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8 - 14 June 2001

by Jim Turner and Kate Trainer

Just back from one of our usual casual birding trips, this time to North Dakota.  No effort made to seek out any birds, but just to catalog those that happen to be present in our wanderings.  The itinerary was designed to pass through as many counties as possible, and list the birds seen by county.  In some counties, birds were seen only from the moving car.  In others, an hour or two might have been spent walking in various promising habitats.  We would stop to look at any bird deserving closer inspection for confirming identity.

We did not review range maps before leaving, so we did not always know what birds we were ‘supposed’ to see, but I looked at breeding bird survey maps when I got home to see why we saw no Turkey Vultures at all.

Weather: West-bound, hot and sunny.  East-bound, cloudy, windy, some rain.

Itinerary: Mackinac Straits, Michigan, to McKenzie County, western North Dakota, and return.  Entire trip north of 46th parallel, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, with brief entries into Ontario and Manitoba, Canada.  Miles driven = 2,800

Objective: Little effort was made to find any particular species of birds, or to seek out productive birding habitats.  Instead, it was a liesurely drive across the area with constant vigilance for the kinds of birds likely to be observed without diligent effort.  Hence, the very modest species list of only 139.  Many more could have been found along the route with a little perseverance.

Logistics: Motels are inexpensive in this area.  We were never disappointed in our hopes for lodgings under $35, with stopovers in Ironwood MI, Baudette MN, and Devils Lake, New Town and Steele ND.  All were basic but comfortable and clean.

Most communities in ND and some in MN have municipal parks with free camping facilities.  Make local inquiry if you do not see a sign.  Otherwise, camping is easy and safe in any rural area where you are not obstructing traffic or infringing on private property.

Most small town banks have no ATM machine.  Carry enough cash to cover what cannot be charged.  Well-stocked supermarkets are likewise infrequent. 

Traffic is extremely light in ND.  Away from larger cities or main US-numbered highways, there is often no more than one passing car every ten minutes.  Gravel roads are well-maintained, and many carry only a handful of cars per day.  Ungravelled roads are for dry-use only, you will get stuck immediately if they are wet ("gumbo").

Upper Michigan's few highways are very busy, and there are very few driveable side-roads, except for the National Forest roads.  Most back roads are merely`two-tracks', not very useful for city cars.

Unlike most National Parks, you will have the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park all to yourself.  It was nearly deserted.

Literature: The book "Wildflowers of North Dakota" by Paul B.  Kannowski (Univ. of North Dakota Press, Grand Forks, 1989--$12.95) is one of the nicest books of it's type I have ever seen.

Minnesota's "Pine to Prairie Birding Trail" guide brochure ( ) features excellent detailed maps and info about 43 birding sites in Northwest Minnesota.  Free.

Hazards: Grassy areas have rich tick populations, but insects are not too bad.  Mainly just mosquitoes at nightfall.  Lyme's disease is prevalent in the forested areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but not Michigan.  Many other annoying flying things.  Repellent is useful.

Summer temperatures can be very high in ND (35-40 C), sunny, windy, and occasional spectacular storms with lightning, hail and tornadoes.

You can see the storms approaching, with plenty of time to take cover.

Personal safety should not be an issue---this area probably has the lowest crime rate in the US.  If you experience a mechanical breakdown or other emergency in a remote location, you can be sure that the very first car that passes will stop to offer friendly assistance.

Except for the Mackinac Straits area near our home, our southernmost county was Morrison, Minnesota, so we were north of the usual range of such birds as the Cardinal, TV, Bobwhite, Red-bellied and Red- headed Woodpeckers and Chimney Swift.  A trip seems odd without those birds!

We reached as far west as the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP, in North Dakota's `Badlands'.  There, the first three birds we saw (in light rain) within a few hundred yards of the welcome center, were the Lazuli Bunting, Mountain Bluebird and Say's Phoebe---all very easy birds to get there, but rare further east.

In North Dakotas potholes, we quickly found every expected duck.  A few birds turned up surprisingly near the fringes of their ranges: Magpie in Rainy River, Ontario, and Gray Jay in Itasca County, MN, and a Ferruginous Hawk in Pierce Co.  ND.  In almost all cases, our observations conformed very will with the densities predicted by the BBS maps.

Two species were astonishingly rare.  All across North Dakota, we saw only 3 or 4 Western Kingbirds, and only one sighting of a couple of Lark Buntings.  These birds should have been flying off roadsides just about every mile, as I have seen them do in the past in South Dakota.

We also did very badly on breeding warblers in Minnesota.  No kinglets at all, and we dipped on several common warblers, even though we drove the Lake Superior highway as far east as Cook County, then across to Rainy River and up to the Northwest Angle.  By the way, the heaviest traffic we encountered on the entire trip was hundreds of cars pulling boat trailers on the gravel Manitoba road to Northwest Angle (that pre-Alaska answer to the trivia question about the northernmost point in the USA).

On most North Dakota roads (even paved ones), you can just stop on the pavement if you want to check out a bird.  There will be no cars for at least five minutes.  At one point we drove 23 miles on a paved road without meeting an oncoming car.

Our highlights were a Sora, preening itself in the middle of a roadside ditch, and two equally unobstructed views of American Bitterns.

North Dakota is an incredibly beautiful state to wander in, with rewarding birding everywhere.  Anyone heading there should also get (free) the wonderful brochure "Pine to Prairie Birding Trail", describing 43 birding sites in northwestern Minnesota, with excellent detailed maps ( ).  For anyone who thinks North Dakota is just a flat boring place, this is a MUST birding trip of a lifetime.


The total trip count was 126 species.

The following should be regarded as birds that are relatively easy to see while traveling in the area.  All were identified from a moving car, or during a brief walk along or near the road.  A few noted birding habitats were visited for a several hours.  They are listed as `including', and birds seen only in these places indicated as ( * ).

Geographical areas are defined as follows:

UP = Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Counties Mackinac to Gogebic)

WN = Northern Wisconsin (Counties Iron, Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas)

ME = Northeastern Minnesota (Cook, Lake, St.  Louis, Carlton, Koochiching, Itasca, Beltrami, Lake of the Woods, Roseau, and adjacent areas of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada.

MW = Northwest Minnesota (Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake, Polk

MC = Central Minnesota (Clay, Becker, Wadena, Cass, Morrison) including Felton Prairie (Clay) and Hamden Slough (Becker)

DE = Eastern North Dakota (Traill, Grand Forks, Nelson, Eddy, Benson, Ramsey, Cavalier, Towner)

DC = Central North Dakota (Rollette, Pierce, McHenry Bottineau, Ward, Mountrail, Kidder, Burleigh)

DW = Western North Dakota (Williams, McKenzie, Dunn, Mercer, Oliver, Morton) including Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit, and Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge.

                                UP  WN  ME  MW  MC  DE  DC  DW 
Pied Billed Grebe                                   X   X
Horned Grebe                                            X
Eared Grebe                                 X       X   X
Western Grebe                                       X   X
Red-necked Grebe                                X   X
Common Loon                     X               X
Am. White Pelican                       X           X   X   X
Double Crested Cormorant        X       X       X       X   X                
American Bittern                                X   X
Great Blue Heron                            X               X
Cattle Egret                                            X
Snow Goose (blue)                                       X                     
Canada Goose                            X           X   X
Wood Duck                                           X   
Mallard                         X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Pintail                                 X           X   X   X
Blue wing Teal                  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X     
Green-wing Teal                                     X
N. Shoveler                             X           X   X
Gadwall                                             X   X
Am. Wigeon                              X           X
Canvasback                                      X   X   X
Redhead                                             X   X
Ring-neck Duck                              X       X
Lesser Scaup                                            X
Bufflehead                                              X
Ruddy Duck                                  X       X   X   
Common Merganser                    X   
N. Harrier                      X           X   X   X   X
Coopers Hawk                                        X
Broad-wing Hawk                 X       X
Red-tail Hawk                   X       X       X   X   X
Ferruginous Hawk                                        X
Swainson's Hawk                                     X   X
Am. Kestrel                             X               X   X
Ring-neck Pheasant                      X                   X
Wild Turkey                     X
Sora                                            X   X
Am. Coot                        X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Killdeer                        X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Am. Avocet                                          X   X
Willet                                              X   X
Upland Plover                                   X
Spotted Sandpiper                           X   
Marbled Godwit                                  *
Western Sandpiper                                       X
Com. Snipe                              X       X
Wilson's Phalarope                      X           X   X   X
Franklin's Gull                                         X
Ring-billed Gull                X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Herring Gull                    X
California Gull                                             X   
Black Tern                                  X   X   X   X
Forster's Tern                                          X
Mourning Dove                   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Black-billed Cuckoo                         X
Common Nighthawk                                            X
Ruby-t. Hummingbird                         X
Belted Kingfisher                       X           X   
Yellow-b. Sapsucker                     X
Downy Woodpecker                        X                   X
Hairy Woodpecker                X       X        
N. Flicker                          X   X        X          X
Pileated Woodpecker                     X
Eastern Wood Pewee              X       X           X     
Alder Flycatcher                    X   X   X
Willow Flycatcher                                       X
Least Flycatcher                                X
Eastern Phoebe                      X   X
Say's Phoebe                                                *
Gt. Crested Flycatcher                      X       X
WEstern Kingbird                                            X
Eastern Kingbird                    X   X   X           X   X   
Horned Lark                                             X   X
Purple Martin                   X
Cliff Swallow                               X   X       X   X
Barn Swallow                            X           X   X   X   
Tree Swallow                        X   X       X       X   X
Gray Jay                                X
Blue Jay                        X       X           X       X   
Black-bill Magpie                       X   X               X   
American Crow                   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Common Raven                    X       X
Black-cap Chickadee             X   X   X   X   X   X
White-breast Nuthatch               X   X
Red-breast Nuthatch             X
Sedge Wren                                      *
Mountain Bluebird                                           *
Eastern Bluebird                X       X
Veery                           X   X   X   X   X
Swainson's Thrush                       X
American Robin                  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Gray Catbird                    X   X   X                   X
Brown Thrasher                              X   X   X  
Cedar Waxwing                           X
Loggerhead Shrike                               X           X
Red-eyed Vireo                  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Warbling Vireo                      X                       X
Blue-headed Vireo                       X
Yellow-throat Vireo                         X
Yellow Warbler                  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Black & White Warbler               X   X                   X
Black-th Green Warbler              X   X
Yellow-rump Warbler                 X
Nashville Warbler                       X
Chestnut-sided Warbler                  X
Golden-winged Warbler                           X
Am. Redstart                        X   X                   X
Ovenbird                            X   X                   X
N. Parula                           X   X
Common Yellowthroat             X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Yellow-breast Chat                                          *
Rose-breasted Grosbeak              X   X   X       X   X   
Lazuli bunting                                              *
Indigo Bunting                      X   X
Eastern Towhee                          X
Spotted Towhee                                              *
Chipping sparrow                X       X               X   X
Clay-colored Sparrow                    X               X   X
Field Sparrow                                               X
Vesper Sparrow                                      X       X   
Lark Sparrow                                                X
Savannah Sparrow                        X   X       X       X   
Grasshopper Sparrow                                 X       X
Song Sparrow                    X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Swamp Sparrow                       X
White-throated Sparrow                  X
Lark Bunting                                                X
Bobolink                                    X   X       X   X
Red-wing Blackbird              X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Yellow-head Blackbird                       X   X   X   X   X
Brewer's Blackbird                          X
Eastern Meadowlark                  X           X
Western Meadowlark                      X   X   X   X   X   X
Common Grackle                  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X
Brown-headed Cowbird            X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   
Baltimore (Northern) Oriole         X           X   X          
House Finch                                     X
Am. Goldfinch                           X       X   X       X

(House Sparrow, Rock Dove, Starling were widespread, but not noted)

Jim Turner
Traverse City

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