Sunday, July 3, 2016

Birding North Dakota: Drake and Lonetree WMA

Hills along the  Lonetree Birding Drive in central North Dakota
Leaving Minot wasn't easy.  The birding had been fantastic, there were so many great places to bird, and I hadn't been able to visit everything I had hoped to see.  Still, my ten-day trip had reached the midpoint and there was much to do elsewhere.  My next destination was Jamestown, and the plan for the day was to drive to Drake and turn south, birding my way through country roads to Jamestown by way of the Lonetree Wildlife Management Area.

And so on Monday morning I found myself driving toward the southeast on US 52, passing Balfour and looking for the town of Drake.  You need to look fast as its population in 2010 was 275.  The town itself sits just to the north of the highway, and it was only one turn that leads to the south.  That's the one I wanted, and soon I found myself bumping along gravel roads with some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.  In general, the plan was to follow the "Lonetree Birding Route" as described in a pdf file that I found online at  I altered the route a little so that instead of closing with a drive north to Anamoose, I would turn farther to the southeast near Fessenden.

I really don't think that words can adequately describe how much I enjoyed the day.  It wasn't merely the great birding - it was terrific - and neither was it just the gorgeous scenery - it was lush, green, soothing and energizing at the same time.  Instead, birds and beauty combined with perfect weather and a wonderful sense of being nearly alone in a quiet world.  I could get used to this!

Here's a taste of a great day:

Vespers is a service of evening prayers in the Catholic Church, and I've been told that the Vesper Sparrow was so named because it often sings its lovely, prayerful song late in the day.  The one pictured above, however, must be an early riser because he was in full-throated song at 9:00 AM.  Since the area was absolutely quiet, his melodic series of trills rang clear in the cool morning air.  What a treat it was to be there at that moment!

When I was a boy, I first encountered farm life through Dick and Jane and their dog Spot, the characters in my grade school reader.  I read about their life on the farm and thought it must be wonderful to be so close to nature all of the time.  In my mind, when I thought of the quiet country lanes, the little swimming holes, and the fields of crops, I pictured a scene just like the one above.  Standing on the small slope above this farm, I had two very distinct and powerful emotions.  First, I thought that I could live very happily looking out at this scene every day.  And second, I believe that if you can't feel the hand of God here, you won't find it in any church.

Of course it helped that as I was taking a photo of this idyllic farm valley, a Western Meadowlark was entertaining me in a tree just to my right.  While I was getting all philosophical, the meadowlark was welcoming the morning with its sweet, gurgling song.  The sky was perfect, the scenery was perfect, and now the music was perfect too.

About fifteen minutes later I stopped at another pond to check out the ducks.  During the morning I had already seen Blue-winged Teals, Canada Geese (second photo up), Mallards, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.  Now I was happy to see a Redhead across the pond.  As I looked at the blue bill, rufous head and gray back, another bird swam past.  This one's back was white, not gray, so I swung the scope over to follow it.  Canvasback!  One of my favorite ducks!

I am not a hunter, but I recognize that duck hunting is big business in the USA.  Hunters wait all year for the designated season when they can go out and bag themselves some duck dinners.  They also spend a lot of money every year on duck stamps.  That money goes to preserving the breeding grounds preferred by ducks - much of it in North Dakota - thereby assuring the hunters of a new generation of ducks each year.  The photo above pictures one of the spots designated as a "Duck Production Area".  The protection of these areas is vitally important to the health of the duck population.  So, if you're a hunter, your duck stamp money is being put to work successfully.

Not far from the Duck Production Area, I was thrilled to see this Upland Sandpiper strolling along the road just a few feet away.  Seeing one of these handsome birds is such a rare treat in north Florida.  In North Dakota I saw them on at least four different days, and each occasion was special.

On the other hand, Red-winged Blackbirds are common in both Florida and North Dakota.  Common, perhaps, but never boring.  Their antics around a marsh are always entertaining, and their songs evoke images of early morning birding, tall cattails, and a wetland teeming with life.  This guy pictured above looked spectacular in his stark black suit and brilliant red and yellow epaulettes against the sparking blue water.  Mornings don't get much better.

Where Red-winged Blackbirds are abundant in Florida, their cousins are not.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds show up one at a time in the winter for a couple of days, and we scramble to a nearby dairy (ignoring the smell) and sort through the grackles, cowbirds and starlings to find the one prize in the group.  And he never looks like this.

Coming over another rise, the scene above took me by surprise.  I had to stop and take it all in.  While reading about North Dakota, I was shown a quotation from George Catlin who described the state as "The most unbounded and sublime views of nothing at all."  I think this is what he had in mind: a gentle rise above an open plain covered by agricultural fields, dotted by small groves of trees, and decorated with puffy white clouds above and brilliant blue ponds below.

I drove down the hill and stopped at the little pond that is dead center but hardly visible in the previous photo.  At one end was a pair of Wilson's Phalaropes (above) and a couple of American Wigeons bobbed on the water.  It was a scene that was repeated hundreds of times during the ten days, and I never tired of it.

More of the sculptures at Lonetree WMA near Harvey, ND

Eventually, I reached Lonetree Wildlife Management Area.  This is a state owned property that spreads over 33,000 acres just south of Harvey.  I stopped at the headquarters and was surprised to see a series of sculptures like the one above depicting a lot of the wildlife in the area.  The piece in the first of the two photos above represents the "Timeless Ritual" of the Sharp-tailed Grouse's mating dance.  The lower photo has a pheasant, a deer and a turkey.  You have to love a management area that celebrates its wildlife through the arts.

The ranger at the Lonetree headquarters suggested that the birding would be really good at a picnic area next to the lake.  He was right.  I spent at least an hour surrounded by birds.  Yellow Warblers (above) seemed to be in every tree and bush, and they were never shy about announcing themselves.  There were also Least and Willow Flycatchers, Cedar Waxwings, American Goldfinches and a single Blackpoll Warbler.

I soon heard a familiar song deep in the brush.  I searched diligently to no avail, the little singer stayed buried where I couldn't find him.  I gave up and turned away.  After only a step or two, the bird flew over my head and landed a few feet away.  He posed for the camera, sang out once more, and then the Song Sparrow disappeared from view.

Unfortunately I had very little time to spend at Lonetree.  I still had to get to Jamestown, so I had to leave a lot sooner than I wanted.  Eventually I reached US 52 and turned southeast toward Jamestown.  Soon after passing the entrance to Arrowwood NWR, I saw a hawk I didn't recognize fly over.  I stopped the car and hopped out, only to stare at the bird as it flew away.  Oh well, I thought, and turned around to go back to the car.  As I did, I saw this:

Okay, the truth is, it was much farther away than this photo would suggest and he was on the opposite side of the highway across several lanes of traffic.  I know that coyotes generally have a bad name, but you have to admit, this is a fine looking animal.  He gave me one look that seemed to say, "I could take you if I wanted to" before turning to the east and trotting away.  It was a spectacular end to a wonderful day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Birding North Dakota: J. Clark Salyer NWR

Barn Swallow at J. Clark Salyer NWR
One of the problems facing anyone who wants to visit North Dakota in order to do some birding is that there will always be more great birding places than there will be time to cover them.  Going into this trip, I had a list of about 25 birding sites and 10 days.  So I had one rule that I would not violate: No more than one day at a site!

Yeah, that didn't work out.

The problem was that I spent an entire day at J. Clark Salyer NWR, had a great time, saw loads of fantastic birds, and covered less than half of the park.  What's a birder to do?  So I went back for a second time, and I'll never regret it!  I mean, I finally got to see a ...  but I'm getting ahead of myself.  I need to start at the beginning ...

Franklin's Gull
I found myself passing through the little town of Upham (Home of the Orioles!) early on a Saturday morning.  Ten minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of the headquarters building only to find that it was closed.  I have to admit that I was surprised.  In all of my research, it never occurred to me to see if a headquarters at a national refuge would be closed on weekends.  Isn't that exactly when most people would be able to go to a refuge?  And if that's true, then wouldn't weekends be the time when most people actually might need a ranger?  Maybe we just aren't properly funding our National Park Service.  Whatever the cause, I was very disappointed - no birding tips from a friendly ranger and no souvenirs.  Bummer.

Walking around the headquarters area proved to be very productive.  Barn Swallows were nesting under the eaves of the HQ building and swooping endlessly overhead.  Mixed in with the swallows were numerous Franklin's and Ring-billed Gulls and at least one Bonaparte's Gull.  Gorgeous Black Terns and sleek looking Forster's Terns joined in the fun as well.  My gut told me that a Common Tern was mixed in with the bunch, but I wasn't fast enough (or good enough) to be certain.  They were just moving way too quickly for me to get a proper look.

Ring-necked Pheasant
Of course, the objective for the day was to drive and bird the 22-mile Scenic Trail, so I hopped into the rental car and started out.  Almost immediately I was greeted by a Western Meadowlark singing its little heart out, which I took to be a very good omen.  A short distance later, two Ring-necked Pheasants ambled along the edge of the road, apparently oblivious to my presence.

Then I noticed a small grassy area edged by trees and hiding a small pond.  I thought I saw some ducks on the pond, so I walked toward an opening in the trees and raised my binoculars.  Wood Ducks!

Can I digress for a moment?  The Wood Duck is my photographic nemesis bird.  Of course, I've seen them in Florida, but I have never been able to get a photo of one.  Not even a bad one.  I have photographed over 400 species of birds, but never a Wood Duck.  And here was a spectacular male looking so good it seemed to be straight out of a field guide or glossy magazine!  At last!

Blue-winged Teal
I reached for my camera, and right where I should have encountered the familiar cool frame of my Canon, I felt - well - nothing.  The camera was back in the car.  I scrambled back to the gigantic GMC Yukon, grabbed the camera and hustled back toward the pond.  There I sadly watched as the last of the Wood Ducks lifted off from the water and flew away.  I turned to my companions for comfort, no doubt looking utterly disconsolate.  "We'll get another one," they reassured me.  But of course, that was the only Wood Duck I saw in North Dakota.  Bummer #2 for the day.

Fortunately, the rest of the day was one fabulous birding spot after another.  Each turn in the road produced another pond filled with ducks, another grassy field with secretive little sparrows, or another copse of trees with a variety of colorful songbirds.   Let me pick out a few scenes from the day.

Every pond, every day throughout the trip seemed to have resident families of Northern Shovelers and Mallards, and they were never alone.  They were joined by any combination of Redheads, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, Northern Pintails, Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes, Gadwalls, American Wigeons, and Eared and Western Grebes.  The edges of the ponds teemed with life including Soras, White-faced Ibises, American Avocets, Wilson's Snipes, and Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  The mudflats that bordered many ponds held swarms of shorebirds.  They presented a very real challenge, so I'll address them below.

Killdeer (left) and Wilson's Phalarope
Scattered throughout the drive were open fields of grass.  We birded a bunch of them and found them to be filled with birds and a bit frustrating.  Sparrows don't like to be seen.  Oh, they'll show you a fleeting glimpse of browns and tans, some streaks and spots, but they're often long gone before my bins get into focus.  And nearly everything looked like a Clay-colored Sparrow.  Still, during the day we were also able to identify Vesper, Lark, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows.  One area graced us with some incredibly beautiful Mountain Bluebirds.  And there seemed to be both Eastern and Western Kingbirds on every fence in the park.  Meanwhile, the occasional Northern Harrier or Red-tailed Hawk glided over all looking for a tasty treat.

And of course there were the wooded areas that added a completely different flavor to the day.  Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, American Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings and a Baltimore Oriole provided color and diversity to the day.  We even found swallows perched in a tree!

White-faced Ibis
As the sun began to slip toward the west, I did a quick tally of the day's haul.  We had about 75 species, the best one-day total I had in the state, but one bird was missing - and it was my #1 target of the entire trip - Chestnut-collared Longspur.  I had been told that the bird could be found on the Grassland Trail, and we hadn't reached there yet.  The Scenic Trail had consumed the whole day.

So I broke the rule and returned to Salyer on Sunday morning.  I criss-crossed the Souris River a few times on a serpentine route that led through Kramer and Newburg until I finally found the entrance to the Grassland Trail.  Unlike the day before when the species count mounted continuously, today the total staggered, halted and staggered some more, never reaching half of the previous day's total.  But, was it a disappointing day?  Not at all!  In fact, it was one of the most memorable of my birding life.

Chestnut-collared Longspur
It started slowly.  In fact, for the first several hours I saw fewer species than I can see at my backyard feeders.  A Merlin was new to the trip list, the Bobolinks and Western Meadowlarks added some color, and the sparrows provided enough frustration to last a very long time.  They would flutter up for a moment and then dive into the tall grass, never to be seen again.  I could identify Chipping, Savannah, and Vesper Sparrows, but the only birds that were readily seen were the shorebirds and terns along the water.  Eventually we reached a field that the brochure described as having the little jewels I was hoping to see.

Then I heard a song I didn't recognize.  Was that a Chestnut-collared Longspur?  We grabbed an iPhone, tapped on the Sibley app, and called up the bird's song.  Yes!  That was what we heard!  On an impulse, one of us stuck a hand out of the car's window and played the song.  Suddenly a gaudily colored bird flew toward the car and began circling us, singing as it flew.  Then the gorgeous little thing landed right next to the car, sitting up on a tall stem where it continued to sing for the entire world.  It posed for the cameras, flew to another nearby stem and sang and posed some more.  It was a spectacular show, and I felt blessed and privileged to witness it and to do so with other birders who appreciated what we were seeing.

The Grassland Trail ended near Dam 341.  I pulled off of the road onto a dirt parking area and ate a picnic lunch while watching hundreds of swallows perform a mad dance above the bridge.  After lunch, we scoped the mudflats below and found yet another mob of shorebirds.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Shorebirds are difficult for me.  Fortunately, many of those that I saw in North Dakota were in breeding plumage and were quickly identifiable: Willet, Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Marbled Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone.  But for the most part, my strategy was to photograph everything I saw and study them later, first in my hotel room that night and again in the days after returning home.  The photos provided evidence of an enormous variety of shorebirds, especially considering what I typically see in Florida.  Among them were Stilt, White-rumped and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, species I have only seen on one or two previous occasions.  There were also Dunlins, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Least and Spotted Sandpipers.  Including the phalaropes, the two-day shorebird haul came to about 18 species.  For me, that was a really great total, and I could not have been more pleased.

The two days at Salyer ended my stay in the Minot area.  I have said that this was not a trip that focused on big numbers, either of life birds or total species.  Still, the numbers were looking pretty impressive at the midway point:  106 species, four lifers, and a score of birds that felt like lifers because I was seeing them in plumages I had never seen before.  This North Dakota birding was growing on me!

Eared Grebe: Gaudy and gorgeous

You can't have too many photos of a Chestnut-collared Longspur

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel

White-rumped Sandpiper

Cliff Swallow taking a rest above the stream pictured at the top of this blog.

Grain and the railroad: Together, they shaped the destiny and fortunes of North Dakota

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Birding North Dakota: Granville

A typical "pothole" in North Dakota, they polka dot nearly the entire middle of the state.

During the planning stage of this trip, I posted a request for birding suggestions on the "North Dakota Birding" Facebook page.  Among the tips I received were several comments along the lines of "Don't neglect the Granville area, especially along 57th Street North."  Accordingly, on Friday morning my friends and I turned east from Minot and eventually found ourselves along a 7-mile rural road through an agricultural area peppered with pothole ponds.

Before I get to the birding part of the day, I'd like to add an aside for my non-North Dakota friends.  During my trip I learned that 90% of the land mass of the state is used for agriculture.  There's also some native prairie left, mostly in national refuges.  So there is very little to prevent the wind from tearing through anything in its path.  To protect their farms, many farmers chose to plant thick rows of trees and shrubs around their homes, barns and other structures. At this time of year, the trees are lush and the lilacs gorgeous.  The photo to the left depicts a really nice example of this practice.  The result provides color and variety to the waves of wheat and other grains rippling in the breeze.

The first field on the western end of the street looked very interesting.  I pulled over and the first thing I saw was a nest high in an oak.  I put the spotting scope on it and saw a Red-tailed Hawk!  Then another flew directly over the nest and began hunting the field in front of me.  Mom tending the home while dad hunted for food?  Whatever the case, it was great seeing that little vignette of domestic life.  I did a slow 360 degree turn and checked out the fields around me.  I saw Killdeer, Robins, a Yellow Warbler, a Ring-necked Pheasant, some Brewer's Blackbirds, an American Goldfinch or two (right) and several Red-winged Blackbirds.  Just another North Dakota farm field.

At the next corner, a Song Sparrow lived up to his name from the top of a pine tree.  A little farther up the road was the first pond and on it were some Mallards and Gadwalls.  Against the far edge were a couple of Blue-winged Teals, and several Northern Shovelers flew in while I watched.  Just another North Dakota farm pond.

Continuing along the road we quickly added Wilson's Snipe, Barn and Tree Swallows, Clay-colored Sparrow, and a gorgeous Northern Pintail (and yes, that's a redundant phrase).  Then I heard a familiar "chin chin chin chin".  I almost overlooked it because it's such a common sound in Florida.  But I stopped to watch the little bird's progress through a small patch of vegetation.  I didn't realize that with all of the many lakes, ponds and potholes I would visit, this would be the only Swamp Sparrow I would see.

Then we heard a very different sound - one that we want to hear desperately in Florida but rarely do.  It was the dry "chibek" of a Least Flycatcher.  At home we see empids and turn away with a shrug.  Here in North Dakota they sing out, identifying themselves to anyone who cares to listen.  What a treat that was ... but not the last of the day.  Each field, pond or copse of trees held something new:  Eastern and Western Kingbirds perching on the same fence.  Orchard Oriole and Lark Sparrow (left) showing off their gaudy plumage.  Sharp-tailed Grouse and Upland Sandpiper feeding in the same field.  Wilson's Phalarope and Green-winged Teal sharing the same pond.  I loved it all.

Near the end of the road I heard another sound that brought me to a stop.  It was a sound I knew, but not because it was familiar.  I had studied it before coming to North Dakota and heard it frequently in Lostwood NWR without ever seeing the bird.  It was the song of a Baird's Sparrow, wasn't it?  I pulled out my iPhone and played the song to check my memory.  The bird popped up just in front of me, took one look at my unimpressive visage, and dove for cover.  Fortunately, the others saw the bird too.  We looked at each other and finally one of us said, "That was a Baird's Sparrow!"  I didn't expect it here along this road, but there it was, a completely unexpected life bird!  After that, the Vesper Sparrow that I saw a few minutes later and a bit farther along the road was a bit of a letdown.

We wrapped up the day with a too-brief stop at the Denbigh Experimental Forest.  In the parking lot I saw an American Robin, a Chipping Sparrow and another Least Flycatcher (right).  We walked along the trail that leads away from the parking area but didn't see or hear a single bird.  Back at the car, I looked longingly down the road that would have to remain unexplored.  It had been a long day, the afternoon was creeping toward the dinner hour, and we had to get back to Minot.  Reluctantly, I hopped in the car and turned to the west.

Sandhill Crane ... and look who's peeking out from the grass on the left!
Wilson's Phalarope ... and I didn't have to take a pelagic trip to see it.
Western Meadowlark greeting the new day.
I love this old barn, especially the cow on the weather vane.
Western Kingbird on one end of a wire.
Eastern Kingbird on the other end of the wire.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Birding North Dakota: Audubon, Lostwood and Des Lacs NWR

Rolling Hills and Pothole Lakes

Yellow-headed Blackbird
I never expected to go to North Dakota.  It wasn't even on my radar as a birding destination.  I knew nothing about the state except that it had part of The Badlands and some oil wells.  That all changed when I talked to a couple of birding colleagues who had birded in the state.  They raved about the birds and told me that ducks were to be found in every pond - and there were a lot of ponds.  That was enough for me.

I studied every bird I thought I might find in North Dakota.  I even looked at Google Maps to see where I had to drive.  But in the end, I really had no idea what to expect about the state itself.  The bottom line is that North Dakota is gorgeous in May!  I loved the rolling hills, the open spaces, and vast expanse of the sky.  And it was very, very green.

The first stop on my trip was Audubon NWR.  As soon as I turned onto the entrance road, there was a small pond to my right, and around it were a group of Yellow-headed Blackbirds (above, right).  I've seen a few of them in Florida, but none of them were quite like this.  It was a spectacular combination of black and gold!  Such a beautiful bird.

Sharp-tailed Grouse
I arrived at the visitor's center just before it was to close, so I walked around for a bit watching the Barn Swallows and Chipping Sparrows, but was a little dismayed to see Starlings in the Purple Martin house.  I hopped back into the car and started the 8-mile Auto Tour.  It was wonderful.  At every turn, ponds and lakes were dotted with ducks and grebes while a variety of swallows and a few terns soared overhead.  I love watching ducks and other water birds, and this was heaven.  It seemed that every pond held a couple of Mallards, a Northern Shoveler, and perhaps a Northern Pintail, Ruddy Duck, or Redhead.  The fence posts held Eastern and Western Kingbirds, while Bobolinks dashed from perch to perch, stopping to sing their bubbly song.   In a very short time I racked up about 40 species.  Unfortunately, the day was growing old and I was getting tired.  I hurried through the last few miles and turned toward Minot and a decent night's sleep after 18 hours of airports, planes, a couple of hours of driving and one beautiful birding hotspot.

Eared Grebes at Lostwood NWR
I was up at 4:00 the next morning and drove northwest of Minot to Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge.  My plan was to reach the bird blind early enough to see some Sharp-tailed Grouse.  It turned out to be unnecessary.  As soon as I turned onto the auto tour route, there was one sitting up in a tree.  It turned its head to look at me, posed for a few photos (above, left), and ignored me as I drove on.  The first lifer of the trip was as easy as one can be.

Much of the Auto Tour was like the one at Audubon filled with gorgeous ducks and other waterfowl.  And there were some really nice surprises along the way too.  At one stop, a Nelson's Sparrow sang and then came into view.  At another, Wilson's Phalaropes walked the water's edge and swam just offshore.  Another stop offered wonderful looks at Canvasbacks and Redheads.  At a fourth, a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew over.  This was shaping up to be a terrific morning.

But there was a single disappointment.  I heard Baird's Sparrow singing in at least four locations along the Auto Tour.  I won't count a heard-only bird on my life list, so failing to see it was frustrating.  I hoped I'd get another shot at it.

Horned Grebes
Then the real payoff for the day came near the end of the drive.  In Florida, when we see Horned and Eared Grebes, they're a plain black and white ... nothing spectacular.  On the rare occasions when we see Black Terns, they're pretty much like any other tern ... gray and white.  But here all three species were gathered in a single pond in their full breeding plumage, each more stunning than the next.  I stood on the roadside thinking this made the whole trip worthwhile.

My final destination for the day was Des Lacs NWR.  I drove toward the town of Bowbells, crossed Upper Des Lacs Lake, and eventually turned south along its eastern side.  At a small bridge over a little stream, a flock of Cliff Swallows criss-crossed the road in a mad feeding frenzy.  A short while later a couple of Upland Sandpipers appeared on top of a power pole.  American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers graced the roadside trees.  White Pelicans floated on the lake.  Here a Least Flycatcher vocalized and showed itself; there a Clay-colored Sparrow sat up and sang.

The first two days wrapped up with about 63 species and one life bird.  My goal for this trip was not numbers.  I was after a few lifers and great looks at ducks, grebes and other water birds that I never get to see in breeding plumage.  Undoubtedly, the first two days were a great success.

Gadwall at Audubon NWR
This Ruddy Duck is looking good!
Canada Geese herding the little ones to safety.
Upland Sandpiper fleeing from the paparazzi.
The Auto Tour at Lostwood.
Brewer's Blackbird with nest building on her mind.
Northern Pintail at Audubon NWR