No matter where or when you do a big year, there are always nemesis birds and there are always surprise birds. If you do a big year more than once in the same area, as I did in Texas, the nemesis birds and the surprise birds will vary from year to year. I (nearly) guarantee it. That’s one of the things that makes birding so wonderful – its unpredictability and challenge in spite of so much being known about where birds go and how they behave.
One of my surprise birds this year was the Carolina Wren, a bird that many people in North Carolina and Texas, my two previous homes, probably consider a lovable “trash” bird. They are everywhere there, noisy, fussy and inquisitive. But in South Dakota I did not expect to see one at all this year, if ever. Yet, on August 20th a Carolina Wren was reported in Pierre in the center of the state at a place called Echo Point, a place I could not remember having heard of before. I could not get to Pierre until early afternoon the next day, but when I arrived there I started driving down the various roads toward the Missouri River looking for some sign to tell me where Echo Point was.
After a couple of hours of fruitless exploration, I finally realized that the people at a nearby campground might know of the place, and indeed they did. I had already driven there on my earlier forays not knowing I was in the right spot. The right spot, however, was a ragweed and thistle-overgrown field interspersed between clumps of trees. I had no idea where to look, so instead I listened and listened and listened for a noisy wren. Thank goodness a Pierre birder drove up who knew where the wren had been seen and kindly led me to the last known location through the over-the-head weeds. Of course all was silent there except for a scolding House Wren. I wandered about for a few hours, went into town for a fast-food supper and returned to wander around and listen until it got dark. I had intended to go home that night but instead I found a motel.
Early the next morning, long before dawn, I was at Echo Point again. All was silent. When I could finally see enough to walk out through the thistles and ragweed, I trudged over toward the site, stopping every now and then to listen. As I came out of the weedy field to a small opening I heard far ahead of me the unmistakable sound of a singing Carolina Wren. I hurried toward the spot where the wren had last been seen and waited. Quite soon a Carolina Wren appeared casually working its way through the brush, passed me and disappeared beyond a small pond, from where I heard it sing again. Strangely enough at least three other Carolina Wrens have been seen this year in South Dakota, so far.
My nemesis bird this year, until August 28th, was the Pacific Wren. Pacific Wren, once a subspecies of Winter Wren, is not as far as I know a bird that is officially found in South Dakota so at first I did not think it was a possibility here. There have been reports in the past, however, in Rapid City and in the Black Hills, and this year there was at least one seen by others at a particular spot near Hanna in the Black Hills. I began my quest for Pacific Wren this year with a visit to the Hanna location in mid-April, and returned later in April, in May, and four times in August before I finally saw a Pacific Wren. My very welcome sighting of a Pacific Wren was on August 28th. As I once again scanned the downed timbers and remaining upright trees on an old landslide, I finally saw a tiny dark wren investigating a tree trunk under a protruding piece of bark about 45 feet from me. Over the next half hour or so, I saw it on and off as it flew down to the brush, sang its little squeaky song from somewhere deep inside the downed branches and then hopped about and chased a Song Sparrow.
Although neither of these wrens is probably considered a beauty in the bird world, both birds were very beautiful additions to my South Dakota big year. Brown is beautiful!