Greater Tattooed Dunlap
(Birder Minnesotus). Uncommon, 74-76 inches.
Distinguished at 17 years of age as the youngest to record 313 Minnesota bird species sightings in one year. Nesting grounds in western St. Paul, but most recently sighted in Duluth’s Canal Park pursuing an ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea).
Jan Dunlap remembers a stir-crazy January long ago when her kids were 8, 6, 4 and 2. “I said, ‘We have got to get out of this house.’ ”
She bundled everyone into snowsuits and drove to Wabasha to see the eagles wintering over. They were spectacular, soaring low over the kids’ heads. The others soon lost interest, but 4-year-old Bob stood staring upward, stunned.
“I will never forget the look on Bob’s face,” she said.
Little Bobby Dunlap was on his way to becoming Bob the Birdman.
He still thumbs the Golden Field Guide to Birds of North America that his parents gave him at age 5, his careful notations marking first sightings of cardinals, mallards, owls. “I just kind of took to birds more than to footballs or firetrucks.”
Today, at 30, Dunlap is among Minnesota’s younger birders, but hardly a fledgling, with 732 species on his life list.
“That’s not very impressive,” he cautioned, at least not compared with Noah Strycker, an Oregon man who devoted 2015 to identifying as many bird species as possible within a calendar year. Traveling the globe, he set a record, recording 6,042.
Such a venture, called a Big Year, inspired a movie several years ago starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Despite the star power, the movie flopped; one review called it “genial, amusing and somewhat unfathomable.”
Not unlike birding.
Dunlap, with his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Emily, remembers them being “the youngest people in the movie theater.” He paused a beat.
The Dunlap’s main habitat is Minnesota, but is seen throughout North America. A recent rare sighting was in Ecuador, where a male and its mate mingled for several days with rain-forest species. Despite an apparent reluctance to leave, the pair later was sighted in the St. Anthony neighborhood of St. Paul.
“The average age of birders in Minnesota is still retired,” said Dunlap, a zoologist and data specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That’s partly because birding takes time. And by time, Dunlap means patience.
“A lot of people want to identify every bird they see, but you have to have patience, be OK with letting a bird go before making a wrong call or a wrong move,” he said.
“Birding can be almost a sort of self-affirmation experience, deciding it’s OK to let a bird go, just enjoying the moment.”
Not too many wings escape his deductions. He identified 203 species (161 he’d never seen before) while honeymooning in Ecuador, including the one he most hoped to glimpse: a sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) with a beak almost as long as its body.
Since Jan. 1, he’s seen 47 species, including a relatively uncommon trio of American black ducks (Anas rubripes) at the Rum River dam in Anoka. The bird list for Minnesota notes 316 species that can reliably be seen here each year, yet Dunlap’s checklist tallies 377.
In other words, he’s seen every bird you can see in Minnesota — and dozens more that have wandered through.
He’s not alone in that achievement. The state’s top birder, Kim Eckert of Duluth, has 410 bird species on his lifetime state list.
Eckert, 69, is among the rare birders who earn a living watching the skies, guiding birding groups here and in other states. Winter, actually, is a busy time as birders come to Minnesota for northern species that migrate this far south.
Eckert likens birding to a sport, “but trying to hunt without a gun or fish without a pole. You just want to go out and make a long list.”
He sees few birders as young as Dunlap and shares concerns that young people are less interested in the outdoors.
“But Bob’s a talented guy — and he knows how to deal with red tape and paperwork and people situations. Bob has that temperament, and connects with those in their 20s and 30s.”
A Dunlap is known for its pale head and dark chin streaks extending to its throat. Upper limbs are notable for black and white markings that bear a striking resemblance to an upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) and rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus).
His website, Bobthebirdman.com, highlights a quote from legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh: “I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”
That’s a powerful statement, Dunlap said, and comes close to explaining his lifelong passion. Consider: The first place he drove after getting his driver’s license was to the Carver Park Reserve, home to olive-sided flycatchers, Lincoln’s sparrows and Blackburnian warblers.
Yet told that another birder, Josh Wallestad of aboywhocriedheron.com, called him “one of the lords of bird identification in Minnesota,” he clipped the wings of pride pretty fast.
“The term ‘expert’ can mean many things,” he said. “If someone uses that term about me, I want ‘expert’ to mean someone who shares their experience, who freely shares what they know. That’s one of the fundamental beliefs I have.”
Young birders, while not common, “certainly are more visible than they used to be.” Perhaps, he said, the free classroom presentations and field trips by volunteers from the Minnesota Ornithological Union (MOU) are paying off. (To learn more, visitmoumn.org/mentorship.html)
On Twitter at @bob_dunlap321, but when communicating solely about birds, uses @MOUbirds.
Dunlap has one other claim to avian fame: He’s the inspiration for Bob White, the birder-hero in a series of murder mysteries by his mother. Jan Dunlap’s seventh and most recent book is “The Kiskadee of Death,” published by North Star Press. (Other titles include “Swift Justice” and “A Murder of Crows.”)
Jan Dunlap has always liked birds, but is boggled by the depth and breadth of her son’s knowledge.
“He’s a phenomenal birder — can identify any bird by its song — and my Bob White character has those same skills,” she said. “I remember one time he took me birding for Mother’s Day, so I had my character do the same with his mother. But they found a body; we didn’t.”
Bob Dunlap demurs at having anything in common with Bob White, except that they both love to be outdoors.
Little wonder, then, that Bob and Emily were married outside this past September. The bird-themed wedding included feathers in her veil, although Emily, a natural resources technician for the city of St. Paul, is more interested in snakes and turtles. “He’s always looking up and I’m always looking down,” she said.
They also tweaked the tradition of clinking on glasses to make the bride and groom kiss.
Kisses here came only after guests sounded a bird call.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185