized this species (Streptopelia decaocto) was established in southern Florida, thus its absence from the field guides – except for a passing reference under Ringed Turtle-Dove (S. risoria) in the second edition of the Geographic guide.

Since the 1980s, this dove rapidly spread north throughout the rest of Florida and well beyond, with records in recent years from places like South Dakota and Ontario. Many consider it only a matter of time before it reaches the rest of the U. S. and Canada — Minnesota included.

Meanwhile, the Ringed Turtle-Dove has been dropped as a legitimate species from the North American list, even though it can still turn up almost anywhere — Minnesota included — as an escaped cage bird. Therefore, if you encounter a collared/turtle-dove in the field, how do you know whether to dismiss it out of hand as an escape or to jump up and down with excitement because you’ve just discovered a first state record?

First, disregard two things you’ll find in the National Geographic guide. The Ringed Turtle-Dove picture shows contrastingly darker primaries, while in reality the Eurasian Collared-Dove has darker gray or almost blackish primaries; the turtle-dove’s primaries are actually only a slightly darker shade of buff or light brown. And the text states the collared-dove’s black collar is more prominently bordered with white than the turtle-dove’s collar: in reality, there is no consistent difference between the two.

Second, be sure to try to find a copy of the excellent article on these two doves which appeared in American Birds in 1987: “The Eurasian Collared-Dove Arrives in the Americas” (41:1371–1379). Besides the difference in primaries coloration mentioned above, this article notes especially the Eurasian Collared-Dove’s dirty gray under tail coverts, the black on the basal half of the outer webs of the outer tail feathers, its three-syllabled plain cooing song (transcribed as “kuk-kooooooo-kook”, accented on the second syllable), and its loud and harsh single-syllabled call note. By contrast, note the Ringed Turtle-Dove’s white under tail coverts, the entire white outer web of the outer rectrices, its more rolling or trilled two-syllabled “kook-krrrroooo” song, and its softer chuckling call notes.

Lesser Nighthawk

Virtually every August, flocks of Common Nighthawks by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, migrate down the North Shore of Lake Superior and through Duluth. And virtually every August I wonder if there might be a stray Lesser Nighthawk among them. After all, there is at least one Ontario record, and I suspect that one could easily wander up this way from Texas — or maybe already has. Of course, the trick would be to detect it since the two nighthawks are so similar, and this is one of those species that would probably require a specimen or photos to accurately determine its diagnostic field marks on the wings.

As the field guides accurately show, the Lesser’s white wing patch is closer to the tip of the wing than on a Common Nighthawk, but this is difficult to clearly see in the field — thus the need for a series of photos, if not a specimen. I’ve always felt that the rounder wing tip of the Lesser is easier to pick out; this shape results from its outermost primary being shorter than the one next to it. The Common Nighthawk’s wing tip appears more pointed since its outermost primary is the longest. Beware, however, of birds in molt whose primaries may not be fully grown, and note that some Commons may have its outer two primaries which appear to be of the same length.

A recording of any vocalizations you hear would also be important, and fortunately the calls of the two nighthawks is quite different. The Common’s harsh “peent” in flight is easily recognized and should be familiar to Minnesota birders. The Lesser is usually silent in flight, but it can give two types of calls at rest: a prolonged, high-pitched trill on one pitch, very similar to (but longer than) an Eastern Screech-Owl’s trill; it also gives a shorter, soft, chuckling series of notes — which doesn’t really sound like anything else.

Black-chinned / Broad-tailed / Allen’s Hummingbirds

As demonstrated by Minnesota’s record of a Calliope Hummingbird and its three Magnificent Hummingbirds, it would seem almost any hummingbird from the West or Southwest could eventually turn up here or elsewhere in the Great Lakes region. After all, witness the recent Broad-billed Hummingbird and Green Violet-ear records in Michigan! The heading to this paragraph lists three possible first state records (but others must be considered as well), and, unless the individual involved were an adult male, the identification would present a challenge.

Female/immature hummingbird ID is beyond the scope of this article: to tell a Black-chinned from a Ruby-throated or an Allen’s from a Rufous in the field is not typically possible, and a potential Broad-tailed wouldn’t be much easier. As with the nighthawks, therefore, a specimen, netted bird in the hand, or a series of photographs might be required to identify such a hummingbird.

I would also recommend that you consult the hummingbird chapter in Kaufman’s Advanced Birding guide; it doesn’t provide all the answers, but it provides an excellent basis as to how to go about examining any suspicious hummingbird you see. My only other advice is to consider any hummingbird suspicious and worth careful examination if it’s October or even later.

Red-naped Sapsucker

The Advanced Birding guide would also be a good reference to consult if you find something that looks like it might be Minnesota’s first Red-naped Sapsucker. The potential for this species to appear here or farther east might have to be considered low, however, since Louisiana appears to be the only eastern state with a record of it. On the other hand, birders have not had to tell one from a Yellow-bellied for very long, since it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when the two were split. And it was even more recently that we found out the identification wasn’t quite as straightforward as it seemed.

The problem is that the occasional Yellow-bellied Sapsucker can actually have a red spot on its nape, which could obviously and easily lead to a misidentification. It is necessary, therefore, to consider something other than nape color, and what is most useful is the black line which frames the throat. A complete, unbroken line indicates it’s probably just another Yellow-bellied, since on a Red-naped this frame is usually broken. On a female Red-naped (which has a red and white throat, unlike the entirely white-throated female Yellow-bellied) the black frame is usually broken up by paler feathers on the sides of the neck. On a male Red-naped (completely red throat) the black frame is interrupted and invaded by the red on the throat.

There are also some differences in the thicknesses of the white head stripes (narrower on the Red-naped) and in how much black appears on the backs (more on the Red-naped). A set of clear photographs would be useful, perhaps essential, to substantiate any Minnesota record of a Red-naped Sapsucker. In addition, besides the sapsucker chapter in Kaufman’s guide, it would also be useful to consult two sets of articles on this subject: in American Birds 42:348–350, and in Birding 23:20–26.

Hammond’s / Dusky / Gray / Pacific-slope / Cordilleran Flycatchers

The identification of Empidonax flycatchers is difficult enough when it just involves the five Eastern species that belong in Minnesota. And when you add in the possibility of five Western species occurring here as well (I think the Buff-breasted can be safely disregarded), you definitely are dealing with an ID subject well beyond the space limitations of this article. As far as I am aware, all five Western Empids have occurred or have been suspected east of the Mississippi, and probably all five have been overlooked at one time or another because of their close similarity to the Eastern ones.

Of course, the place to start when dealing with a possible vagrant (which would probably be in fall), is to consult the Empidonax chapter in Advanced Birding, which I consider to be the most useful section in the whole book. And if you want to go even more into depth, consult the five-part series on Empidonax flycatchers which appeared in Birding in the mid-1980s: 17:151–158, 17:277–287, 18:153–159, 18:315–327, and 19(5)7–15.

If a suspected vagrant is calling, of course, pay particular attention to what you are hearing, and record it if possible for future analysis. Try especially to see the shape of the bill and how much if any darkness appears on the tip of the lower mandible — these features are more useful on Western Empids than on Eastern ones. Consider whether the primary extension (i.e., how far the tip of the longest primary extends beyond the tertials) is short or long. Also pay attention to the boldness and shape of the eye ring. Trying to successfully document a vagrant Empid (especially a silent one) would, of course, be difficult even if a series of photographs were taken — it might have to mist-netted and measured before its identity could be proven.

Cassin’s / Tropical Kingbirds [Author's Note, July 2016 – Both Cassin's and Tropical kingbirds have now been recorded and accepted on the state list.]

It has always been considered a safe assumption that any yellow kingbird seen in Minnesota is automatically a Western. While this assumption makes sense, it may not necessarily always be valid, since the Cassin’s Kingbird is apparently regular in western South Dakota, and it has wandered east at least to Ontario and Wisconsin. Even the possibility of a Tropical Kingbird in Minnesota might also have to be considered, since it annually wanders up to the Pacific Northwest and has been recorded along the Atlantic Coast.

A second look at yellow kingbirds might therefore be a good idea, especially if you see one that appears to be lacking the narrow white edges of the tail which are diagnostic of Westerns. (Keep in mind, however, these edges are often difficult to see, and they may be missing if the outer rectrices are worn or if the bird is in molt.) It may well prove to be a Cassin’s if it has a darker gray chest which sets off a contrasting and cleanly delineated area of white on the throat and malar area. And if it appears to have an especially large bill, a more extensive area of white on the throat, a breast which looks more yellow than grayish, and a tail which is visibly notched, then you may be looking at a Tropical Kingbird.

Of course, the vocalizations of these three kingbirds differ, but, except for the Tropical’s soft and thin twittering on one pitch, they are varied and difficult to clearly put into words. Listening to recordings is therefore recommended, as would be becoming thoroughly familiar with the Western’s calls so that the listener is ready if a Cassin’s starts calling. I also refer the reader to the article “Western Kingbird Identification” in American Birds (46:323–326).

Carolina Chickadee

In Minnesota?! At first it does seem unlikely for this southern chickadee to have the potential for occurring here, but there are apparently valid records from Iowa, Michigan, and Ontario. Presumably, these were either specimens or mist-netted birds measured in the hand, which would probably have to be the case if one were admitted to the Minnesota list. The differences between Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees are quite subtle and overlapping to some extent, and hybridization does occur.

This is another identification problem addressed by Kaufman’s Advanced Birding guide, which stresses the Black-capped’s whiter greater wing coverts and a more ragged lower edge on the bib, as opposed to the Carolina’s grayer greater coverts and more cleat-cut edge to the bib. It is also important to carefully take note of — or preferably record — any vocalizations you hear. The “chick-a-dee-dee” call notes of the two chickadees may not consistently differ, but their typical songs do. Unfortunately, atypical songs are sometimes given, and a hybrid chickadee might sing either species’ song.

Pygmy Nuthatch

This may no longer be just a potential first state record since one flew across the Red River into Moorhead last October, but it was on my list of species to be discussed in this article before that happened (honest!), so I may as well continue with a comment or two. This species was certainly not unexpected here since it had been seen in Iowa and in Sioux Falls, S.D., not far from the Minnesota line. While some considered the circumstances of that nuthatch arriving in Moorhead to be controversial, there was fortunately no controversy regarding its identification.

Still, the ID was not as straightforward as one might think since the possibility of Brown-headed Nuthatch had to be precluded. (This Southeastern species is on the Wisconsin list, although I’d be curious to see how it was identified.) Attention had to be paid to the exact color of the cap, which was grayish brown, almost more gray than brown. By contrast, the Brown-headed’s brown cap is paler, almost tan, and lacks any grayish tones. Just as useful were its call notes that were fortunately captured on tape for the record: single sharp notes reminiscent of a Red Crossbill. The Brown-headed Nuthatch’s calls are more chattering and squeakier — they typically resemble the squeaking of a toy rubber-ducky.

Cassin’s Sparrow

Sure enough, there it is in the Advanced Birding guide: a chapter on the Cassin’s Sparrow. No need for this paragraph to continue any farther, one might then assume. Unfortunately, that chapter is devoted to how to tell a Cassin’s from a Botteri’s Sparrow, while what is needed here is how to separate one from the other Minnesota sparrows. And you wouldn’t be wasting your time looking for one in the state, since it is apparently rare-regular in southwestern South Dakota, there are a few Ontario records, and it is truly overdue in Minnesota.

A singing male Cassin’s would be a cinch, since it has a quite distinctive and musical song — probably the prettiest song of any U. S. sparrow. A silent Cassin’s in fresh plumage in fall should also be possible to recognize. Though a nondescript, grayish sparrow with unstreaked underparts (which alone, come to think of it, are features not matched by any Minnesota sparrow), it does show a distinct eye ring, and in flight it shows a relatively long and fanned tail with distinctive white corners. A Cassin’s in worn plumage in spring or summer, however, would be more of a challenge, since they often lack the white eye ring and corners on the tail.

Of course, complete written field notes or, preferably, some clear photos would be needed to document Minnesota’s first Cassin’s Sparrow. So have that note pad and camera ready if you encounter a truly nondescript, grayish sparrow with unstreaked underparts. While some birders would consider most sparrows nondescript, none of them are as quite as dull as a Cassin’s (except, perhaps, a Grasshopper Sparrow in worn plumage), and this grayish dullness alone might tip you off that you’re looking at a first state record.

Shiny Cowbird

“In Minnesota?!”, you might have exclaimed earlier when noting the presence of Eurasian Collared-Dove and Carolina Chickadee on this list. Exclaim away again if you’d like, especially when you consider this species is not included in the standard field guides. Like the collared-dove, the Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis) did not become established in Florida until the 1980s, too late for the field guides, but since then its numbers and range have increased in Florida, and vagrants have wandered north as far as Maine and Tennessee.

So don’t be too surprised some year if you see a uniformly iridescent black bird in the state about the same size and shape of a Brown-headed Cowbird. Such a male Shiny Cowbird might suggest a male Brewer’s Blackbird except for its dark eyes, shorter bill and shorter tail. A female or juvenile Shiny Cowbird would definitely be a lot trickier, since the only consistent difference would be its slightly longer and thinner bill when compared to a female Brown-headed. But this difference is subtle and would only be noticeable if there were Brown-headeds present for direct comparison.

Here, obviously, is another identification where a specimen, a mist-netted bird in the hand, or some good photographs would probably be required to add it to the Minnesota list. For further information, there are two brief articles on this species: in American Birds (41:370–371) and in Birding (23:233–234).

Lesser Goldfinch

With records in Ontario and both Dakotas, here we have the last species with obvious potential for eventually appearing on the Minnesota list. A male Lesser Goldfinch, whether an individual of the black-backed or green-backed form, would be relatively easy to separate from an American Goldfinch in any plumage. But if a female or juvenile, more careful attention would need to be paid to three features.

First, the under tail coverts of a Lesser are yellow, while those of an American are usually white (note, however, some Americans might appear slightly tinged with yellow under the tail). Second, the Lesser’s wing bars are narrower than the American’s, and at rest it usually shows a small square of white on the folded primaries which is not found on the American. And try to note the pattern on the underside of the tail: on a female/juvenile Lesser, the tail is either entirely dark or at most it has small white patches restricted to the center of the tail; an American’s tail shows a larger white area that extends to the tail tip.

There is also a good article on this subject in American Birds worth consulting: “Notes on Goldfinch Identification” (47:159–162).