Minnesota and North Dakota Jun 20—28, 2005
Posted by Kim Eckert
I’ve long been tired of the old joke that still amuses the tourists: Minnesota’s state bird is the mosquito. But, after this tour and all the rains we’ve had, I have to admit there were times you couldn’t see the birds for the mosquitoes. One of those times was when the proverbial forest and the trees were nowhere in sight: our second morning at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota. (Our first morning there was virtually wiped out by a mix of almost constant rainfall and steady 30+ mph winds, with gusts measured at 49 mph.) The other time the mosquitoes were about as bad as I’ve ever seen was on our final evening back in Minnesota, as we listened in vain for the Yellow Rails of the McGregor Marsh to start ticking. (Either they never said a word, or they couldn’t be heard over the humming of too many mosquitoes.)
But bugs and bad weather are part of the territory here, and on most days the elements were favorable. Minnesota’s legendary cold temperatures were certainly nonexistent; if anything, it was on the warm side, with one day even having record-breaking highs in the 90s statewide. Accordingly, we mostly had no meteorological alibis if we missed any birds. (Tour leaders hate it when we can’t blame our failures on the weather!) But we didn’t miss much.
The now-famous Sax-Zim Bog was first on our agenda, and it didn’t disappoint. The leading highlights were the two obliging Great Gray Owls still active long after sunrise. We even walked away from both of them: one because of a nearby Black-billed Cuckoo, the other due to the distraction of Black-backed Woodpeckers flying to and from a nearby nest. Elsewhere we encountered yet another distraction, as we had trouble concentrating on the male Connecticut Warbler in the shrubs just a few feet away. It seems two Long-eared Owls were also out hunting in broad daylight along the road! For this highly nocturnal species to be flying around in mid-morning in search of prey was nothing short of amazing; indeed, this was only the second time ever I had observed this.
We next augmented our list of boreal forest birds in the Lake County portion of the Superior National Forest, but more memorable was that evening’s drive to Douglas County, Wisconsin. Here, an Upland Sandpiper treated us to a balancing act on a telephone wire high over the road, and just around the corner were two far out-of-range Dickcissels. Later, at dusk, an unexpected American Woodcock stood in the road in front of our van, and on the same road a Whip-poor-will seemed to call forever before eventually flying in and hovering just a few feet away.
My favorite part of this tour has always been the prairie grasslands and wetlands, and this year was no exception. Just before leaving Minnesota, we stopped by the Felton Prairie to watch Greater Prairie-Chickens foraging near their lek and to admire handsome Chestnut-collared Longspurs skylarking low over the prairie. Felton also yielded two nice bonuses: a male Le Conte’s Sparrow posing just a few feet off the road, and an out-of-range Rock Wren disappearing into a rock pile with a bill full of food. (This species had nested last year at this same spot, a first Minnesota breeding record.)
The best examples of vast and magnificent prairie landscapes lie west of Jamestown, North Dakota, especially around Chase Lake N.W.R. and in adjacent Kidder County. Despite losing much of our time to wind and rain, we again saw birds every bit as impressive as the countryside. Western (and Clark’s) Grebes, some with young on their backs and others ritually facing off in courtship displays, brought our grebe total to six species (the only remaining grebe possibility would have to be a Least wandering 1,500 miles off-course). Among many other highlights were our excellent views of Ferruginous Hawks, a species most appropriately named regalis.
The two special and most challenging species in this part of North Dakota are Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow. Both had been relatively easy to find here in the 1980s, but during the following decade both had practically vanished. In recent years, the pipit has been entirely missed by most tours, and just finding a single Baird’s Sparrow has become a struggle. But this time there were two Sprague’s Pipits doing their unique flight displays, with one of these eventually landing on the road less than 50 feet away! And the sparrow, though still hard to come by, did come through twice, with one heard at one of our pipit spots, and the other close by us at Chase Lake N.W.R. In fact, this latter bird was probably the same individual we had at this exact same spot in 2003 and 2004. Will it still be there in 2006?