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.