LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Quixotic Quest For The Thick-Billed Kingbird: Notes From My Wild Life

The newsflash on the ND-BIRDS listserv on Monday afternoon of the sighting of an accidental bird near Cross Ranch State Park triggered what has been for me a quixotic quest to see it for myself.

Thick-billed Kingbird at Cross Ranch. (Photo courtesy of Dale Heinert)
Thick-billed Kingbird at Cross Ranch. (Photo courtesy of Dale Heinert)

The Thick-billed Kingbird’s territory is in far southern Arizona and New Mexico, along the border with Mexico. This particular bird was very lost and its sighting has been described as perhaps the “most accidental bird sighting in North Dakota” ever. After four decades of birding, I’ve never seen one.

With almost no other details on its location, Jim and I jumped into the car, knowing that there wasn’t much daylight left, and headed to Cross Ranch, with the hope that fellow birders would post more details prior to our arrival or that we’d cross paths with them. It was a gamble, and a gamble we lost. We wandered around until dark looking for our birding friends and managed to acquire some damage to our car when I failed to spot a log in some tall grass and hit it hard. Jim just laughed and said, “I love an adventure!”

We did get to watch the gorgeous Hunter’s Moon rise up over the banks of the Missouri River and found a huge Bald Eagle nest.

Later that night, more details about the sighting and its location were shared. Here is the link on EBird that tells about the initial sighting, along with some photographs. Some intrepid birders stumbled upon it, and that is how the magic happens!

Sadly, I wasn’t able to join my friends Tuesday when they made another search due to family responsibilities. They succeeded. I made a plan to head back up there today.

Cross Ranch State Park is one of North Dakota’s most special places and easily accessible from Bismarck. I’ve been there hundreds of times, attending most of the bluegrass festivals held there each summer, as well as camping and canoeing and kayaking and cross-country skiing many times in this beautiful place, along a free-flowing stretch of the Missouri River.

Today, I traveled there solo, certain that I would come across other birders. I saw absolutely no one as I hiked to the site as per the GPS coordinates and the map one of my birder friends had shared. It was a gorgeous 65-degree autumn day and the box elder bugs were thick at the Visitors Center.

I followed the riverbank, which took me off-trail. My first thought was: At least there are no ticks. A few seconds later, I realized that there was a different hazard, and it didn’t take me long to acquire hundreds of cockleburrs.

Once I reached the site, I sat on the sand dunes beside the sandbar willows and soaked in the quiet and the beauty of the place. The leaves have fallen from the cottonwoods. I spotted some orange bittersweet berries here and there, and the buffaloberry bushes are loaded with fruit.

But once again, I failed to see the desired bird. In fact, it was striking how few birds I saw today. A golden eagle soared high overhead and, in one of the ponds between the sandy bank of the river and the cottonwood forest, I flushed six Wilson’s Snipes.

Trudging back to the car, I couldn’t help but think about the mountain lion that was shot by a bowhunter north of Bismarck last week. I’ve spent so much of my life in offices, in meetings, in medical facilities and in front of a computer screen. Even though I didn’t see the bird, this was a grand day.

But it just hasn’t been my week. The day ended with a flat tire. This was one expensive nonsighting.

Guess I’ll just have to head to Arizona someday to see that bird.

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