30 May - 1 June 1999
by Tom Grey
Mike Wald, Ken Winston and I spent three days birding in North Dakota last weekend. We met in Bismarck, and set out for Lostwood NWR up in the northwest corner of the state on Sunday morning. The weather had been warm and delightful when I arrived the night before, and I anticipated great prairie birding as I checked out the pothole right outside the Bismarck airport, which showed YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS galore, as well as swallows and an EASTERN KINGBIRD.
But by the time the three of us got together early the next morning, a cold front had come in, producing heavy overnight rains, and we had miserable cold weather with temperatures in the 40s and at winds 15-25 mph. This put a damper on the prairie birding, and on us too, as we weren't dressed for that level of windchill. But nonetheless not far past the Visitor's Center at Lostwood, as we stood in the cold wind outside our car (which was sinking into the mud of the road) we heard the descending tinkly song we had been listening to on tape as we drove - yes, SPRAGUE'S PIPIT! Pretty soon we picked it out fluttering back and forth in the cold windy sky - we watched for a good ten minutes, shivering but thrilled, as it skylarked high above us. We heard and saw several more aloft at Lostwood during the day.
The rest of the day, we managed good views of SHARP-TAILED GROUSE (near the lek and hide) and saw all the available sparrows -- SAVANNAH, SONG, GRASSHOPPER, CLAY-COLORED, LARK, and VESPER -- with the single exception of the one we most wanted, Baird's Sparrow, whose refusal to sing when we were nearby we blamed on the weather. We also saw the nesting MARBLED GODWITS and WILLETS, and ran across the resident biologist Bob Smith, and with him observed the nesting PIPING PLOVERS.
We spent that night in Minot after some brief looks at Des Lacs and Upper Souris NWRs, and a good bit of driving around among the potholes of northwest North Dakota. This got us used to the numerous BLACK TERNS and FRANKLIN'S & RING-BILLED GULLS that we would see all along our way, and the more scattered EARED & WESTERN GREBES. The ducks we saw in pothole country were MALLARD, GADWALL, SHOVELER, PINTAIL, WIGEON, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, BLUE-WINGED TEAL, CANVASBACK, REDHEAD, LESSER SCAUP, BUFFLEHEAD, and RUDDY.
The next morning we were greeted by better weather as we headed off eastward toward J. Clark Salyer NWR to the east, hoping to get Baird's and maybe add LeConte's Sparrow. Along the back country roads on the way we saw a flock of SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS that included a single STILT SANDPIPER; also saw WILSON'S PHALAROPES (we had not seen the full breeding plumage before), SWAINSON'S HAWKS, a COMMON SNIPE (later we would hear several winnowing), an ORCHARD ORIOLE, and lots of other expected birds (sparrows, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, which we never tired of.)
But when we got to the Grassland Trail at Salyer, our best bet for Baird's, we found it had been closed by the near-record rains of the previous month - as were all too many of refuge and back country roads that lead to important birding spots. The main auto tour at Salyer was also closed by flooding, but our cruising of backroads in the southern part of the refuge finally turned up an UPLAND SANDPIPER, the only one we would see in our three days. We also found SEDGE WRENS, BANK SWALLOWS, 3 AMERICAN BITTERNS, and a pair of nesting MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS.
A walk around a wooded area in this part of the refuge produced (amidst about a million mosquitoes) LEAST FLYCATCHER, VEERY, EASTERN BLUEBIRD, RED-EYED & WARBLING VIREOS, and OVENBIRD - except for the first, not birds we had come to North Dakota to see, but old friends, and welcome. Again, no Baird's, and no LeConte's - the ranger told us that the flooding had disrupted the normal wet area nesting of the latter. We kept trying to turn the omnipresent buzz-buzz of the Clay-colored Sparrow into the more insect-like single buzz of the LeConte's. Even the trill of the Red-winged Blackbird, heard at a sufficient distance, could generate hope after a while.
In the late afternoon, we drove south and west to spend the night at Carrington so as to be able to make an early start for Arrowwood NWR and the Kidder County birding sites on our last day. The next morning, weather and flooding were again deterrents; it was windy, and the auto tour at Arrowwood was completely flooded out. We bushwhacked to get to part of it on foot, but the possible LeConte's spots were also disrupted by flooding. We did see a TURKEY VULTURE at Arrowwood (this is for North Dakotans - it's a rarity there!), several singing WILLOW FLYCATCHERS, and PURPLE MARTINS and a CATTLE EGRET near the Visitor's Center.
On a tip from the refuge biologist, we were able to get a great view of a pair of GRAY PARTRIDGE at a small prairie cemetery just off the refuge - the only ones we saw in three days. (We heard that the population had crashed in recent years, and this year's wet weather added to that effect.)
We headed on toward Chase Lake in the afternoon, and then on to the Kidder County spots, hoping against hope to find the elusive Baird's and/or LeConte's. Again we were blocked by flooded back roads, which kept us from Chase Lake itself and its advertised thousands of pelicans, and from Salt Alkaline Lake. We had no luck on the sparrows, though we walked and drove a lot of back roads, but we did get a spectacular view of our first CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR of the trip in the Chase Lake area, and later saw quite a few in Kidder County along the (still open) first two miles of the road to Salt Alkaline Lake. We also added COMMON & FORSTER'S TERNS and GREAT EGRET.
Watching the fences we enjoyed, as we had throughout, the stylish juxtaposition of EASTERN and WESTERN KINGBIRDS on the barbed wire and the omnipresent songs of WESTERN MEADOWLARKS and CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS. The next morning as we were leaving, the airport produced a last species for our visit: CHIMNEY SWIFTS.
It was disappointing to come to North Dakota in spring and miss both Baird's and LeConte's sparrow, but this was nonetheless a very satisfying trip, as we were able to get an extensive and up-close view of the beautiful and distinctive prairie pothole country and its birds. Mike saw four and Ken five life birds, and I had eight out of my total of 106 species seen. My first lifer of the trip was especially memorable: the gloriously skylarking SPRAGUE'S PIPIT we saw in the cold and wind of Lostwood on our first morning was my 500th North American species.
Our special thanks to the birdchatters who gave advice that helped us to plan this trip: Tyler Bell, Mike Collins, Shan Cunningham (who gave especially detailed species by species advice), Marietta Deming, Ron Martin, and Greg Miller.