I flew into the Bismarck Municipal Airport on the first day of summer. It was a beautiful day in North Dakota. I went to the tiny town of Tuttle to a side road off of Highway 3. There were some Grasshopper Sparrows, Vesper Sparrow, Bobolink, and some other things but it was the complete opposite direction of my campground so I soon left and headed back west to Cross Ranch State Park. On my way back west on I-94 I nearly ran over a Sharp-tailed Grouse crossing the interstate. A few minutes later I was pulled by a North Dakota Highway Patrol for going 82 MPH in a 75 MPH zone. He wrote me a warning ticket and followed me for 20 miles.
I arrived at Cross Ranch State Park and set up my tent in a fantastic camp site well away from anyone else and right on the Missouri River. Each site was surrounded by cottonwood trees and mine was very private.
Sunday, June 22, 2008, I awoke to the roar of bird song all around my tent. There was no way to sleep; they implored me out of bed. So I got up and took a walk alongside the river. There was a mixture of birds from east and west– Black-headed Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, House Wren, American Robin, Red-eyed Vireo, and Warbling Vireo singing all around. In the river I saw a female Hooded Merganser and Bank Swallows were flying up and down. After checking in the with the ranger I walked across the street and went to the Cross Ranch Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy’s first project in North Dakota. Unfortunately the day I was there someone had let the cows out and they were all over the trail with their stupid calves threatening me. I tried to shoo them away but they held steadfast in the trail. The trail goes through some short grass prairie and has some impressive views of the Missouri River flood plain. I couldn’t get past the cows though so finally I just started walking out into the prairie. I came across some small trees. North Dakota is the exact geographical center of North America and is at a cross road between eastern and western bird species (probably other species as well). So I would see an Eastern Kingbird on a fence right next to a Western Kingbird. There were many Grasshopper Sparrows and Field Sparrows at Cross Ranch. A Yellow-breasted Chat popped right out in front of me and began to sing and in the same tree was a singing Willow Flycatcher. There was only one bison and it was well away from me which was fine with me after my close encounters with the stupid cows blocking the trail.
I left Cross Ranch and drove east about 30 miles to McKenzie Slough in the tiny town of McKenzie (all towns are tiny in North Dakota). I walked along the marsh and could hear some Sedge Wrens singing but not one would show its pretty little head so I could get a look at it. I drove along the slough and saw four Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage as well as a Black Tern hawking over the marsh. After driving along the slough for a while I decided to head back to my camp site at Cross Ranch. Everybody had left and I was the only camper—a camper’s dream! It was so peaceful in the cottonwoods along the Missouri River, I could have stayed there all week long. I took an evening walk along the river and listened to all the birds singing, Blue Jays, Field Sparrows, Baltimore Orioles, Eastern Bluebird, and Common Yellowthroat. Cross Ranch is on the Lewis and Clark Trail. When Lewis and Clark came through there were still Grizzly Bears and Swift Foxes but all I saw were some White-tailed Deer and squirrels.
Monday, June 23, 2008, I reluctantly left Cross Ranch and drove west about 120 miles to Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the border with Montana. I stopped at the Painted Canyon section and low and behold the ranger I met in Dry Tortugas was behind the desk. She told me about a Golden Eagle nest on the scenic loop and gave me a bird check list. I took the Painted Canyon loop trail while there and was devoured by biting gnats. I was the only person on the trail and I can see why. Those things left welts on my neck that lasted a week. On the trail I saw a Lazuli Bunting that practically bumped into me it was so close. This trail is part of a trail used by Colonel Custer when he traveled back and forth between the Fort in Bismarck and another one in Montana while battling the Sioux Indians to steal their land. I drove from Painted Canyon into the main section of the South Unit and set up my tent at a nice site on the Little Missouri River at the Cottonwood Campground. Then I went for a walk on the Lower Paddock Creek Trail. It was full of Prairie Dogs and Bison and I also saw a Wild Horse wallowing in the dust probably trying to get the gnats off of it. There were more Field Sparrows, one Lark Sparrow, Rock Wren, Baltimore Oriole, Common Grackle, and Common Nighthawk. I only went a couple of miles and then took the entire scenic loop, stopping at all the pullouts. I stopped where Sarah, the ranger, told me the Golden Eagle nest was and sure enough there it was and nearby on a ledge was an immature Golden Eagle. As evening approached I returned to the Scenic Loop Drive and pulled into the entrance to the Coal Vein Trail. I stopped when I saw something crossing the road and got out with my camera—a Sharp-tailed Grouse. I was just able to film it as it scooted up a hillside and away. Night was approaching so I returned to Cottonwood Campground. I walked around the campground listening for a Screech-owl Sarah had mentioned but only heard a Great Horned Owl. That night in my tent I woke up to the sound of a Bison stomping and snorting right next to my tent! I was so scared I was going to be trampled. My little flimsy tent was no protection from a two ton animal! I waited thinking I was going to die until it finally stomped away.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008, I drove outside of the park at the suggestion of another ranger through some of North Dakota’s oil wells to the trail head for the Petrified Forest Trail. I hiked 10 miles with my big professional camera on that trail. It was so hard carrying that camera that far. All the petrified wood was in the first two miles and then the trail dipped down into a riparian zone where I saw more Yellow-breasted Chat, Red-eyed Vireo, Spotted Towhee, dozens of Clay-colored Sparrows, and out of the woods a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As I rose over a ridge to the grasslands I came across a beautiful male Mountain Bluebird. The rest of the trail went through grasslands and I didn’t see many birds but the views of the Little Missouri River far below were outstanding.
After my hike I decided to try something else so I drove east to Schnell Recreation Area hoping to find a Gray Partridge around the agricultural fields there. I walked a nature trail and was enveloped with dozens of ticks. Some ferocious looking clouds were on the horizon so I went to the campground there and had a shower and then left. There was no time to check the agricultural fields because that storm was descending on me fast. Soon hail the size of pennies was plinking onto the car and I could not see a thing. Fortunately as a drove back west toward Teddy Roosevelt NP I drove out of the storm and into sunny weather. I decided to try the Little Missouri National Grasslands. You can follow Custer’s Trail through this grassland and also supposedly see some of North Dakota specialty birds. All I saw were some more Grasshopper Sparrows, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Harrier, Lazuli Bunting, and one Say’s Phoebe. Way off of the trail were a few Antelopes. That night I was too scared to sleep in my tent with those roaming bison around so I slept in the car.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008, I got up before dawn and started driving like mad for miles through endless prairie toward the tiny town of Stanley where I was again pulled by the ND State Patrol. This guy was in a pooh brown uniform with one yellow light flashing, the other one out. I thought the guy was delivering mail for god’s sake. He said I was going 76 in a 65. He asked me millions of questions and I burst into tears and said, “look I know you must be lonely out here on the sparsely populated prairie and need to meet your quota but why are you harassing me?” He said, “OK, get in the car with me.” I said no way you pervert. So he wrote me the ticket and then had the nerve to say, “have a safe trip.” I arrived at my destination, Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, not too late. In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act to protect tracts of ecosystems across the US. Lostwood Wilderness Area was created in 1975 as part of that act to protect an area best representing the mixed grass prairie; it has a rich diversity with over 700 species of plants and 100 species of grasses. It is also home to the Baird’s Sparrow, a much sought after bird species as well as Sprague’s Pipit and Upland Sandpiper. I drove the auto tour route listening for the elusive Baird’s Sparrow which is said to have a song sounding like the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I pulled over and heard the unmistakable, “dit, dit, dit, deeeee.” I rushed to pull out my camera, got my binoculars on a sparrow out in the prairie and there it was. But I only glimpsed it for a minute before it dove back into the grass never to be seen again. I tried to cajole it back out with a tape recording of its song on my ipod but it was having none of that. I drove the auto tour some more and heard about half a dozen or maybe the same one moving around, Baird’s Sparrow but no luck seeing it. So I left Lostwood and drove 11 miles south to the tiny town of Powers Lake to see about getting a camp site. The “campground” was nothing more than a grassy field with some electrical outlets in it next to Powers Lake and across from two steel grain towers. I had lunch at a picnic table next to Powers Lake where a lone American White Pelican was swimming along with a Western Grebe.
After lunch I drove north to Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge and then on to Upper Soris National Wildlife Refuge, which was absolutely gorgeous. I was going to walk the Cottonwood trail but it was full of ticks and I wasn’t going to do that again. So I drove slowly past a grassy marshy area listening for the elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow. There was a Sedge Wren way out in the grass singing away but no Le Conte’s. I also saw some Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Bobolinks and a Willow Flycatcher. I decided to stop again in the evening on the way back to Powers Lake at Lostwood. I came across an Upland Sandpiper right in the auto tour road. In a wooded area I saw an owl that I think was a Long-eared Owl but it was too far away and just as I was about to leave the refuge a Sharp-tailed Grouse crossed in front of the car. I slept well that evening all by myself at the Powers Lake CG. They asked for a $3 donation to use the electrical outlet which I did to recharge my camera battery. The CG also had a hot shower and flushing toilet so I added a dollar for that too.
June 26, 2008, I left Powers Lake and drove north nearly to the border with Canada to the best birding spot in all of North Dakota, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge. It was raining as I arrived and so I put on a poncho and went for a walk. Then when it started to let up I started the auto tour. There were many Black Terns hawking over the marsh and lots of Franklin’s Gulls. In addition to the extensive marshes at J. Clark Salyer there is also riparian habitat offering a completely different set of birds. I got out at the riparian area and took a walk. I saw a Baltimore Oriole feeding its chick which was in the grass. I pulled over at a weedy marshy area and finally heard a Le Conte’s Sparrow singing but again it just would not respond to a taped call or my pishing or any of my cajoling or begging. So I never did see it either. However, it is now on my list because I am not too persnickety about having to see it if you are sure you heard it and I am sure. I probably should have checked into a hotel in Minot and gone back to J. Clark Salyer the next day too but instead I made a daring move to try to see the incredibly elusive Yellow Rail. I drove for about two hours stopping at beautiful Turtle River State Park to find a camp site before proceeding after dark to Kelly’s Slough where Yellow Rails allegedly breed. Yellow Rails only call at night. So I drove over to the slough and rolled the window down to listen. It began to rain and the mosquitoes were house sized. I tried to play a tape but to no avail and in that rain it would have been a miracle frankly to hear one.
June 27, 2008, I left Turtle River State Park and stopped by Kelly’s Slough again but didn’t see too much. Then I drove south through the not so tiny town of Fargo and through the medium sized town of Jamestown to Alkali Lake Audubon Refuge. It was about to rain so I left my camera behind. Too bad to because a Swainson’s Hawk was just a few feet away perched in a tree. A bird was hawking in a field that looked much like a Black-billed Cuckoo but I don’t know if they hawk. Next I drove to Arrowwood NWR. The rain stopped but it was nearly mid day and I didn’t see much there besides more Bobolinks and a Red-tailed Hawk. Next I drove to Chase Lake NWR. It was very windy making it hard to hold my binoculars still or see or hear anything. I camped that night in the nearby tiny town of Medina at a little camp ground that also had a hot shower, water, flushing toilet and was only $10 a night. I got up at dawn and drove back to Chase Lake but it was incredibly windy all day long with sustained winds of 25-30 MPH. It is very difficult to bird in that kind of wind. I did see a Short-eared Owl early in the morning and got out at one point to film a Swainson’s Hawk when a farmer pulled up. He asked me if I was a birder (I was surprised he was familiar with that word) and when I said yes he said Oh let me give you this brochure for a tour route to follow to see some good birds around here and her are some more to give your friends. I said, thanks and then I asked him, “do you like living here?” To which he replied, “I love it!” I decided to try his suggestion. I drove around the area and never saw another human soul or building or anything the entire day. However, it was extremely windy making it nearly impossible to see or hear any birds either. I finally saw a Chestnut-collared Longspur but it was too far out in a field. I stopped at Lake Louise and saw four Upland Sandpipers. At Chicago Lake where you can supposedly hear Yellow Rails I heard a Sora and a Virginia Rail and saw a Wilson’s Snipe. At some of the other stops I saw Greater Yellowlegs, Orchard Oriole, Willow Flycatcher, Black Tern, Bobolink, and a nesting colony of Bank Swallows. After completing the tour I tried Ken’s suggested spot in Tuttle but there was little happening there besides a Ferruginous Hawk on a telephone pole. I drove back to Cross Ranch State Park to camp. On the drive there I finally saw a Gray Partridge crossing the road and as I entered the park I saw a Badger scuttling into the prairie.
Sunday, June 29, was my last day. I left Cross Ranch SP and drove to Audubon NWR. I took the Prairie Trail and saw about five Great Horned Owls. I also saw several Ring-necked Pheasants, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Bobolinks, Northern Harrier, Marsh Wren, and one very cooperative Sedge Wren that let me get pretty close to it. There were also more Bank Swallows, Upland Sandpiper, Black-billed Magpie, Common Tern, Marbled Godwit, Black-crowned Night-heron, and a pair of Redheads. I also saw a Silvery Blue butterfly. There was not much time left and it was a gorgeous day so I went for a walk at the Cross Ranch Nature Preserve. A Least Flycatcher was persistently singing at the parking area. There were more Field Sparrows, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-breasted Chat but nothing new. I took a different trail than the first day and was sauntering along when I came across an enormous Western Hognose Snake. It scared the hell out of me because I nearly stepped on it. I didn’t know this until later but one of their defense mechanisms is to inflate their entire bodies to enormous proportions. I mean this snake had about a six inch diameter! I got out of there after that. After all those near death experiences it was time for me to leave North Dakota. Despite all my scary encounters with highway patrolmen, stampeding cows, snorting bison, and inflating snakes, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the incredible solitude of North Dakota, the stark beauty of Teddy Roosevelt Park, and all the beauty and charm of the wilderness there.
New Species: 5
July 13, 2008