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Seeking shorebirds in Cass County

Late July is not exactly prime time among the network of bird aficionados. In fact, you may even call it a lull of sorts. But standing out amid the humdrum of routine nesting species is one group in particular, the shorebirds. These are the birds that strut around in mudflats and shallow water on longish skinny legs probing the flats with long bills. Most are through nesting high up into Canada and are currently working their way south through the state, often in good numbers. Just last week a Bismarck-area birder reported over 2,000 shorebirds, consisting of 17 different species, at one location on Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

It begs the question, I suppose, just where does a person go in Cass County to find shorebirds? What with $4-gasoline, a trip to Burleigh County can't be taken as lightly as it once was.

As to the question, a person must keep in mind that habitat is 98% of birding. If you are in appropriate habitat, chances are good you will find "expected" birds. For instance, don't go looking for shorebirds in a corn field. You won't find any ducks there either, at least not right now. Likewise, it would be unwise to expect an ovenbird (a forest dweller) in prairie grass.

With regard to Cass County, it's really not known for its shore or mudflat habitat. A person can be hard-pressed to find a couple hundred shorebirds someplace, much less 2,000. But a small handful of oases exist to at least give it a go.

Number one is probably the Alice area. South of Alice, along county road 38, a number of sloughs exist, some quite large. It's a great spot for waterfowl, as all the expected species can be present during migration and many nest there. Shorebirds can be plentiful at times.

Just northeast of Alice, county road 6 bisects a large complex known as Lake Bertha. Water is rather high at the moment, which limits shorebird habitat, but during drier periods, this site can be an irresistible magnet for migrating shorebirds. The Lake Bertha area is perhaps best known as a haven for western grebes. Hundreds of the regal black and white birds ply the large lake and are currently tending to their young, which they carry on their backs ala common loons. In addition, white-faced ibis, cattle egrets, black-necked stilts, and least bitterns have nested in the past.

Number two on the list, believe it or not, is probably Fargo's wastewater lagoon system northwest of Hector Airport. Access is very limited as "No Trespassing" signs are everywhere. But annually this site boasts some impressive records of shorebirds and various other waterfowl which don't seem to mind the square "lakes." Many of Cass County's rare sightings have taken place there. Hundreds of giant Canada geese nest on the grassy dikes separating the cells. Gulls are quite common too. Shorebirding is a challenge and a spotting scope is a must, as viewing is distant from the fence line.

Third would likely be Brewer Lake just west of Erie. It's a large impoundment surrounded by a small county park, prairie grasses and some trees. Shorebirding is less than ideal here also as beach or mudflat habitat is limited. But scattered along the boundary of this lake, a person can find a decent number of species if patient.

Perhaps the best place for shorebirds in Cass County can't be pinpointed in place or in time. But when and where it occurs, you'll know it. Two essentials go into this formula: a large field without standing crops and a large amount of rain. Mix those two ingredients together and viola, you have instant shorebird habitat. Such locations are known in the habitat biz as an ephemeral wetland, and like the name implies, they don't last long. But, during the right time of year (like now), they can produce large and diverse numbers of shorebirds.

Cass County will never rival central North Dakota's shorebirds or their habitat. But fuel prices are forcing many area birders to recalibrate time and budgets to the point where settling for less than ideal is becoming common. With that in mind, we are all looking for nearby localities with which to continue the hobby. This short list represents a nudge in that direction.