American Birding Association Regional Conference (Minot, ND - 2009)

I had never been to North Dakota, so I looked at the description of the planned ABA Conference in Minot in June 2009 with keen interest. The chance for a few life birds was there, but the real appeal was the chance to see entirely different habitats. After all, this was in the heart of the prairie pothole country, North America’s “duck factory.” I called Paul Hess and he, too, was eager to go. We made our reservations and planned to fly into Minot on Saturday, June 13 (so that we could drop our air fare with a Saturday night stay).

As the time for departure came closer, a problem arose. Paul and I are both avid Penguins fans and the deep run into the playoffs meant that Game 7 of the final series against Detroit would be Friday night, June 12. Since we had a very early flight on Saturday morning, we planned to stay at an airport hotel and watch the game there. Needless to say, we got little sleep as we watched the Pens win Game 7 in Detroit to win the Stanley Cup! We had to watch the entire game, the players skating with the cup, and the interviews!

As we were making our landing approach to the airport in Minot, I was amazed at the countryside. It was flat as far as I could see with lots of farms and lots of ponds. Abundant rain this spring had all of the potholes filled with water, unlike the three previous years of relative drought. We quickly went to our rental car (to the song of a Western Meadowlark!) and drove south toward the Garrison Dam, where there were several wildlife refuges. We drove through the city of Minot and proceeded into the farm country south of the town of Max, where the flat country yielded to low gently rolling hills with lots of ponds. We could see the waterfowl on the ponds, so we turned off onto a county road and started to explore. Needless to say, we never did reach the Garrison Dam that day. The ducks included Gadwall, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck, all breeding! We saw behaviors that we had never observed before, including male Ruddy Ducks head bobbing, clucking, and raising their double crests. We had nesting Pied-billed and Horned Grebes and plenty of Eared Grebes. Horned Grebes are regular but not common nesters in this area. There were American Coots with chicks, Black Terns at every pond, Franklin’s Gulls, Willets, Upland Sandpipers, and Wilson’s Phalaropes. At one pond, we were amazed to find a pair of Cinnamon Teal, which we did not see on any of the ABA trips later in the week. The assortment of waterfowl was amazing and it occurred in pond after pond! Imagine driving down a country road and encountering a pond or two every quarter of a mile, each one more tempting to explore than the one before. Along the way, we also encountered Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sora and Virgina Rail, Vesper, Lark, and Savannah Sparrows, Bobolink, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Western Meadowlarks, and Orchard and Baltimore Orioles.

We returned to Minot to check into the hotel. After dinner, it remained light until nearly 10:00 PM. It was then that I realized how far north Minot is. The city is only 60 miles from the Canadian border and is higher in latitude than all of Michigan or Maine! It was already light at 5:30 AM as we woke for our second day of birding, again on our own. After a breakfast at a truck stop, we headed for the Minot sewage lagoons! (We birders really know how to enjoy a vacation!) The ABA had given us a packet with instructions for self-guided birding trips either by car or on foot. Along the way, we began to pick up new species, such as Least Flycatcher, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Eurasian Collared-Dove (a staked out bird near a horse corral), American Wigeon, Cliff Swallow, Marsh Wren, American Avocet, and California Gull. Along one of the dikes, I heard a rattling that sounded familiar. We stopped and listened. Again it called. Sedge Wren! We finally spotted one perched atop a stalk. After several hours of birding the sewage lagoons, we headed back into town and went to Oak Park, a municipal park in the center of Minot that includes hardwood forest and a stream meandering through the park. Here we found more typical eastern species, including Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos, White-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing, Ovenbird, and House Finch. Back at the hotel, we had lunch with Ted Floyd and Bill Maynard, the editors of ABA’s magazineand newsletter, Birding and Winging It. After lunch, Paul and I walked one of the recommended loop trails around the hotel. The trail started out in a residential area where we added Pine Siskins and Eastern Wood-Pewee. The trail then followed an old oxbow of the river, where we added Alder Flycatcher, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Clay-colored Sparrow, and amazingly, a late migrant Tennessee Warbler in full song! Later in the afternoon, Ted led a walk around the same loop and we added Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Hairy Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, American Redstart, and Blue Jay. That evening, the conference started with a social hour, dinner, and a welcome by the ABA staff.

Monday morning started early for us with a breakfast buffet that began at 4:00 AM, followed by bus departures to various locations. The attendees were divided into three groups, each going to a different destination. Our group, the Grebes, was the last to leave at 5:15 AM. Our destination was Salyer National Wildlife Refuge. Ron Martin, a university professor and the acknowledged expert on North Dakota birds, was our local leader. Long before we reached Salyer, we turned off the highway onto a county road and stopped at an area with some remnant short grass prairie and marshes. Here, I got the first two life birds for the trip! The first was Yellow Rail. Ron played a call and immediately got several responses! Unfortunately, the birds never came out, but I feel fortunate just to have heard the call of this uncommon species. It was an amazing place, with Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds everywhere, Wilson’s Snipe winnowing, Black Terns flying, Sedge Wrens and Marsh Wrens singing, Willets and Marbled Godwits doing flight displays, Willow Flycatchers calling from low trees, and Brewer’s Blackbirds perched on barbed wire fences. To top it off, Ronhad a singing Le Conte’s Sparrow in his scope! Another life bird!

We walked farther up the road to drier pasture land. Here, the group added Upland Sandpipers, Bobolinks, Chestnut-collared Longspur (stunning in breeding plumage!), Sandhill Cranes, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Sprague’s Pipit. Nothing in the field guides prepares you for how to find Sprague’s Pipit. The high pitched, descending song is performed while the bird is skylarking high over a limited area. The bird will continue to sing and fly for up to an hour or more! I could see them and hear them, but got no details on the bird. Many in the group had difficulty hearing or seeing them, so I felt fortunate. This was not a very satisfying view of a life bird, but seeing this skylarking behavior and hearing their song was exciting. Our day continued with more stops along back country roads and then into Salyer NWR. Additional species included Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant, American Bittern, Cattle Egret, lots of Black-crowned Night-Herons, White-faced Ibis, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Forster’s Terns, Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Warbling Vireo, Horned Larks, Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds, Veery, and Clay-colored, Chipping, Vesper, Savannah, Lark, Grasshopper, Swamp, and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. At the final stop of the trip, Ron showed us a Ferruginous Hawk nest, attended by at least three adult birds. In the field adjacent to the road, we saw at least four White-tailed Jackrabbits at very close range. Ron tried one final time to call in a Sprague’s Pipit skylarking overhead. Amazingly, this time it worked! The bird came down and flew around our large group several times and then landed on the road! With all of the scopes already out to look at the hawk nest, it was easy to get a look at this amazing bird before it flew off! Three life birds in the first day! Not bad.

We returned to the hotel at 3:30 PM, totally exhausted. The program after dinner that night was “Birds of North Dakota” by Ron Martin, our leader that day. He has a quiet manner about him with a great sense of humor. I feel privileged to have met him.

The Tuesday destination for all three groups was the Garrison Dam area. Rain started as the bus got close to the area, which would be notable for seeing more western species of songbirds. Our first stop was a campground area with trails into the surrounding forest. Someone spotted a Common Nighthawk perched on a branch over the parking lot. Everyone got great scope views of this bird. A steady rain accompanied us along the trail, but we found some great birds, including Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Black-billed Cuckoo, Black-headed Grosbeak, and a pair of Lazuli Buntings. The Lazuli Buntings were especially cooperative, feeding within 20 feet of us for several minutes before flying a little deeper into the open woods. We made several other stops where we added Turkey Vulture, Say’s Phoebe, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Ring-necked Pheasant, American Kestrel, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Bobolink. The wet dirt roads ruined our planned itinerary, as the bus could not climb a steep hill with the muddy conditions. The driver expertly backed the bus back down the hill nearly a quarter mile to a side road where he could turn around. Because of the muddy hill, we missed the Loggerhead Shrike nest. Our last stop was the base of the Garrison Dam, where we leisurely ate lunch and watched the birds, including Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Herring, California, and Ring-billed Gulls, Common, Forster’s, and Caspian Terns, and Cliff Swallows.

We returned to the hotel at about 1:30 PM wet and tired, but ready for the afternoon workshop. The workshop was conducted by Jon Dunn on sparrow identification. It was a great program from a great speaker. Jon has not yet come into the Powerpoint age, but his talk included great slides, his droll sense of humor, and a portion of his vast birding knowledge and experience. In describing pursuit of wintering Baird’s Sparrows in the Southwest, Jon explained that Baird’s Sparrows are skulkers, hardly ever perching off the ground, as on a barbed wire fence. If you think you see a possible Baird’s Sparrow on a fence in the Southwest, think twice before calling it a Baird’s Sparrow. His advice was: “If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”

Our Wednesday trip was to Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, a vast preserve of short grass prairie. Lostwood NWR has been managed recently to gradually remove the trees and reintroduce fire as a management tool to control shrubbery. The policy was controversial when first introduced, but the change was beneficial to all of the prairie wildlife and was gradually accepted by the public. The area was filled with potholes, with more of the same birds. One of our first target birds was the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Our local leader, Dan Svingen, was the refuge manager and he was confident that we would see the grouse on one of the many leks that we would visit. Someone asked if we would see the grouse dancing. Dan replied that there was almost no chance of that this late in the year. At our second stop, we got out of the bus, set up the scopes and watched the hilltop lek. The males were dancing! They would inflate their chest, bow their head, hold out their wings, point their tail up in the air, and all of them would simultaneously rotate in a circle! The coordination was unbelievable! When viewing this dance, it is easy to see how American Indian dancing copied the movements of these grouse. Strangely, Dan explained that one of his refuge goals is to reduce the population of Ring-necked Pheasants. The pheasants parasitize the grouse nests. Female pheasants will “dump” eggs into a grouse nest. The pheasant eggs hatch sooner than the grouse eggs, and the grouse ends up raising a brood of pheasants.

Our next stop was to look for Baird’s Sparrow. Within minutes, we had great scope views of singing Baird’s Sparrows, along with Clay-colored, Savannah, and Grasshopper Sparrows. Before the short grass prairie was plowed up, Baird’s Sparrow was one of the most common birds in the upper Midwest. Even here on their breeding grounds, they don’t stay visible very long. It took a long time for everyone to get good views. Other birds in the area included Sprague’s Pipits skylarking above, and Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Bobolinks singing and doing display flights all around us. A coyote den was the feature of the next stop. We only saw the mother, but other groups saw the pups playing outside the den. Two more stops produced Piping Plovers, American Avocets, and a Great Horned Owl. The prairie race of the Great Horned Owl is much paler than we are used to seeing in the East. We left Lostwood NWR and drove to Des Lacs NWR. On the drive to Des Lacs, two Gray Partridges flew up from the side of the road. The bus stopped long past the area where the partridges were seen, but right where we did stop, another two Gray Partridges came out of the roadside ditch! Along with the Baird’s Sparrows earlier today, the Gray Partridges were my fifth (and last) life bird for the trip.

At Des Lacs, we stopped near a lake to scope some of the waterfowl. Here, we found our first Western Grebes and Spotted Sandpiper. Massive numbers of Cliff Swallows hawked insects, while Yellow-headed Blackbirds called from the cattails. We drove to a wooded area to have lunch. We had lots of the same songbirds in this area, but added a Northern Mockingbird. Dan was really excited about the mockingbird, an unusual bird in North Dakota and probably a first for the county where we were. Leaving Des Lacs, we proceeded to a small stone quarry where we found our target bird, the Rock Wren. This was the only one we saw on the trip, in this small stone quarry far from normal Rock Wren breeding grounds. A bonus here was the first Black-billed Magpie, a bird that is rapidly declining in North Dakota. The causes are not known, but pesticides and West Nile Virus are suspects. Our last stop was another Ferruginous Hawk nest. The evening program that night was a talk by Ted Floyd. His topic was “Birding at Night: The Final Frontier.” As most of you know, any talk by Ted is going to be entertaining and informative, as this one certainly was. Ted has experienced an amazing number of birds singing at night in Colorado from the mountains to the grasslands. Along with others, they have documented a post-breeding dispersal of Chipping Sparrows into Colorado that was unknown until discovered by their call notes at night.

Thursday’s trip was to the Turtle Mountains. Our local leader was a veteran birder Dave Lambeth, who was quiet but had a dignified air about him and a vast knowledge of local birds. The other groups were treated to drumming Ruffed Grouse at a campground, but three trips to the drumming log produced no grouse today. This was the most likely area to see several eastern species of birds in North Dakota, not as interesting to Paul and me, but really nice for the California birders. We added a lot of new species for the trip, including Chestnut-sided Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker (feeding young at the nest hole), Purple Martin, and Northern Waterthrush. We also saw a towhee that sang both a perfect Eastern Towhee song and a bad Spotted Towhee song. It had a few spots. Hybrids between grosbeaks, towhees, and buntings here are common in the area.

The low point of the trip was when our bus driver tried to turn around in wet grass. The wheels quickly sank a foot into the mud, and the bus was stuck. But birders make the best of the situation. We simply started walking down the road, birding as we went, while the bus driver called for a tow truck. Two hours later, the bus was out and picked us up after a great walk along the road. I got to see a rare orchid, Striped Coralroot, pointed out to us by one of the ladies on the trip. Dinner that night included a lot of jokes about the Grebes and our stuck bus.

This trip was a great experience for both Paul and me. The organization of this conference was absolutely first class. The hotel meals and box lunches were great. The trip leaders were excellent and had scouted out the areas with great skill prior to the meeting. For the trip, I ended up with 158 species and five life birds. The cost of the conference included all expenses (field trips, hotel, meals, and bus transportation). The information packet included options for birding on your own before or after the trip. I would highly recommend these ABA regional conferences to anyone, regardless of birding experience or skill level. I would also recommend North Dakota as a birding destination. I’m glad I had a chance to see the prairies, the potholes, and the amazing wildlife of North Dakota.

— by Jim Valimont

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