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 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
• 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
• 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
• 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
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.