Capitalizing on Natural Resources of the Missouri Coteau

Floramay Miller, NDSU Extension Agent, Kidder County
Illustrations by Patsy Renz


Table of Contents

List of Tables and Illustrations

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What We Offer

It seems impossible that someone would come hundreds or thousands of miles to see what is commonplace to us. Or, to look at something so insignificant that we haven’t noticed it. On the other hand, when we travel to new places, we are impressed by sights so mundane to people there that they ignore them.

There are about 800 species of birds in the United States and Canada, excluding Hawaii. About 150 of them are accidentals or migrants only. That leaves about 645 species that regularly live and breed north of the Rio Grande River.

While there are birds everywhere, not all birds are in every place. The only way to see birds that live outside of your area is to go to where the birds are. Many species are found only in the eastern or western half of North America. Many birds migrate along established routes between summer and winter habitats. Some habitats are so specialized that they occur only in specific terrain. A few species nest only in the northern central plains of North America.

The area known as the Prairie Pothole Region covers the Dakotas, the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the eastern end of Montana, northern Nebraska, the northwest corner of Iowa and the western edge of Minnesota. It is the nursery for 50% of North America’s waterfowl, including 15 species of ducks. Surveys show that a square mile of marsh can support 140 ducks. North Dakota lies in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region and the Missouri Coteau is in the heart of North Dakota. The Missouri Coteau is the nesting ground for the northern central plains species. It is on the Central Flyway and it is on the 100th meridian where both eastern and western species occur.

The Coteau is a paradise for birds. It is a place of big sky and endless grassy hills and valleys pock-marked with mudflats, sloughs, marshes, ponds and lakes. People see it as a place of land dotted with water, but from a bird’s view it is more a place of water isolating hummocks of land. The abundance of bird life is one reason for so many wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas and wildlife management areas in North Dakota. The state has more National Wildlife Refuges than any other state.

Kidder County has four National Wildlife Refuges and one more on its border. The Minot community counts five National Wildlife Refuges within 70 miles. Long Lake, Chase Lake, Lostwood, Upper Souris, J. Clark Sayler and Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuges, which follow the Coteau across the state, have been officially named among 200 Globally Important Bird Areas by American Bird Conservancy for their role in conserving wild birds and their habitats.

Fourteen species of ducks nest in central North Dakota. Over 57 species of marshbirds and shorebirds are seen in mid-North Dakota along an area roughly following the Missouri Coteau. Over 37 of these nest in the Coteau and surrounding areas. Seventeen species of raptors are seen in this area of the state. Eleven species of sparrows nest in the Coteau and surrounding areas. Seven more are seen here during migration. The most sought-after by birders is Baird’s sparrow which nests only in North Dakota, a little of southwestern Manitoba, eastern Montana and in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Most birdwatchers make their trips to the area in spring and early summer, when birds are in their distinctive and colorful breeding plumage. Searching for an elusive species is more certain on its nesting grounds, where birds stay put for a while. Here is a place where waterfowl, marsh and shorebirds can be counted by the thousands. Other prairie birds are counted by the hundreds. A birder is delighted to count the special northern plains species by ones, twos and threes. With over 340 bird species on area checklists, birders can find something new almost everywhere they go and during migration one never knows what will show up.

In the fall, most visitors looking for birds are hunters. They come for Canada, snow and greater white-fronted geese, sandhill cranes, ring-necked pheasant, sharp-tail grouse, gray partridge and a whole array of ducks.

In 1994, the national convention of the American Birding Association (ABA) was held in Minot. Over 600 members celebrated the ABA’s 25th Anniversary of its first meeting which was held in Kenmare. The Minot area is a known destination point for birders from around the country.

WildBird Magazine brought Kidder County to the attention of the nation’s birders in 1996. In a list of “50 Top Birding Hotspots in North America,” Kidder County was among the Top 10. J. Clark Sayler National Wildlife Refuge was listed in the Top 30 Birding Hotspots. North Dakota native, Paul Konrad, then editor of WildBird, is familiar with this area. Since his days in North Dakota, Konrad has traveled to the best-known bird watching sites on the continent. He knows, first hand, that in the world of birds North Dakota can compete with the best. The magazine later ran a feature article about Kidder County as one of the least-known birding hotspots. The county was cited for its large quantity of nesting waterfowl, including over one million blue-winged teal, its wide assortment of marsh and shorebirds, an abundance of prairie songbirds and a high concentration of raptors. It is known for its high density of nesting ferruginous, Swainson’s and red-tailed hawks.

When birders travel a long distance to add a bird to a life-list or see a species in breeding plumage, they hope to also find some other “target” birds or make an unexpected find - to see an accidental or other uncommon birds. With extra luck, they may see a burrowing owl standing by the entrance of its hole or a piping plover, an endangered species, at its nest or spot a whooping crane migrating with the sandhills. These birds can all be found in the middle of North Dakota.


What Birders Offer

Birdwatchers have significant economic impact on areas that have special birds and an abundance of birds. Many areas promote their bird resources and develop festivals or observances that encourage ecotourism. Some promotions are organized by one site and focus on one event, such as Grand Island, Nebraska during the spring migration of Sandhill Cranes. Others are regional and year around. Communities work cooperatively for economic development. Examples are the 200 mile Pine to Prairie Bird Trail involving five communities in northwestern Minnesota, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas where McAllen and Harlingen, thirty miles apart, have joined forces to attract birdwatchers.

Several surveys have been done that measure the economic impact of wildlife watching and birdwatching. These surveys provide an array of facts. In 1996, it was estimated that 31% of the U. S. population (62,868,000) engaged in wildlife watching. In 1991, birdwatchers in the U.S. spent $14.4 billion on birdwatching, including travel, equipment, magazines, dues and contributions. There are over 350 retail stores in the U.S. devoted entirely to birding products and services. In 1991, American Birding Association had 12 festivals listed on its website. In 1998, there were 120. In 1974, six bird tour companies advertised in Birding magazine. By 1996, there were 32. In 1997, four birdwatchers’magazines, not related to non-profit wildlife or bird organizations, had a total readership of 324,000.

In 1991, 24 million Americans took a trip expressly for the purpose of watching birds. In 1993, the average birder spent $350 a year on travel and paraphernalia related to birdwatching. Between 1985 and 1991, there were between 300,000 and 1.3 million committed birders and 123,500 highly committed birders. Committed birders, in 1990, spent about $2000 per year bird watching. In 1988, committed birders drove an average of 2700 miles for birding trips. In 1996, over half of birdwatchers’ expenses were travel-related. When traveling, 75% spent for food and 29% spent for lodging. Eighty-four percent used private transportation.

Grand Island, Nebraska on the Platte River and Interstate 80, is a well-known resting spot for thousands of sandhill cranes during spring migration. In 1991, 80,000 visitors made a $40 million impact there.

In 1996, visitors viewing wildlife on just National Forest Lands in North Dakota spent $1,729,401 which is attributed to have created an economic impact of $3,233,718. In 1991, retail sales generated by non-consumptive bird use in North Dakota was $6.6 million. Non-consumptive bird use in North Dakota supported 220 jobs in 1991.

Who are Birders?

Birdwatching is one of, if not the, fastest growing sport in the world. The 1994-5 National Recreation Survey showed that from 1984 - 1994 while hunting and fishing were declining, birdwatching as a recreational activity grew 155%. In the survey, the second fastest growing recreational activity was hiking which grew 94%.

Birdwatching is an activity that can be shared by people of all ages and physical abilities. It is a non-consumptive wildlife-related activity. It costs very little to get started. There are birds every where you go. There are many attractive guidebooks and related resources available. It dovetails very well with the growing popularity in gardening.

Some birders are fascinated with birds for science or their beauty. Others like the competitiveness of informal or formal challenges to get the highest counts, the longest life-list, the most species in a year or to make the rarest find. Some people like anything that connects them with nature. Many birdwatchers are also hunters or have been hunters. A birder enjoys finding and identifying a “new” bird in the same way that a hunter likes bagging a trophy or an art, antique or car collector enjoys making an unusual, rare or valuable find.

American Birding Association is a non-profit organization which provides information, education and networking for birders. In 1998, the ABA membership was at 20,456. A 1994 survey showed that the average member is age 53 with a family income of $60,000. Eighty percent of the membership hold a bachelor’s degree. About two-thirds of the members are men. Nearly half of the members bird with a spouse. Fewer than 20% have another relative who is a bird watcher. Thirty-nine percent of ABA members bird over 50 days a year. Eighty-five percent travel out-of-state to bird. Only 18% take an organized bird tour when they travel in the U. S. Thirty-six percent photograph birds. Seventy-five percent identify at least some birds by song or call.

Attracting Birds

The Coteau has birds both in quantity and of special interest. Since birds are free to go as they please, it is important to keep the habitat inviting. Usually birds stay near or return to places where they were raised. Over the past century, many species have extended their habitat. An example are the snowy egrets, cattle egrets and white-faced ibis that are now seen in this region in small numbers. A combination of climatic changes and availability of favored foods are among the factors involved when a species expands its territory. In other cases, species that were plentiful in an area become uncommon there. A local example are burrowing owls. At one time, Kidder County had one of the highest concentrations of burrowing owls in North Dakota, but as habitat has disappeared, so have the owls.

Water, food and shelter are key factors in a bird’s habitat. Human disturbance is also a factor for some species. Each species of bird, including waterfowl, marsh and shorebirds, has its preferred foods and eating habits. They like different depths of water and vegetation. Dabbling ducks, who eat from the surface, like shallow water. Diving ducks look for deeper water. Some shorebirds wade up to their bellies, others only halfway up their legs. Others run along the water’s edge or probe in mudflats or flooded fields. Some species prefer to be out in grassy fields away from water.

Birds choose their habitats carefully. Not only is the type of vegetation important, but even it’s length. Sprague’s pipit isn’t found in tall grass. Baird’s sparrow seems to prefer prairie with scattered brush. Burrowing owls are found in areas where the grass is cropped short.

Nature’s cycles are beyond our control, but human activities that may change water flow and water levels need to be evaluated for possible impacts. Both flooding and drought can move birds out of their normal areas. This means some will disappear and others may show up. When the conditions they need return, usually the birds return, unless their population has been decimated by severe or prolonged loss of habitat. Enhancing habitat by planting certain species of grasses, trees and shrubs is thought to increase bird presence. In town, increasing the number of yards with bird baths, feeders and bird-friendly garden flowers attracts more birds to be watched.

Birds that bring birders to North Dakota:

Baird’s Sparrow

Sprague’s Pipit

Yellow Rail

LeConte’s Sparrow

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Ferruginous Hawk

Franklin’s Gull

Gray Partridge

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Marbled Godwit

Piping Plover

Baird’s Sandpiper

Western Grebe

Attracting Birders

When the towns of Harlingen and McAllen, Texas decided to organize the promotion of their natural birdwatching region, they involved businesses, ranchers and local government officials. Businesses began feeling the impact of birders on the economy and supported their festivals and other amenities. In five years, the attitude toward birds and birders changed. Where people once snickered at it and didn’t take it seriously, there is now an appreciation of birdwatching and its benefits. Some hotels and restaurants began putting up feeders and landscaping their grounds to attract birds so that patrons can watch birds from their windows.

Many ranches have opened their land to birders as well as hunters. One lady had started a bed and breakfast on her family ranch. Every year more of her business is from birders. She was quoted in Bird Conservation as saying, “They are interesting and a good class of people. They appreciate nature in the best way - a very pure way.” With heightened awareness of the economic benefits, the Rio Grande Valley area has had an increase in interest in preserving and enhancing natural habitat. There has been an increase in the general interest in conservation.

When birdwatchers come into an area they are looking for a number of resources besides the birds. The more the amenities the better the word-of-mouth recommendations are about an area. Whether it is person-to-person or a writer relating first-hand experience, word-of-mouth advertising is always the most effective.

Birders want bird-finding guides - detailed maps of good spots. They want a current check-list. They want local people who can give them guidance and information about birds in the area. A birder will often want to know what “good sightings” have been made in the area recently, where and how to get to them. Travelers want to know where their “target” birds are being seen this season, what time of day they will be most apt to find them. They need local road information so they don’t get lost or stranded.

Ten government agencies and private organizations formed the North Dakota Birding and Trails Committee in 1999 to promote and enhance birding and trail opportunities in North Dakota. As a result of their work, two birding guides are being published in 2002. One is a pamphlet, A Birding Guide for North Dakota, which will be available from N. D. Game and Fish Department this spring. The second is a book which will be available from American Birding Association late in 2002. North Dakota Game and Fish Department is also coming out with a CD-ROM of North Dakota birds which has color photographs, key identification features, habitat and range and will include audio of bird songs and calls. These state-wide guides will provide information to help novice and experienced birders take advantage of the state’s bird resources. Even so, people with these state guides in hand, will still want updated local information at each site.

Birders need access by road or trail to observation points. Particularly popular roadside sites may need wider shoulders or pull-offs. Certain wetland areas may need boardwalks to protect the environment and to take people closer to the birds. In some situations, blinds enable people to watch birds without disturbing them. While they are in the area, birders need food, drink, gasoline and lodging or campgrounds. They need bathrooms and shade. Festival events can provide additional attractions such as seminars, guided field trips and vendors of birding-related equipment, supplies and resources.

As a whole, birders are well-educated, reasonably affluent people who value the environment. They expect appetizing, good-tasting food and healthful choices. They expect clean, comfortable accommodations in good repair. They expect to see care being given to protect terrain and habitat. They expect attention given to food safety, health and safety standards. Cleanliness is more than a virtue, it is a necessity.

Birdwatchers who visit the Missouri Coteau want to return. Besides seeing amazing numbers of birds, they return for the unexpected pleasures. They find the people friendly. They encounter other wildlife. They see surprising beauty. They enjoy the vastness of open spaces. They feel the peace and hear the quiet. They see more stars than they ever imagined existed and, occasionally, discover what the northern lights are. They find a remnant of America’s frontier.

NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center
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