On Seeing my First Dickcissel

Before I started birding, I couldn’t understand the appeal of chasing rarities. Even semi-rarities. What could possibly justify driving for close to two hours in search of a fleeting bird? I’ll admit that I’ve followed along many a time, joined my group in their quest for a Townsend’s Solitaire, or a Long-billed Dowitcher, for instance, and wondered what the point of it was.

Two weeks ago, the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) made an appearance not far from Toronto. When my bird group leader offered one last trip of the season, I didn’t think twice. This prairie grassland bird, which usually breeds in the plains and the midwestern US, was about to be a lifer for me! I had no idea what the Dickcissel was or what made the bird special, but I couldn’t pass up a bird whose name sounded so peculiar, exotic, and patently bizarre. Suddenly, the quest turned into an urge. I simply had to see for myself what kind of bird a name like that would deliver!

The Dickcissel! Photo from here.

The Dickcissel! Photo from here.

I thought nothing of the nearly-two-hour drive from Toronto to Luther Marsh, in Dufferin County, to see the bird with likely the most unsuccessful echoic name in history. According to an article in the Guardian, the sparrow-like Dickcissel

got their strange-sounding common name from the male’s song, which is a low, “electric”, buzzing fpppt. From an open perch in a field, this bird’s song is a sharp dick dick followed by a buzzed cissel, also transcribed as skee-dlees chis chis chis or dick dick ciss ciss ciss.

In the end, we saw not one, but two of these alluring specimens, feeding in the cedars. They sang to one another, although I struggled hard to detect the sounds “dick-cissel” amidst their turbulent, slightly nasal song. Instead, I got great looks at their necks, which displayed an iconic shiny black V against a bright yellow background. The distinctive V and the yellow stripes above the eyes, etched in with what seemed like perma-marker, felt like a superhero costume. And, communing with the Dickcissel were Bobolinks (whose plumage looks like they have an unmistakable platinum toupé), Song and Savannah Sparrows, a few feisty crows who were in the process of spooking a nesting Osprey, and two Sandhill cranes engaged in a brief territorial battle. The morning chorus also included a brilliant Indigo Bunting and an Orchard Oriole.

And you wouldn’t believe how well “I just saw a Dickcissel!” works as a conversation starter!

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