LIBERAL — A red-eyed blackbird soon will join the list of species documented in Kansas after being seen and photographed this month in two locations in Seward County.
Seven bronzed cowbirds have been reported at Arkalon Recreational Area about 13 miles north of Liberal and a rest stop on U.S. Highway 54 about a mile northeast of the park.
The appearance of the bird in Kansas has not been unexpected, however, bird experts say.
“Their range has been steadily expanding northward through the Texas panhandle at a currently rapid clip for the last 10 years or so,” said Pete Janzen, co-author of “The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots.”
Mike Rader, wildlife education supervisor with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism in Pratt, agreed.
“This is a range expansion that we had sort of anticipated. It’s been on a few bird watchers’ radar as far as one that could possibly show up in Kansas as a new species,” he said.
With several photographs circulating online now as proof, the bird officially will be added to the Kansas Ornithological Society’s Checklist of Kansas Birds at its next meeting, Janzen said.
Janzen said there was a report of the birds near Hutchinson several years ago, but with no photographs, the society’s Kansas Bird Records Committee could not add it to the list.
The recent initial sighting was June 2 at Arkalon Park by Ethan Kistler and Billi Krochuk.
Kistler, originally from Ohio, and Krochuk, originally from Ontario, have lived in Capetown, South Africa, and led guided bird tours all over the world. They now work for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, conducting bird surveys throughout the southern Great Plains, Kistler said in an interview through Facebook Messenger.
“We had surveys near Liberal and decided to bird Arkalon Park just to see what was around, not expecting to find a first-state record,” he said.
They spotted the bronzed cowbird, notable for the glowing red eyes of both the male and female, late in the afternoon, he said.
“Instantly it hit me that this is north of their expected range as I just saw another near Dalhart, Texas, a week earlier, which is also north of their expected range,” he said.
They took several pictures and reported the sighting to ebird.org, a site managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The sighting has generated some excitement among Kansas birdwatchers. Janzen and Rader visited Arkalon Park that weekend and estimate at least 20 people have visited specifically to see the bronzed cowbirds.
“If it’s never been seen in Kansas before, then it’s a pretty big deal if you’re into the hobby. A first state record in Kansas, a certain group of us, everybody gets excited,” Janzen said.
The bird is another one to add to birders’ “Kansas life list,” he said.
“Birders are all about lists,” Janzen said.
Aside from the red eyes, the male bronzed cowbirds have a ruff of feathers on their neck and perform a mating dance for the females.
“They kind of look like they have a hump behind their head,” Janzen said. “When they get really wound up in the courtship display, they really flip those feathers up and do kind of a big dance routine for the female,” he said.
Rader said he and a friend observed two different males performing the dance at Arkalon Park and the rest stop.
“The display the bronze (cowbird) did was kind of cool to see,” he said.
The birds are brood parasites, he said, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which raise the young as their own.
The species typically migrates to Mexico for the winter.
Janzen said it’s possible with seven individuals seen in Seward County that others might be in neighboring counties, especially along the Oklahoma border. He said anyone who observes them at locations other than Arkalon Park or the Highway 54 rest stop should report them to ebird.org, or to the Facebook groups Kansas Birding or the ABA Rare Bird Alert.