Exploring North Dakota’s Potholes and Prairies

As I stepped out of the van, I was greeted by the fresh, earthy smell of wet prairie grasses and the sounds of birds buzzing and calling from deep within the grassy fields. I was at the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival on a North Dakota Specialties tour. It was still raining heavily when we pulled out of the motel parking lot at 5 am; however, by time we arrived at the prairie area referred to as the Tuttle School Section, the rain had stopped.

We donned our high rubber boots or waterproof boots and rain pants in preparation for heading into the prairie in search of Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrows.

“Sections of prairie were set aside for rural schools when the state was developed,” Bob Anderson, our tour leader, explained. ‘While these sections no longer house one room schools, the land is leased to ranchers and the funds used to support schools. The land is managed to protect natural short-grass prairie and can be explored by the public.”

We stepped through the barbed wire fence and headed across the prairie, stepping carefully to avoid wet cow pies. The prairie was literally alive. Western Meadowlarks and Chestnut-collared Longspurs both bubbled their similar, yet different songs – the meadowlark when it was perched and the longspur when it flew from grass stock to grass stock, sometimes dropping down in the grass entirely. I had only seen drab winter Chestnut-collared Longspurs and admired their breeding plumage. The Grasshopper Sparrow sounded like their namesake – grasshoppers, rarely appearing.

Three Sharp-tailed Grouse flew from the top of a mound. “That is their lek,” Bob explained. “Now that the females are nesting, the males gather each morning at the lek.”

We stopped at one point to examine a Leopard Frog, sometimes referred to as Meadow Frog, hovering between clumps of grass. It was well camouflaged with its greenish-brown body and dark spots. Nearby we almost stepped on a Grasshopper Sparrow fledgling.

Grasshopper Sparrow fledgling


One of my target birds was a Baird’s Sparrow. In the lower 48, it only breeds in North Dakota. It is very secretive and doesn’t show itself unless it is singing. We walked around until Bob heard its barely audible musical trill. We approached quietly, yet keeping a good distance. “It runs through the grass,” Bob told us. “It could be running away right now.” Bob and a couple of others set up their scopes so we could see it when it reappeared. Each time it came up to sing, one of us would take a turn looking at it through the scope, noting its rich buff-colored face pattern and streaking that formed a necklace on its upper chest.

After everyone had gotten a look, we turned our attention to finding a Sprague’s Pipit, another of my target birds.

A Wilson’s Snipe winnowed overhead. While we were searching for the pipit, an American Bittern, several Double-crested Cormorants and American White Pelicans flew overhead.

“There it is,” Bob pointed above us. The pipit was performing its display flight, circling higher and higher overhead. “We’re lucky it is cloudy,” Bob explained. “They can get so high that they are difficult to see on a clear day. He can stay up there circling for up to an hour.” We could barely hear its thin display call as it circled.

By 7:30 we were back at the van and on our way to a wet prairie next to Lake Etta, south of I-94. We parked the van by the side of the road, watched a Northern Harrier flying sorties over the prairie and Bobolinks singing briefly from the prairie grasses, and then turned our attention to the wet prairie on the opposite side of the road where the grass was almost waist-high and the ground was very moist. It was difficult to forge our way through the stiff-bladed grasses.

Almost immediately Bob heard a Sedge Wren calling. Just like the prairie sparrows, it also is very secretive. However, we were lucky to get a number of good looks at it as it popped up and sang its hoarse song from the top of a reed. The Nelson’s Sparrow also nests in the wet prairie marshes. Bob walked around to the back side of where we could hear it singing deep in the grass hoping to flush it and give us an opportunity to see it.

It flew, but quickly dived down in the grass again. We followed it until finally it came up and those who had never seen one could get a good look at its black and orange head stripes and rufous-colored wing patches.

Le Conte’s Sparrow also nests here, but we were not successful in rousing one.

While we were searching for the sparrows, other wet prairie nesters flew back and forth – Wilson’s Phalarope, Forster’s Tern, Franklin’s Gull and Blue-winged Teal.

Later when we drove along a dike separating the marsh from the lake, we stopped to look at a Dickcissel sitting on a power line. “They are not found in North Dakota every year,” Bob explained. “What we get are unmated males.” It looked like a meadowlark that had gone on a diet.

As we headed north again, we stopped to look at an Upland Sandpiper that was standing in the middle of the road.

Upland Sandpiper


After enjoying lunch in the town of Pettibone, we stopped to look at a pair of Ferruginous Hawks nesting on a power structure. While I have the opportunity to see Ferruginous Hawks every winter in New Mexico, it was a life bird for several in our van.

The wind had picked up and by time we approached Carrington, it was blowing 20 – 30 mph. However, we decided to try for the Le Conte’s Sparrow again. We sloshed through the wet, waist-high prairie grass. We could hear their thin insect-like song all around us, but they were not interested in showing themselves in the wind.

At 5:40 the next morning two busloads of birders headed for the Chase Lake area. Located in an area of North Dakota referred to as the Missouri Coteau (or plateau), it is more hilly and full of potholes that look like pock marks on a satellite map. Formed by glaciation, the potholes of this area, as well as the adjacent flat prairie, are the primary breeding area for North America’s waterfowl.

Our first stop was at another state school section. As we disembarked from the busses, the hillsides were alive with birds calling and displaying. Since I am used to seeing Marbled Godwits quietly foraging during the winter along the southern California coast, it was startling to see them engaged in display flights, calling raucously.

Marbled Godwit display flight


Wilson Snipe and Upland Sandpipers also soared and dove over the prairie, their long beaks protruding in front of them. Willets flashed their black and white wings.

We enjoyed watching a Dickcissel singing from the top of a small bush next to the dirt road.

About 25 Black Terns sailed back and forth over a small wetland at our next stop.

Black Tern


There was only a small amount of open water, which was plied by two Canvasbacks. Marsh Wrens and Yellow-headed Blackbirds claimed the cattails that crowded the edges of the pond. Since I only hear Marsh Wrens chitting in the winter, it was fun listening to the rattling trill of their breeding song.

Marsh Wren


Nearby was another section of open water where two Red-necked Grebes swam. Knowing that they nested in Canada and Alaska, I was surprised to learn that a few nested in North Dakota.

Our next stop was a drier prairie where a number of Chestnut-collared Longspurs were nesting. We could see Chase Lake over the crest of the hill.

“Over 40,000 colonial nesting birds breed in the Chase Lake NWR,” Refuge Manager Neal Shook, told us. “The species that favor and depend on the refuge are American White Pelicans and Ring-billed Gulls.” He explained that since more and more prairie and its accompanying potholes are being lost to agriculture, the refuge is even more critical. “While the pelicans have their nesting colony on a strip of land that protrudes into Chase Lake, they fly out to the nearby lakes and potholes to catch fish to bring back to their chicks.”

American White Pelicans


He went on to tell us that due to climate change, the nesting birds are arriving on an average of 16 days earlier. “This makes the chicks more susceptible to spring storms,” he stated.

After a stop to view a pair of nesting Ferruginous Hawks, we visited the grebe nesting colony at Pearl/Mud Lake. I estimated that there were at least 200 nesting grebes, primarily Western. We located some Clark’s Grebes and some were able to ID a Western/Clark’s Grebe where the black line went through the eye and the beak reflected the coloration of both species. In amongst the grebes were several Ruddy Ducks.

Western Grebes nesting


As I walked back to the bus, I stopped to watch a male Bobolink.

We ate our lunches alongside Chicago Lake. There were a few Double-crested Cormorants and several Ring-billed Gulls using the lake. Opposite the lake was a marshy area where the group had good looks at a Nelson’s Sparrow, a Sedge Wren and several Marsh Wrens.

In a riparian area adjacent to the lake, we saw an Orchard Oriole, Gray Catbird and a Common Grackle feeding its young.

We stopped outside of Carrington to see if we would have better luck spotting a Le Conte’s Sparrow. Since there were 50 participants, we stayed on the road to protect the prairie. Without the wind, we could more easily hear the thin, insect-like song. The first bird that popped up was a Savannah Sparrow. Next was a Sedge Wren. Finally, a Le Conte’s came up and stayed for a while on the stop of a stalk some distance away.

“Who needs it as a life bird,” Bob inquired. Fortunately, I was standing next to him and stepped in front of his scope to gaze at the small sparrow. Before I stepped aside to give someone else an opportunity to see it, I absorbed its butterscotch-colored facial and head stripe and necklace.

Since I had seen all of my target birds, except the Gray Partridge, I decided to spend the next day on a more leisurely pace exploring Arrowwood NWR on my own and left at 7:30 after a leisurely breakfast.

I took a back road through farm land to avoid the road construction on the mail highway. As I drove south on Bordulac Rd., I stopped twice to look at some Snow Geese, two of which were blue phased. I wasn’t sure whether they were stragglers en route to the Arctic where they breed, or old birds that decided not to migrate.

I was about the only person touring Arrowwood early on a Saturday morning, enabling me to stop and block the road along the Auto Tour Route when I saw something I wanted to look at more closely.

Brown Thrasher

I passed through prairie grasses that supported Bobolinks, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. The road wound up a slight hill where Clay-colored Sparrows were buzzing, a couple of Brown Thrashers lurked in the shrubs, and Cedar Waxwings and lots of Yellow Warblers danced in and out of the trees. Further along I stopped to watch a Dickcissel and hoped that this time I would be able to get a photo. However, as I inched closer with my camera set, it flew off into the grasses – never to be seen again.

The road climbed up onto a plateau where there was a herd of bison grazing. As soon as they saw my car approach, they meandered over to the road and stood there. I finally decided to pull forward slowly and they decided to move on across the road and let me pass.

Heading south on 17th St. after leaving the refuge, I saw a Gray Partridge cross the road in front of me. On the other side of the road was a pond where Yellow-headed Blackbirds were singing.

Yellow-headed Blackbird


I spent the afternoon exploring the area near Chase Lake and was lucky to spot a pair of deer standing on a nearby hill.

I left the next morning around 6:00 to drive north of Carrington to Sheyenne and then head east to bird my way back across North Dakota.

I passed a field of golden canola,

canola field


Wilson’s Snipe standing vigil on fence posts,

Wilson’s Snipe


and had a really good look at a Sharp-tailed Grouse that was hanging out near the side of the road at the Stump Lake Overlook.

Outside of Grand Forks I stopped to walk through the woods at Turtle River State Park. I was still hoping for a Veery. While I didn’t see the Veery, I spent a delightful 3 hours exploring the park’s trails before heading south and leaving North Dakota behind.

It had been a delightful four days enjoying the prairie birds.

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