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.