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