The bird with the ‘oily rainbow’

Submitted Photo This White-faced ibis was photographed by Doug Wurtz at McKenzie Slough Wildlife Management Area.


To loosely translate from Norwegian to English:

fri = free, lufts = air’s, liv = life

The English equivalent= Outdoor Life

The “Outdoor Life” (Friluftsliv) that I will explore in these columns will be wide ranging: birds, wildlife, the Badlands, historic sites, outdoor events and more.

I’m not an expert on any of these topics but I am continually intrigued by the Friluftsliv of North Dakota. I rarely come home from a photographic journey without at least one photo that invites some further research.

One of my many interests is North Dakota birds. I’ve always been interested in birds but until I made a serious attempt to capture them photographically, I never realized the wide diversity of sizes, shapes, colors and habitats around me.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGFD) has compiled a checklist that “includes 376 species of birds that are possible to see in North Dakota.” (gf.nd.gov/node/840)

Armed with my NDGFD checklist, a couple of Sibley bird field guides, a pair of binoculars, and my ever-present digital camera, I headed out into the Friluftsliv to see how many of the 376 species I could capture on film. (Well, digitally. Who uses film anymore?)

To make my photographic journey even more interesting, I downloaded the “Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab” application to my laptop. This application not only helps me identify the birds I have photographed; it provides a brief description of the bird and also logs the bird into my “Life List.”

One of the first birds I photographed and entered into my Merlin Life List was the “White-faced Ibis.” Two features of this bird make it unique in the bird world: its distinctive bill and its iridescent plumage.

The best description I have seen of the ibis’ plumage is that it looks like an “oily rainbow.” If you view the ibis at the right angle on a sunny day, it looks like he/she is covered with an oil sheen.

As distinctive as its plumage is the ibis’ long, curved bill. The ibis’ nostrils are at the base of its bill which allows the bird to breathe while it probes the mud searching for crustaceans, small fish and snails. Sensitive feelers in the bill allow the bird to identify its meal without seeing it.

World-wide, there are 28 different species of ibis. The white-faced ibis is the most common in North Dakota. We know it as an interesting addition to our checklist but we don’t afford this strange bird the same recognition it has achieved historically. The ancient Egyptians revered the ibis and their deity, Thoth, is represented with the body of a man and the head of an ibis. In ancient Egypt, the bird was used for many religious ceremonies. When it died, it was embalmed and mummies of ibis are still found in ibis-shaped figurines and pottery jars. No species of ibis inhabit modern Egypt.

The White-faced Ibis is only one of the many fascinating species of birds we enjoy in North Dakota. It is truly one of the most unique.

Grab your checklist and head out into the wide-open spaces of North Dakota. With a little practice and a lot of patience, you will soon be compiling your own “life list” of these avian residents of our state.

Doug Wurtz grew up near Ryder and graduated from Minot State University. His retirement activities include nature photography as well as serving as a Certified Interpretive Guide for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He is past president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association. He’s also a past board member of the Ryder Historical Society and Hiddenwood Old Settlers Association. Doug and his wife, Linda, live in Bismarck.


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