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Flight lines: Falling short of county bird challenge

Just the second time I'd seen the species in the county, this red knot was one of many shorebird species present during the extremely high water of spring, 2009. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

It had been accomplished twice in the past, once in 2005 in Burleigh County, and again in 2007 in McHenry County. But no one that we know of had done it in Cass.

This all started rather innocently several years ago when Corey Ellingson, a devout bird-watcher from Bismarck, issued a challenge to the state's birders. It was simply this: Find 250 bird species in one North Dakota county in the span of one calendar year.

I guess I hadn't given the idea a whole lot of thought. I'd always considered Cass County to be a sort of "tweener" location. You know, sits between the vast woods of forested northern Minnesota and the rich grasslands of central North Dakota, peppered with potholes. Apart from the spring and fall migrations, Cass County is not exactly a go-to destination.

Then the flood hit. There was water everywhere in the county. And with the water came birds. Lots of birds. Gulls, waterfowl and shorebirds were everywhere. Numbers started to climb on my list. On the 18th of April, I was lucky enough to add an Iceland gull to the tally, a bird I'd never seen in the state, much less the county. At that point I was beginning to think, hey, maybe this could be done.

Crunching the numbers, I figured I'd need to see all the regularly occurring birds plus a good number of rarities in order to make this happen. A strategy was born and it was simple. Hit the spring and fall migrations hard, spend the summer leisurely marking off the nesting species, and hope for vagrants late in the year. I knew I couldn't miss many and still make 250.

Disappointment struck on May 1. A bird of the southern U.S. showed up briefly at a Horace residence; a white-winged dove. By the time anyone got there, the bird had vanished, leaving only a taunting digital photograph. This was a big miss, a "get-through" as we called it in the Air Force.

The spring songbird migration was decent, but not exceptional. Making the task difficult was access to the Red River wooded areas; they were mostly under water. But not West Fargo. Thus, several of us hit the parks particularly hard and it paid off. May 17 brought a nice group of warblers to Elmwood Park, including a rare hooded warbler plus another state/county first for me, a black-throated blue warbler. It was getting interesting.

Driving whatever township roads were still passable, we scoped the sheet water the following day on the flooded fields between West Fargo and Horace. No disappointment here. Great numbers of shorebird species were noted, including yet another county first--the federally endangered piping plover. In all, 22 shorebird species were tallied that day.

By early June I had seen 225 species in Cass County and the 250 mark was looking very possible. With a good fall show of waterfowl and a wave of northern finches late in the year, I just might make it.

A bright and serendipitous moment occurred on June 23. I had just walked a wooded area south of Fargo along the Red River when I returned to my car and sat with the window open to record what I had seen. No sooner had I begun writing, when a yellow-billed cuckoo began to sing nearby. Another county first and number 232 for the year.

I combed the county all summer counting up the missing common birds while hoping for something weird. Nothing. Fall was somewhat slow with number 240 - an osprey - coming on September 21.

Early October brought bad news but another new county bird. The bad news: Ron Pittaway's famous finch forecast was not good ("The theme this winter is there will be no major finch irruptions outside their normal ranges"). In addition, the rare fall waterfowl species were not showing up. Still, on October 8, I found what author and longtime area birder Bob O'Connor said was "probably the first live mountain bluebird in Cass County."

Only a few more species were seen before year's end, including three owls. I didn't make it, falling three short. Is it ever possible here? Of course. But a person needs lots of time, lots of gas money, lots of birding friends, and a little bit of luck. All told, over 250 species were reported in the county last year. Cass County, it turns out, isn't so bird-less after all.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.