BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Foresight

[Author's Note, August 2016 – Since the publication of this article, Tropical

Kingbird and Cassin's Kingbird have been added to the state list, and

well-documented occurrences of Mottled Duck and Gull-billed Tern in 2016 are

currently under review.]

It's been awhile since I've tried this, 1996 to be exact, and perhaps I could have

done better the first time around. But I figure after 14 years everyone's forgotten

how those predictions came out, so the time is ripe to try it again.

The predictions in question appeared in a two-part Hindsight installment

( and, and they involved naming which species

would be the most likely additions to the Minnesota list. In all, 55 birds were

chosen to be eventually possible – if not inevitable – as first state records, and it

remains to be seen how most of these selections will turn out.

In hindsight, I suppose you could say my foresight was a bit shortsighted, lacked

some insight, and involved several oversights.

Not counting the reclassified Cackling Goose, 17 new species showed up here in

the next 14 years, and I did manage to correctly predict 11 of them: Smew, Brown

Pelican, Wood Stork, Black Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Slaty-backed Gull, Black

Guillemot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Inca Dove, White-throated Swift, and Pygmy

Nuthatch. So, 11 predictions out of 17 does equal a 65% accuracy rate, but would

that amount to a passing or failing grade on a test?     

At the same time, I failed to predict these six first state records: Rock Ptarmigan,

Elegant Tern, Long-billed Murrelet, Green Violetear, Costa's Hummingbird, and

Acorn Woodpecker. And, of those 55 species predicted in 1996, the jury is still out

on the other 44 – how long (if ever) will it take for them to be added to the state

list? Or maybe it's time to abandon some of those predictions, add some new ones,

and start over again.

This exercise, by the way, is consistent with the identification theme which runs

through this Hindsight series. The point is you're less likely to correctly identify a

bird if you are unaware of its status, since relative abundance is an important

consideration in the ID process.

So, for instance, if you see something that resembles a Cliff Swallow but doesn't

look quite right, odds are you'll just pass it off as, well, just a swallow that doesn't

look quite right – unless you're aware that Cave Swallow has strong potential for

showing up here. Similarly, knowing that Cassin's Sparrow has some likelihood as a

Minnesota vagrant, while the similar Botteri's doesn't, gives you an easier path to

the correct ID of that nondescript sparrow you just discovered.

As in 1996, the best way to start compiling a list of new Minnesota possibilities is

to consider what's been seen in nearby states and provinces: i.e., Manitoba, North

and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario.

(And I thank the websites of the various state/provincial bird clubs and records

committees as sources for this information.) Non-migratory residents in western

ND, SD, and NE were disregarded, as were those Atlantic Coast and pelagic

vagrants in eastern Ontario which I think have little or no chance of reaching

western Lake Superior.

Before listing my predictions, which fall into four categories (and will probably

prove to be wildly inaccurate), note that I'm mostly talking about species that have

a fair chance of being detected, correctly identified, and adequately documented.

As you'll see below, so-called "stealth vagrants" would be easily overlooked,

involve daunting ID challenges making them harder to add to the state list, and are

relegated to a separate category.

An asterisk (*) indicates those species previously included among my 1996

predictions. Also note the parenthetical annotations with the states/provinces in

which the species have occurred, though I readily grant that some of these may be

incomplete. Incomplete as well are the intentionally brief comments on

identification; more thorough analyses of the species listed below would be beyond

the scope and space limitations of this article.

I. We Ought to be Ashamed of Ourselves

In other words, these are the birds I consider to have the strongest potential to

appear on the Minnesota list, and it's somewhat surprising, almost embarrassing,

that none of us has found any of these yet in the state. When (and not if) they will

show up is just a matter of time, so don't just sit there after you're done reading this

– get out there and bird!

• Tufted Duck* – An obvious male at the Blue Lake sewage treatment plant several years back

was unfortunately traced back to a nearby waterfowl collector. A genuine natural vagrant will

certainly show up soon, however. (MB,NE,IL,MI,ON)

• Northern Gannet* – If a gannet can wander as far inland as North Dakota, shouldn't it be a

cinch to find one here? Study up on the immature plumages, since younger gannets are most

likely to wander. (MB,ND,IL,MI,ON)

• Anhinga* – It was actually on the state list for awhile, until we learned that cormorants can

soar and fan their tails in anhinga-like fashion, and it was deleted. A correct identification,

however, should occur here sooner than later, given all the nearby records


• Reddish Egret – With a handful of Midwest records (NE,IA,IL,MI), I'm at a loss to explain

why this coastal wader failed to get nominated in 1996. It's even relatively easy to identify.

• Sharp-tailed Sandpiper* – Long considered one of the most overdue Minnesota species, this

shorebird still has yet to be recorded. Come on now: it's not all that difficult to separate from

the Pectoral. (ND,NE,IA,IL,ON)

• Black-tailed Gull – Like other gulls, this has shown an increased tendency to wander in recent

years – all since my faulty 1996 predictions, of course. But, like other gulls, non-adults could be

a challenge to ID and document. (MB,IA,IL,WI)

• Royal Tern* – This maritime species has managed to wander several times far from the coast

to the Great Lakes region (IA,IL,WI,ON), and telling one from the similar Caspian Tern is

pretty straightforward.

• Thick-billed Murre* – Now that we've got Long-billed Murrelet (2008 in St. Louis Co.) and

Black Guillemot (2009 in Cook Co.) under our belts, we're now due for this alcid in 2010 –

probably in Lake Co.? Just be sure to rule out Razorbill and Common Murre after you spot it.


• Broad-billed Hummingbird – With vagrant hummingbirds at feeders all the rage in recent

years, and even immatures/females of this species not too difficult to identify, this should be the

next hummer on the state list. Note all the Midwest records (SD,IL,WI,MI,ON), even though I

didn't predict it in 1996.

• Tropical Kingbird* – Since some turned up east of here (MI,ON), it's tempting to suggest they

flew through Minnesota on the way, and this inclinded-to-wander species has also occurred in

several other extra-limital states/provinces. The only catch is it needs to vocalize to prove it's

not a long-shot Couch's (see below).


• Plumbeous Vireo – Missing from my 1996 list (before it was split?), it regularly breeds in

South Dakota's Black Hills, only some 350 miles from the Minnesota border, and a couple of

credible sightings or two here have already been reported. Given a decent view, it's readily

separable from the similar and formerly conspecific Blue-headed Vireo. (ND,SD,ON)

• Pinyon Jay* – Also regular in western South Dakota, there's at least one record this far east of

this distinctive and widely wandering species. (MB,ND,SD,IA)

• Cave Swallow* – Of the 18 species in this section, this has to be our most embarrassing

vacancy on the state list! Consider all the nearby records (NE,IA,IL,WI,MI,ON), and that it's

now virtually regular in late fall in the eastern Great Lakes. Just beware of juvenile Cliff

Swallows, which show darker foreheads and paler throats like Cave Swallows.

• Virginia's Warbler* – This is another local but regular breeder in western South Dakota that

may well have already passed through Minnesota en route farther east. A careful look should

easily separate it from the Nashville Warbler. (SD,NE,MI,ON)

• Swainson's Warbler – This relatively plain and secretive warbler has surprisingly managed to

turn up in several neighboring states/provinces (MB,NE,IL,WI,MI,ON). Yet, for reasons

unknown, it didn't manage to turn up on my 1996 list.

• Cassin's Sparrow* – We're still waiting for someone here to decipher the nondescript plumage

of one of these sparrows, which strongly resembles a dull Grasshopper Sparrow, and claim this

overdue first state record. (Its song, by the way, is anything but nondescript.) (SD,IL,MI,ON)

• Hooded Oriole – Here's another of my embarrassing oversights from 1996. Note, however,

that anything other than an adult male would be difficult to separate from Orchard Oriole.


• Lesser Goldfinch* – And note yet another long-overdue vagrant that's regular in western

South Dakota but missing from our list. A male should immediately catch your eye; some study

would be needed to identify a female/immature. (ND,SD,NE,IA,ON)

II. No way?....Way!

Since this catch-phrase exchange from the Saturday Night Live show probably dates

back to 1996 or so (when the first set of Hindsight predictions was made), I'd say

it's an appropriate heading for those birds which at first thought may seem unlikely

to appear in Minnesota, but a second look will reveal they are definite possibilities.

So, don't be too surprised when you turn up one of the following:  

• Roseate Spoonbill* – Like the Reddish Egret (see above), this easily identified vagrant has

strayed a few times inland (NE,IA,IL) far from the coast.

• Common Crane – How can a species included on this list also be rare enough to be excluded

from Sibley's field guide? But there's a sighting or two almost annually among the hordes of

Sandhills passing through Nebraska, so it's reasonable to think one could occur here among

migrating cranes. (ND,NE)

• Mountain Plover* – Though a grasslands bird declining in numbers, it breeds close to the

Dakotas and it occurred east of here at least once (ND,SD,IL). Use care in your ID, however:

this species had previously been added to the state list but later dropped when the sightings

proved to involve worn, nondescript American Golden-Plovers.

• Heermann's Gull* – A distinctive gull in all plumages which – simply because it's a gull – has

already wandered even farther east of Minnesota (MI,ON), far from the Pacific coast.

• Sooty Tern* – It's normally just a rarity even along the Atlantic Coast, but storms occasionally

drive one inland to the Great Lakes (IL,WI,ON). Only the far-fetched Bridled Tern should be an

ID contender.

• Gull-billed Tern – This coastal species would be no farther off-course here than the Sandwich

Tern, which is already on our list, and two nearby states (IL,MI) already have records. With a

decent view, the ID is relatively straightforward.

• White-winged Tern* – Though only casual on the Atlantic Coast, it has occurred in the Great

Lakes region (WI,ON). Unless a breeding-plumaged adult, though, this Black Tern look-alike

could be considered a stealth vagrant.

• White-collared Swift – Like the Common Crane, North American records of this very large

swift are so few that Sibley left it out of his field guide (as it was obviously left out of my 1996

selections). Still, it has occurred more than once not far from Minnesota (MI,ON).

• Broad-tailed Hummingbird* – Like gulls, vagrant hummingbirds now seem to turn up

anywhere, so this species has definite potential here. It might be a better fit in the following

section, since adult males resemble Ruby-throateds, and a female/immature might be mistaken

for a Rufous. (MB,ND,SD)

• Red-naped Sapsucker* – Along with the four other species mentioned earlier which regularly

breed in and around the Black Hills (SD,NE), this bird could occur in Minnesota. Its field marks

are pretty straightforward, but beware of hybrids and of aberrant Yellow-bellieds showing some

red on their napes.

• Cassin's Kingbird* – Also regularly breeds in western South Dakota, so it should eventually

turn up in this state, though records in the eastern U.S. are scarce. (SD,ON)

• Gray Kingbird* – Though regular in the U.S. only in Florida, this bird has a strong wanderlust

and often strays a long way from home, even to the Midwest (IL,MI,ON).

• Black-capped Vireo – This now-endangered species, mostly limited in its U.S. range to Texas,

has surprisingly wandered a few times into this region (NE,MI,ON).

• Western Scrub-Jay – There are a few records of this wide-ranging species near Minnesota


• Fish Crow – This corvid may be extending its range north, so vagrants now seem less

surprising in this region than they used to be. Direct comparison with American Crow involving

size and vocalizations would be needed to confirm the ID, but be aware that crows here

sometimes give higher-pitched nasal calls much like a Fish Crow. (IA,MI,ON)

• Brown-headed Nuthatch – We have already have a Pygmy Nuthatch record, but its

southeastern counterpart has appeared nearby (IL,WI). The calls and exact shade of brown on

the cap would need to be carefully noted to distinguish the two.  

• Western Bluebird – This stray to the western Dakotas could possibly occur this far east,

although records in the eastern U.S. are virtually non-existent. (ND,SD)

• White Wagtail – There are several extra-limital records of this wide-ranging Eurasian species,

including at least one Midwestern record (MI).

• Phainopepla* – It's a mostly non-migratory resident of the southwestern U.S., but surprisingly

a few of them have strayed hundreds of miles to the northeast (NE,WI,ON).

III. A Wealth of Stealth

They're sometimes called stealth vagrants: metaphorically, that is, they could easily

sneak in undetected under the radar. In other words, I consider all these to have real

potential as eventual additions to the state list, but they are so similar to other more

likely species that detecting and identifying them accurately presents a challenge.

Indeed, any of them may well have already appeared in the state but were never

noticed or passed off as something else.

Accordingly, these species certainly invite some identification insights and analysis,

but I'll have to decline that invitation for now. There simply isn't room here – to

thoroughly cover any of them could stand alone as a separate Hindsight article.  

• Mottled Duck – I'll admit I've never examined any American Black Ducks here to see if they

might be Mottleds, but I probably should, given the recent and unexpected records (NE,IA,ON)

far from their normal Gulf Coast range.

• Arctic Loon* – There may be no records this far east of the West Coast yet, but it's worth

taking a second look at every presumed Pacific Loon. Identify with care, however: this species'

white flank patch may be distinctive, but alone it's hardly diagnostic, since any species of loon

can show a flank patch.

• Clapper Rail – Amazingly, this salt marsh species been recorded in fresh water (NE) far from

the coast, and Gulf Coast birds can be quite rusty, so who knows how many "King Rail" records

might actually have been Clappers?


• Pacific Golden-Plover* – Although a highly migratory shorebird, this species has yet to be

recorded anywhere near Minnesota, as far as I know. A juvenile would be most likely to stray

out of range, and distinguishing it from American Golden-Plover is typically a daunting task.

• Red-necked Stint* – This and the following species are considered the two stints (out of four)

with real potential as vagrants to the Midwest/Great Lakes, though only the Little Stint has

apparently occurred in this region so far.  

• Little Stint* – See above. (ON)

• Rock Sandpiper* – It's only an assumption that all the Purple Sandpipers seen in Minnesota

and vicinity have been correctly identified. How do we know that none of them was actually a

Rock Sandpiper?

• Western Gull* – Not all pink-legged, dark-backed gulls in Minnesota have to be Great

Black-backeds or Slaty-backeds by default; keep in mind the possibility of Western Gull. (IL)

• Yellow-legged Gull – This casual (perhaps rare-regular) visitant along the Atlantic Coast has

yet to be documented in the Midwest, but who knows? After all, it's a gull! Thus, one could turn

up anywhere – and then have its identity endlessly debated.

• Lesser Nighthawk* – I've long wondered if any of those nighthawks which funnel by the

thousands down the North Shore in late August might be Lessers. (ON)

• Black-chinned Hummingbird* – Unless a bird in the hand, a female/immature could probably

be distinguished from a Ruby-throated only if finely detailed photos are available. (ON)

• Allen's Hummingbird* – Since a few adult male Rufous Hummingbirds can have all-green

backs, even an adult male Allen's would be tough to confirm this far out of range. (IL)

• Hammond's Flycatcher* – It's challenging enough trying to separate Minnesota's five eastern

Empidonax, but this and the following four western Empids all could occur here – if they

haven't done so already. (ND,NE,MI)

• Gray Flycatcher* – This Empid might present a less difficult ID challenge, since it really is

grayer than the others, and its deliberate, phoebe-like tail-dipping is diagnostic. (NE,ON)

• Dusky Flycatcher* – It regularly breeds in the Black Hills, with a few documented vagrants

farther east (SD,NE,WI,ON).

• Pacific-slope Flycatcher* – This may be the only Empid with no records in nearby states, but

it has been documented farther east in the U.S.

• Cordilleran Flycatcher* – It also regularly breeds in the Black Hills (SD), though I'm unaware

of any records farther east in the Midwest.

• Couch's Kingbird – Though not as likely as Tropical Kingbird, there's at least one Midwest

record (MI). To separate it from a Tropical, you'd need a specimen, banded bird, or recorded


• Carolina Chickadee* – It's regular as far north as central Illinois, there's apparently one

Michigan record (from 1899!), and it's been documented in Ontario. So, I suppose a Minnesota

record might be possible – but only if a specimen or banded bird, and if you could rule out a


IV. Yeah, right

In Minnesota? "Yeah, right," with a strong measure of sarcasm in your tone of

voice, would seem the appropriate response to the following suggestions. Still,

while any of these appearing in the state would be a genuine surprise, these

dark-horse candidates have at least some potential for wandering in this direction.

Because they are less likely than those species listed above, my comments below

are limited.    

Not all the vagrants I'm aware of from neighboring states are included here, by the

way, with the longest long-shots excluded for various reasons. I've also excluded

two species from my 1996 list: Black Skimmer and Shiny Cowbird Upon further

review, I am no longer inclined to name them even among the long-shots – which

means, of course, they'll both turn up in Minnesota soon!  

• Tundra Bean-Goose (NE, IA)

• Barnacle Goose (ON)

• Whooper Swan – Several Midwest sightings (Minnesota included) have occurred, but all have

apparently referred to escapes from waterfowl collections. Apparently. Records of the previous

species typically involve questions of origin as well.  

• Manx Shearwater (MI, ON)

• Wandering Tattler* (MB, ON)

• Spotted Redshank* (MI, ON)

• Roseate Tern* (MI)

• Black Swift (ON)

• Green-breasted Mango (WI)

• Golden-fronted Woodpecker (MI)

• Red-breasted Sapsucker (IA)

• Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (ON)

• Cassin's Vireo – There may be no records in any nearby states/provinces, but extra-limital

records are often reported elsewhere in other regions.

• Steller's Jay (SD, NE)

• Mountain Chickadee (SD, NE)

• Siberian Rubythroat (ON)

• Bachman's Sparrow (IL, MI, ON)

• Rufous-crowned Sparrow (WI)

• Sage Sparrow (SD, NE)

• Hepatic Tanager (NE, IL)

• Varied Bunting

*          *          *

Well, there you have it: Minnesota's next 77 first state records. Guaranteed. And in

the highly unlikely event I'm wrong about any of them, you can blame Michigan

birders for warping my perceptions and clouding my foresight. I still can't get over

what they added to that state's list during the fall of 2005: Lesser Frigatebird,

Short-tailed Hawk, and White-eared Hummingbird! Certainly, no one could have

predicted three such far-fetched vagrants appearing in just three months. That

would have been just as daft as saying a Black Skimmer or Shiny Cowbird would

appear in Minnesota.