Sometimes you act on a hunch and it pays off. On the night before the final field trip of the Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival, most of the attendees gathered for a picnic on a rhubarb farm northeast of Carrington, ND. I was a bit worried—not about rhubarb—but about the fact that our trip, called "Dawn Birding in Kidder County," was going to find many of the same target birds everyone had already seen: Baird's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, Sprague's pipit, Nelson's sparrow, LeConte's sparrow. On Thursday or Friday, these birds were heavily desired lifers. But by Sunday morning, many festival attendees were wanting to see something new.
I decided to find out what our opportunities for finding something new would be. I talked to Ron Martin, who may be North Dakota's most knowledgeable birder and pried a bit of info out of him. Ron is a quiet, thoughtful man and he was happy to offer some advice. He suggested a birding spot, and then in the low-key manner that is typical of many North Dakotans, he began to rattle of the species we might see there: "ohh let's see, there are a lot of white-faced ibis there and a few glossies. Cattle egrets and night herons have a big nesting colony there. It's the best place in the state to see Clark's grebe. Lots of shorebirds in there and all the ducks, of course. Down the road is a spot for things like red-breasted nuthatch and yellow-billed cuckoo...."
I had to stop Ron and ask him to repeat himself so I could record his list of birds and, more importantly, his directions, into my iPhone. I wanted these directions so I could share them with my co-leaders in the morning so we could figure out how to go after all of these cool birds—very few of which had been seen by anyone else at the festival this year.
The next morning I shared my hot birding info with Julie Zickefoose and the other leaders for the trip, Paulette Scherr, Stacy Whipp, and Ann and Ernie Hoffert. Paulette and Stacy work for the Fish & Wildlife Service at the local national wildlife refuges. Ann and Ernie have been involved with the festival since its inception and are the de facto Welcome Wagon for the event. All four of these folks have been all over central North Dakota, but they'd never been to our new birding destination: DeWald Slough.
DeWald Slough is just south of the town of Dawson which is tucked along I-94, west of Jamestown. It's a series of sloughs, lakes, and wet fields through which farm roads wind. A quick pre-dawn poll of the trip participants gave support to the idea of going there first, then heading north to the pipits and sparrows, and a cafe lunch later in the day.
We drove about 45 minutes in an Etch-a-sketch pattern on the straight-as-a-string North Dakota roads until we got to I-94, then we bombed west to Dawson and dipped south to the slough.
By the time we got out of the people mover, a bank of gray clouds had moved in over the sun, but this did little to dampen our enthusiasm. The birds were EVERYWHERE!
Standing in one place and scanning in a 360-degree arc, here are a few of the birds I could see: glossy ibis, American avocet, 13 species of duck, greater yellowlegs, American bittern, cattle, snowy, and great egrets, northern harrier, black-crowned night-heron, western meadowlark, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, Savannah sparrow, Nelson's sparrow, chestnut-collared longspur, western grebe, eared grebe, horned grebe, Franklin's gull, ring-billed gull, black tern, common tern, plus lots of other common stuff like red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.
Soon we started picking out some even more exciting birds: including Clark's grebe and stilt sandpiper.
We spent about 90 minutes at this first spot, working through the birds. Everyone got scope looks every bird they wanted to see well, which goes a long way to making the satisfaction level high on a field trip. Then we moved on to several other vantage points down the road.
We never did pick out a glossy ibis from all the white-faceds, but that was a small thing for most of us. Our final stop on the DeWald Slough route was along a road that ran along a high hill above a big lake. About half of the group followed Julie and me out the hill to get a better, closer look at the Clark's grebes. The looks were still a bit distant but satisfactory enough to count as life birds for about a dozen folks. While we were on this side trip, Ernie walked farther up the road and scanned a muddy and wet portion of an agricultural field.
"I think I had some shorebirds in that wet field up the road on the east side," he said. (Note that in North Dakota, when giving directions, most locals use compass direction instead of "on the left side." And why not? As long as you know that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, you're OK. Except at night and on cloudy days...)
We stopped and scanned Ernie's field and sure enough, there were a dozen Wilson's phalaropes there and a smattering of killdeer. Then I spotted a couple of distant semipalmated plovers. Topping all of these sightings, Julie exclaimed "I just heard a piping plover call!"
Sure enough, there were at least three piping plovers scooting along the edge of the water. This federally endangered species is struggling throughout its range and declining in most places. It was a thrill to see these tiny pipers—a lifer for many of the trip's participants. I snapped a few quick digiscoped images to document the birds, which were un-banded, unlike most of the piping plovers along the East Coast, which are closely monitored.
The pipers were noticeably smaller than the Wilson's phalaropes.
Pale-backed like dry sand, the piping plovers stood out on the dark mud.
Now it was time for coffee and a sweet roll and indoor bathrooms, so we headed into Dawson and invaded the cafe there in that special birders' way. The locals gave us bemused looks. But the cafe ladies were happy to sell us all of their hot coffee and homemade sweet rolls. We took our purchases outside and sat along the main drag, resting ourselves after several days of birding.
The sweet rolls were as big as saucers: three-inches thick of still-warm cinnamon-caramel icing goodness/badness. There was much groaning with delight as the sweet rolls were consumed, followed by loud smacks of finger licking. Liam asked for the last bite of my roll and nearly took the end of my forefinger off as he scarfed it down.
Now, bellies full and bladders empty, we got back on the people mover and headed north to our original destination...