Rare Sightings

Field work on the red-headed woodpecker project is humming along and we're enjoying another season at Cedar Creek. The woodpeckers we work with are their very own form of excitement but occasionally we are lucky enough to cross paths with a rare species or witness animal behaviors that are not often on display. This field season we've been able to do both.


On June 4th, one of our long-term volunteers, Jim Howitz, heard an unfamiliar song as he was conducting a survey for red-headed woodpeckers. He convinced himself that it was an oriole as he had been hearing Baltimore Orioles making very impressive Tufted Titmouse imitations. The unfamiliar bird was singing only intermittently and while following the woodpecker he was tracking, Jim saw a "big yellow blob" that he instinctively knew was nothing that should be at Cedar Creek (Jim has been studying the birds of Cedar Creek since the 1970s, so he knows his birds!). He was able to find the blob perched in an oak tree as it alternated singing and calling and he realized it was a Yellow-breasted chat—quite a rare sighting in Minnesota! Yellow-breasted chat songs have been described as "an odd, variable mixture of cackles, clucks, whistles and hoots"¹. Jim was kind enough to share its location with the rest of our team and we were able to get some photos to document this rare sighting.

Male Yellow-breasted chat, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, Photos by April Strzelczyk.


Yellow-breasted chats are widespread throughout North America, but can be hard to find, given their propensity to skulk in dense thickets. They are particularly uncommon in Minnesota, so getting eyes (and a lens) on this bird was exciting. Yellow-breasted chats (Icteria virens) are large songbirds and are the only member of the family Icteriidae (not to be confused with the family Icteridae, which consists of New World blackbirds, New World orioles, meadowlarks, grackles, and cowbirds, among others). It was once a member of the New World warbler family, but in 2017 the American Ornithological Society moved it to its own family. This sighting is the first of its kind at Cedar Creek and brings the bird species list there to 240!


As if this wasn't enough excitement, we recently happened upon a Pileated woodpecker nest while out checking red-headed woodpecker nest activity. We often hear Pileated woodpeckers at Cedar Creek—and sometimes we catch a glimpse as they glide overhead—but they are somewhat secretive in their nesting habits and can be hard to find this time of the year. Our longtime volunteer, Siah St. Clair, spent time observing the pair attending their nest and captured some great photos of them feeding their now quite large nestlings.

Pileated woodpecker pair feeding young at nest cavity, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, Photos by Siah St. Clair.


If this season is any indication of the many exciting things happening at Cedar Creek we'll have more rare and interesting sightings to share with you as our work continues this summer. We hope you're soaking up the season and finding some of your very own rare sightings.


¹Yellow-breasted Chat, Life History, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Allaboutbirds.org. Retrieved on 2020-06-16.

© 2018 Elena West

All rights reserved. Images used with permission.