Michael Pearce

Wayward bird brings birders from many states to western Kansas

Several thousand miles from its home range, this piratic flycatcher drew birders from many states to western Kansas last weekend.
Several thousand miles from its home range, this piratic flycatcher drew birders from many states to western Kansas last weekend. Courtesy of Will Chatfield-Taylor

A little brown and yellow bird brought people from far away to western Kansas last weekend. That’s because the bird, a piratic flycatcher, belongs to a species found in Central and South America and had never before been seen in Kansas.

“I heard we had 13 states represented over the weekend, and word just got out on Friday,” said Greg Mills, Scott State Park manager. “I was very shocked when I talked to people already down here from Wisconsin.”

Will Chatfield-Taylor wasted little time heading west from Lawrence.

“I wanted to go get in the car immediately and head out,” said Chatfield-Taylor, “but my fiancee had just gotten into town and I had to work out if she was up for chasing a bird that was a 5 1/2-hour drive away.”

Chatfield-Taylor said a researcher from the University of Tennessee who was at the state park looking for other birds found the 6-inch flycatcher. Word spread quickly on several birding websites. Chatfield-Taylor wasn’t surprised by the rush to see the bird.

“I’ve been birding for over 15 years and keep a list of birds seen in the state. It’s always fun to add one more to the state list, especially a first (in) state record,” he said, adding that the species had been seen in the U.S. fewer than 10 times. “It can be a once-in-a lifetime sort of thing.”

As well as some good looks through binoculars, Chatfield-Taylor got some good photography of the bird as it perched in nearby trees and flitted about feeding on butterflies and other flying insects.

Max Thompson, a retired biology professor at Southwestern College in Winfield, has researched birds since 1957. He said the unusual visit was probably weather related.

“I imagine it got beaten up in some winds, and (Scott Lake) was the oasis it found when it landed,” said Thompson. “I don’t think they get lost; they get caught up in a low (pressure system) and the winds determine where they go.”

First-in-state records happen every few years. Chatfield-Taylor and friends located a three-toed woodpecker, a bird generally found no closer than western Colorado, in Morton County in 2005. Last year he got to watch a hooded oriole, a bird found primarily in the American southwest, at a feeder in Lawrence. Both were first times the species had been identified in Kansas.

Chatfield-Taylor and Thompson said such wayward birds often don’t stick around long, heading out with the next sizable weather system.

Mills said the bird was easily seen through the weekend. Daylight on Monday morning found eight carloads of birders looking for the bird. It wasn’t seen then and hasn’t been seen since.

“Just my luck,” said Mills. “It was here, but I got busy and didn’t get a chance to go see it before it was gone.”