New Birding Drive Offers Wildlife Adventures in Central North Dakota

Paul M. Konrad, Wildlife Adventures, Kulm, ND
Photos by Paul Konrad


Table of Contents

Birding is Big Business

The New Steele Birding Drive

Dakota Birds

Timing is Everything

Habitat is Critical

Great Refuges

Other Favorite Destinations

Beyond Birding

 

Birds

 

Ferruginous Hawk

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Upland Sandpiper

Pelicans



Central North Dakota is considered one of the top birding locations in the nation, and I think it is the best birding area in all the Great Plains. Already, more than 70 million Americans enjoy birding activities each year, making birding one of the three most popular outdoor activities along with golf and gardening. Why is birding so popular? I think the base interest for people is a common interest in wildlife, but most of the wildlife we encounter on a given day has feathers. Mammals, for instance, tend to be nocturnal, less common, and less diverse than birds. Birds come in diverse species, sizes, and colors, and they are abundant, readily observable, and exciting to study and photograph. Each species also has its own songs and calls, which adds another dimension to birding - birding by ear.


Many birders can be categorized as “listers.” Listers compile a variety of lists of the birds they see - or hear - that may vary from a “day list,” to a “life list, state list, annual list, photo list,” and a seemingly infinite list of other personalized bird lists. Other birders are more interested in the opportunity to commune with nature, observe the intricacies of migration, breeding behavior, plumage differences, and the intricacies of identifying birds in the field. Yet another dimension of birders do not travel without a camera in hand, be it 35mm still camera, digital, or video camera.


The real beauty of birding may be that it has no bounds. It is fun for beginners and professionals alike, and all levels of birders in between. Birding provides a common thread that brings together young people and old, rich and poor, rugged outdoorsmen and city slickers, and other ranges of humanity to enjoy the marvels of wildlife in a natural setting. An important feature about birding that attracts many people is that birding can also be combined with other outdoor activities, such as hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, boating, bicycling, and auto touring. Birding can also be a social activity, a family activity, an activity shared among friends, or a personal activity you can enjoy on your own. Then too, the most exciting aspect of birding may be the attraction to travel to other states, and even to new countries, to see new species in different landscapes. Many birders travel east, west, north, and south to find, study, and photograph new birds during appropriate seasons, all in new surroundings.


Birding is Big Business


In some areas of the country, birding is very popular. In Florida, for example, there are 17 birders for every hunter in the state, so they have a considerable economic and political impact. Communities capitalized on this fact by inviting birders to visit their local hotspots. Businesses have benefited from the influx of visitors, and the state and federal governments have devoted millions of dollars to improving facilities and providing educational experiences when people visit public lands. After birders have seen the winter birding sites, such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona, we hope they will visit the best birding area in the Great Plains - central North Dakota!


In neighboring Minnesota, birders already spend $125 million dollars on travel-related birding and another $260 million dollars on birding equipment, such as binoculars, cameras and film, spotting scopes, field guides, footwear, and clothing. This is especially impressive when we consider the fact that, like North Dakota, Minnesota has not adequately promoted birding-based tourism. Today, birders are looking for new birding locations to visit and new birding adventures to experience. It’s time to share our “secret” with the rest of the country! But it takes more than an invitation or advertisement to attract birders. Birders require information and infrastructure. Once they arrive, where do they go to find their quarry? They need maps and descriptions of where to go, what to see, and when to come.


The New Steele Birding Drive


In 2002, we began to assemble such information to promote birding in central North Dakota with the first community-based Birding Drive in the state - the Steele Birding Drive. In addition to my efforts to promote our abundant natural resources in central North Dakota, the Steele Betterment Group, community and business leaders, and the citizens of Steele and Kidder County, have joined together to finance the Steele Birding Drive and its new booklet. Now, you can enjoy a natural experience along the Steele Birding Drive! For a free copy of the newly published Steele Birding Drive booklet, telephone 701-475-2133 or e-mail: steelecc@bektel.com


The Steele Birding Drive booklet provides illustrated maps that provide simple directions that lead you along rural roads to some of the best birding areas in the Great Plains. Written descriptions of birding opportunities and colorful photographs of some of the exciting birds you may encounter in Dakota landscapes encourage birders to plan a trip to northern plains destinations. Other towns have also voiced an interest in developing a Birding Drive to attract birders to their communities, so there is a potential to develop a network of Birding Drives in the state in the future.


Of course, a comprehensive marketing effort will be required to reach the great numbers of birders year after year. Eventually, we hope to build a national consciousness about our birding opportunities that radiates from all the birding magazines, wildlife publications, conservation newsletters, Audubon chapters, bird clubs, and outdoors and travel publications. To fulfill that vision, we are marketing the Steele Birding Drive and birding in central North Dakota to regional, national, and even international audiences. North Dakota’s Department of Tourism is providing some promotional assistance, but most marketing will be conducted by interested communities that must also appropriate marketing funds annually.


During the past year, I have been very impressed with the level of interest in birding activities in North Dakota, as well as birding-related tourism. I have seen a truly expansive surge in interest in birding as I promote these endeavors, and I hope this interest translates into grass-roots projects, like the Steele Birding Drive, that will provide an attraction and incentive for birders to flock to Dakota in coming years.


In association with the growing level of interest in birding and in promoting birding tourism, we will also receive incremental support for the conservation, management, and protection of our natural resources among our state’s residents and visitors alike. We can also hope for increased facilities and access to public lands, and certainly the refuges are reacting in this manner. We also hope for fruitful associations with private landowners and business people to develop an enlarged and improved network of individuals and agencies working toward common goals.


Dakota Birds


What kinds of birds attract birders to travel cross-country to the center of the continent to find birds and revel in the Northern Prairie experience? The following list of birds may sound foreign to non-birders, but perhaps their unique names will encourage you to refer to a field guide, a literal “dictionary of birds,” in which you can take a look at what birders’ attraction to these animals is all about. Here’s the list: Ferruginous Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Prairie Falcons, Western Grebes, American White Pelicans, Sandhill Cranes, White-fronted Geese, Ross’ Geese, Snow Geese, Canvasbacks, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Partridge, Upland Sandpipers, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Hudsonian Godwits, Franklin’s Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Black Terns, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls, Yellow Rails, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sprague’s Pipits, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Baird’s Sparrows, LeConte’s Sparrows, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows, Snow Buntings, White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, Orchard Orioles, and many more! If you are among the luckiest of birders, you may see one of the rarest birds in the world under the rarest of circumstances - Whooping Cranes during migration. (If you are interested in purchasing a field guide for birds, I suggest the following: The National Audubon Society Sibley Guide to Birds, 544 pages written and illustrated by David Sibley and published in 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York. Other field guides for birds are also available, and you can review a number of them in your local library or favorite book store.)


Timing is Everything


Just as with many things in life, birding relies on timing, and some days timing is everything. Daily rhythms from morning to afternoon and evening will dictate the activities and availability of many animals, and changes in daily weather will likewise vary your experiences. On a larger scale, annual cycles based on climatic conditions may dictate wet and dry cycles that will affect shifts in ranges of some bird populations.


Seasonal variations will be most important in determining what birds will be present; spring and fall migration will offer greater variety of species and often an abundance of birds in transit to their nesting ranges. Spring and early summer fills the countryside with a diversity of bird songs and calls, as well as fascinating territorial interactions. The summer nesting and staging periods will offer more behavioral observations, as well as the chance to see family groups and growing young birds. Even within one period, such as fall migration, some birds such as Arctic-nesting shorebirds begin migrating as early as July. Other birds, such as Arctic-nesting geese and Tundra Swans, may not migrate into the area until mid-October. As you get to know the seasonal variances of birds in central North Dakota, you will find that in this northern region, things change quickly, and it’s worth trying to get into the field every two weeks to keep in touch with seasonal changes.


North Dakota has four seasons and every season offers fine birding. Prime birding times include spring migration from mid-April to late May; summer nesting from May through July; summer staging and early fall migration during August to mid-September; and prime fall migration from September to mid-November. Winter can provide near-Arctic conditions, but the payoff is the Arctic birds that visit, including Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs. Other winter visitors include birds that nest in the northern boreal forests of Canada, such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, Brown Creepers, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins. And scattered across the prairie grasslands you can find such exciting birds as Prairie Falcons, Merlins, Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, and Short-eared Owls, along with resident Sharp-tailed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Gray Partridges. The winter landscape can be rather bleak, but it is at the same time inviting and even picturesque.


Habitat is Critical


Habitat will dictate where you will find birds, as well as the kinds of birds you will find. Each species of bird has its own requirements for food, water, cover, nesting sites, and other parameters, so you must find the right habitat to find the birds you want to observe and photograph. Different habitats, such as native mixed-grass prairies, wetlands, natural woods, planted tree groves, hayfields, and croplands all attract different kinds of birds.


As an example of variations within one habitat type, consider that the multitude of wetlands in the region range from deep to shallow, large to small, and fresh to saline. Wetland shorelines also vary, and may include mud flats, gravel or sand beds, or even wooded borders. Individual wetlands support an environment for specialized plants, aquatic invertebrates, insects, fish, amphibians, and other animals that attract certain birds searching for food. Other birds may utilize a given wetland as a roosting site, a loafing area, a safety zone, a bathing pond, or a location where they can simply get a drink of water. When you begin to understand the habitat differences and realize, for instance, that certain birds prefer shallow alkali wetlands, you will have better luck locating the birds you seek.


Without appropriate habitat, birds will not be present. We are fortunate to have healthy acreages of native habitats that support an exciting array of birds, which is a testament to the foresight of landowners, state and national wildlife agencies, and conservation groups.


Great Refuges

 

North Dakota boasts more national wildlife refuges than any other state - 63! (By comparison, South Dakota has only seven refuges and Minnesota has 12.) Among the best refuges in the nation are Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Chase Lake can be counted among the most remote refuges, and Slade National Wildlife Refuge, though attractive to birders, is one of the least visited of our public lands. All three refuges are featured prominently in the Steele Birding Drive; in fact, the three Routes included in the Steele Birding Drive are named after the three refuges (e.g. the Long Lake Route, Chase Lake Route, and Slade Route).

 

Long Lake Refuge is one of the best refuges among the 530 national wildlife refuges in America. It is especially good for photographing birds and has a fine series of roadways that bisect wetlands and other refuge habitats, especially in the area of the Refuge Headquarters. Long Lake attracts an exciting variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, waterbirds, songbirds, and others. Its value to nesting and migrating birds is underscored by the fact that it has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Site, and an Important Bird Area. A special point of interest is the Refuge Butte, where you can see panoramic views for many miles in all directions.

 

Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most remote of our nation’s refuges, and one of the most interesting to visit. Chase Lake provides a remote destination far from the nearest town, or even the nearest farmstead where the only sound you’ll hear are birdsongs. The real attraction to Chase Lake is the continent's largest nest colony for American White Pelicans, numbering as many as 18,000 nesting pairs during peak years. The pelicans are a fitting icon for the Birding Drive network, for you will find them swimming in area wetlands, as well as flying overhead periodically throughout your travels. If you get close, you will experience the majesty of their soaring and gliding flights on the broadest wingspan of any North American birds - nearly nine feet wide! Access to the pelican nesting area is restricted to prevent disturbing the birds during their nesting activities; a refuge permit is required to get close to view or photograph the nesting activities, but interesting observations can be made from a distance with a spotting scope.


Of course, there are hundreds of other species to view in the area, ranging from Ferruginous Hawks to Snowy Owls; Baird's Sparrows to Sprague's Pipits; White-fronted Geese to Canvasbacks; and Orchard Orioles to Chestnut-collared Longspurs. The timing of your visit and even a certain amount of birder's luck will help make a trip to Chase Lake one of your most memorable birding trips!


Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located in one of the most remote areas of North Dakota, northwest of Medina. Access by car requires driving on some fairly primitive roads, however, this is a special place to use your hiking boots, for walking among the rolling hills and prairie flowers is one of the great pleasures on this Birding Drive network.


Slade Refuge is one of the least visited of all refuges, but it is a gem waiting to be re-explored by birders and other outdoors-oriented folks. Grassland songbirds and waterfowl dominate the avifauna found at this site in season. Slade National Wildlife Refuge, which is located 2 miles south of Dawson just east of Highway 3, is essentially a wilderness area with access limited to walking along the old roadway beyond the locked gate. You may also cycle along the road, and you may drive along the southwest border of the fenced refuge along the access road to the adjacent Lake Isabel Recreation Area. Refuge personnel have been most cooperative in the development and promotion of the Steele Birding Drive, and are anxious to share refuge resources with more birders and other nature enthusiasts.

 

Other Favorite Destinations


In addition to the refuges, there are many exciting destinations along the three routes of the Steele Birding Drive. One of my favorite destinations is Horsehead Lake, a huge body of water that is now swelled to its largest size in decades, which is located 4 miles east and 9 miles north of Steele. During the appropriate seasons, along Horsehead Lake’s salty shores you can find American White Pelicans, Ferruginous Hawks, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Sandhill Cranes, Canada and Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, and a variety of ducks. Songbirds may include such rarities as LeConte’s, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed, and Baird’s Sparrows, along with more usual Grasshopper, Savanah, Song, and Vesper Sparrows. Near the northwest corner of the lake you may hear an elusive Yellow Rail, another rarely found bird that out-of -staters drive cross-country to find.


Other favorite Kidder County sites include Kunkel Lake (10 miles north of Tappen), Bird Lake (7 miles north and 2.5 miles east of Dawson), Dewald Lake (4 miles south of Dawson) and Dewald Flats (southwest of Dewald Lake), although interesting birds can be found at any location along any road in this region - if you are in the right place at the right time!


        Driving the Routes


In addition to the marketing and planning opportunities that the Steele Birding Drive booklet offers, it provides some very simple maps that direct you along each of the three Birding Drive routes. Each route begins and ends in Steele. The maps provide a graphic illustration of where to drive, how far to drive, and where to make the next turn. Along each section of road depicted on a map is a number and letter combination, such as 4E, which indicates you should drive 4 miles east. The next section of road may say 2S, which directs you to drive 2 miles south - simple enough. Almost all roads in the region run due north and south, east and west, so this simplifies the navigation process too.


These directions are meant to provide simple directions, not unlike the kind of directions a friend would give you to reach their home. But instead turning at a specific city block, along the Birding Drive routes the roads are usually one or more miles apart, which makes it very hard to take a wrong turn, or miss a turn in this rural section of the state. There is an accompanying written description of each route to help you along the way. From a navigation perspective, it is unfortunate that Kidder County and some surrounding counties have not yet implemented a road identification system, which would make it easier, and safer, to find your way as your traverse the back roads of central North Dakota. Therefore, be sure to familiarize yourself with the surrounding towns and highways in the area you are driving by referring to a road atlas or North Dakota highway map in addition to the Birding Drive route maps.


Although most roads on the Birding Drive routes are gravel roads, you do not need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to traverse the routes utilized on the Birding Drive. I have proven this fact time and time again with my Ford Mustang, Lincoln Continental, and Toyota Van. Just the same, you must be wary if you encounter adverse road conditions, such as muddy, high water, icy, or deep snow conditions. On some two-tire track paths, such as in the Chase Lake area, rather than positioning your wheels directly in the tracks, it is often best to use the “Dakota stretch” driving technique. Drive slowly while positioning one set of tires on the middle ridge of the track with the other tires on the right or left “shoulder” of the track. This method positions the center of your vehicle above one tire track, providing better clearance, especially when the tire tracks become deeply rutted.


The remoteness of some rural roads is very attractive, but you will soon notice that there are few occupied farmsteads in the region, so try to keep a few safety items on hand that may include a cell phone with a local telephone book, extra water, food, and warm dry clothes. During summer, be sure to have insect repellent, sunscreen, and a visored hat.Driving safety is paramount. While searching for birds and other wildlife, drive slower than normal, be aware of other vehicles on the road, and be careful of where you stop and where you park along the road. Try to pull as far off the roadway as possible when viewing, listening to, or photographing birds, and never stop below the crest of a hill or near an intersection. One other thing: You “must” wave to all the vehicles you pass along the roadways. This is an indication of how friendly people are in North Dakota, and we want to share that friendliness with you.

 

Beyond Birding


What’s the attraction for birders to come to North Dakota? For people familiar with the eastern forests, the northern Great Plains provides a unique landscape, culture, and avifauna. For birders living in the mountains or along ocean coastlines, the simplicity of our prairie and wetland complex is very attractive. For urban residents, the tranquility of rural Dakota offers an amazing escape. The broad horizons filled with bird songs and fresh air is remarkably exhilarating. Night skies filled with a myriad of stars and constellations are awe-inspiring, and some people are able to marvel at the colorful Northern Lights for the first time during their northern prairie sojourn. Our sparsely settled rural environment, its quiet tranquility, wind-blown grass, trafficless roads, and friendly people all add to each visitor’s Dakota experience. When birders come to North Dakota, they are impressed, and they pass along the message that the Missouri Coteau is one of the great outdoor destinations in America. With these important values in mind, some day we may count birding among North Dakota’s most important outdoor activities. Now, let’s go birding!


 

Paul Konrad is the newest appointee to the Central Grasslands Research Center’s Advisory Committee. Paul operates Wildlife Adventures, based in Kulm, North Dakota. He is a wildlife biologist who specializes in the study of birds, with 27 years of professional experience as an ornithologist. He has been a birder all his life, and in addition to wildlife research, Paul has worked to promote wildlife-based tourism and as a birding tour guide. His life’s work has taken him to 42 countries and all seven continents of the world.


Paul is also a photographer, writer, and editor. He is the former Editor of WildBird magazine, where he published 96 issues during his eight-year tenure. Paul is one of the most published wildlife authors in America, with more than 400 popular articles published to date, along with more than 900 published photographs, 22 research publications, and one book.


Today, Paul’s professional interests include developing community-based Birding Drives to promote birding tourism in central North Dakota. Considered by many to be the premier birding destination in the Great Plains, Konrad ranked central North Dakota as the eighth best birding location in North America among his top 50 birding hotspots. To review Paul Konrad’s Top 50 Birding Hotspots in North America, see: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/1998/wildbird/wildbird.htm


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