Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wrapping up North Dakota ... Finally

Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota

Swainson's Hawk
This blog has been dormant for five months, but I have not.  In fact, I've been busier than a guy should be who has retired from working in order to do nothing but birding.  Still, life intervenes and nudges you along alternate paths until five months have passed and not a word has been written.  That said, it's now time to get back to doing something I love - writing.  There is a bit of a change on the horizon for this blog, but I'll save that for the next essay, probably within a week.  For now, I need to wrap up an extraordinary trip to North Dakota that has been neglected for too long.

The final three birding days of this trip were very different than the previous seven.  Where great weather had dominated the earlier days, the day after Arrowwood was marked by a cold, constant rain, a blustery wind, and muddy roads.  The goal was to bird up and down Kidder County, so I found myself driving west on 94 through a persistent drizzle until I passed Dawson and pulled off at Exit 205.  I turned north and started out toward Horsehead Lake.  I expected bird numbers to be low due to the rain, but I was wrong.  At first there were the same species already seen during the previous few days, but ahead on a fence post was a welcome sight.  It was not a life bird, but it was the best look I've ever had at a Swainson's Hawk, so it felt like one.

American Bittern pretending to be a clump of reeds.
Each subsequent pond had its Shovelers, Teals, Mallards, and Redheads.  In one spot I was able to scope a piece of the lake and was rewarded with White Pelicans and Canada Geese.  I pulled over at one spot and got out to stretch my legs.  Next to the car was a typical pond with a few scattered tall reeds.  I walked along the road for a bit, finding little of note, and then strolled back to the car.  Then I realized there was something odd on the other side of the water.  One of the clumps of "sparse reeds" was not a reed at all.  It was an American Bittern standing very still with only an occasional sway with the wind.  Looking at the photo, I can't imagine how I almost missed it.

Late in the afternoon luck steered me off course.  By that time I was outside of Kidder County along a dirt road somewhere south of Long Lake, and not where I had planned to be.  I pulled off to the edge of the road under the shade of five or six trees clustered in this lonely spot.  There were birds in every tree.  As we ate lunch, a Willow Flycatcher called from one place while a Brown Thrasher and an Orchard Oriole chased each other from perch to perch.  Then another bird popped into view, more secretive and more yellow-looking from below than his noisy cousins.  When I got a good look, I could hardly believe it - a Philadelphia Vireo!  What a thrill!  The day ended with a mix of shorebirds that left me wondering why I ever took up birdwatching.  The overcast skies, the glare, and the distance made them all look the same to me.  One bird in particular aroused my curiosity because it was banded.  Surely this had to be some rare and exotic shorebird.  But no, after much study and several appeals to those who know more than I, the bird was identified as a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a bird I see regularly in Florida in its drab plumage.  There's a photo of a mass of shorebirds near the bottom of this essay that I may study some day in the hope of picking out some of the species ... or maybe not.

Teddy Roosevelt's Maltese Cabin
The next day became a radical deviation from the original plan.  I had seen many of my target birds, and each day was beginning to resemble the one before in terms of the species I was seeing.  On a whim, I traveled well to the west and eventually found myself turning into Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  TR is one of my heroes.  He went from being a sickly kid into being a vigorous adventurer as an adult.  As a U.S. President, he saved our natural wonders from abuse and over-development by preserving land from coast to coast and north to south.  And he faced the terrible tragedy of losing his mother and his wife on the same day by turning to nature for strength and peace, eventually emerging with a renewed love for what the American landscape had to offer.  The cabin he lived in during his time of grieving is preserved in the park, and I honestly felt like I was visiting a shrine, not to God, but to a man who worked hard to preserve God's wonders.  It was the least birdy day of the trip with only 25 species, but I didn't care.  Several of them were new for the trip - Black-billed Magpie, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting and Yellow-breasted Chat.  Plus there were American Bison and Prairie Dogs along the road.  Later my friends and I ate ice cream in Medora and browsed through a shop or two.  It was a terrific change of pace, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but there was a final target on the agenda. Acting on a tip I received through Facebook, I drove to the tiny town of Amidon with its population of 21 as of 2013, its fake police car for traffic control, and its one paved road.  At Main Street, I turned north for a short distance into an agricultural area.  There in the dirt road just in front of me was a flock of perhaps 40 Lark Buntings, my fifth and final life bird in North Dakota.

Yellow-breasted Chat in Theodore Roosevelt N.P.
The last day in North Dakota was more laid back than the previous nine.  It started with a trip to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan which, if my memory is accurate, was the last post of George Custer before the massacre at Little Big Horn.   It's a gorgeous, well-maintained park with several rebuilt infantry guard towers on a hill above the Missouri River and a few preserved cavalry barracks on the plains next to its banks.  Near the campgrounds are pretty trails through riverside woods dotted with Robins, Chipping Sparrows, a Least Flycatcher, a Northern Flicker, a Western Kingbird and a Black-headed Grosbeak.  Out on the river were Least Terns soaring above a group of Red-breasted Mergansers.  I loved that park, and its memory will always stay with me.

The day and the trip to North Dakota ended with a ride along one of the many birding drives south of Mandan and Bismarck where there were final, loving looks at many of the ducks and waders that had graced nearly every roadside throughout the ten days.  A couple of Western Grebes looked great in the afternoon light, and a Bald Eagle soared overhead, a fitting last bird of the day.

Overall, I had 149 species including five life birds during my time in North Dakota.  I can honestly say the state was way more beautiful than I expected.  I know that much of the year is difficult in the frozen north, but May is spectacular throughout the state - and the birding is even better.

Here are a few more sights and memories of my final three days:

A Western Kingbird at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, North Dakota.

Should I try to identify all of these shorebirds?  Maybe some day.

A Lark Sparrow greeted us near Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A guard tower on a hill above the Missouri River at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

Red-necked Grebe near Horsehead Lake in Kidder County

An American Bison, safe in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  I had to wait for him to get off the road.

Ruddy Duck in fine form south of Bismarck

Lark Buntings near Amidon, the third smallest county seat in the USA

Western Grebes south of Bismarck

A rugged landscape, sculpted by the wind