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Right off the top of my head, I can think of five avian species that have become extinct north of Mexico since Europeans first stepped ashore in the New World. One is known by nearly everyone and became the storied, yet chilling, icon representing just what we as a people are capable of - the passenger pigeon. The other four are less known and numbered far fewer individuals to begin with. The Carolina parakeet was the only member of the parrot family known to nest north of Mexico. By the 1920s this bird was gone. The Labrador duck was a sea bird that wintered on New England's coast.
Several years ago, I was made aware of just how bound some photographers are to certain light conditions. Early on that day, a friend and I were wending through some lush grassland; I was looking for birds, he was aiming and firing his camera at rich golden landscapes. Once the full disc of the sun had cleared the hurdle of the horizon, it didn't take long for my partner to stow his gear and call it a day. He explained how the light was no longer ideal for landscape photography, that midday light was just too harsh.
It started about 10 days ago with a phone call from a friend who found himself just south of West Fargo. In a rather excited tone he related how he had just seen a huge flock of snow geese moving north; a flock he estimated at roughly 50,000 birds. The waterfowl migration has let up little since then and at times it's been difficult to take a scan of the sky and not see at least some birds winging this way or that. Just last weekend another acquaintance and I viewed a flooded corn field west of Harwood which easily contained over 100,000 birds, mostly snow geese.
I'll likely never see bluebirds in my yard. The best I can hope for is a lucky fleeting glimpse of a flyover during migration, but the birds will not stop at the feeders I put out. It's just not in the cards for me; I live in the middle of town, after all. Bluebirds are hardwired to open areas, where they nest and feed on various forms of bug life. I'm envious of rural dwellers and those on the edge of town who likely witness the beauty of these birds frequently.
Take a look around the state at recent bird reports and a person can't help but arrive at a somewhat ho-hum conclusion: There really isn't much out there. Oh sure the usual suspects are around, the chickadees, house sparrows, woodpeckers, etc. But in terms of "good" birds - the ones which stir excitement and motivate some folks to take a drive to see them - there really is a palpable scarcity. And it's not just me. I put this question to grasslands biologist and bird expert, Dan Svingen, of Bismarck. He said, "This is one of the more uninteresting winters that we've had in decades." Why?
One of the least appreciated and perhaps underutilized destinations in our area is the Sheyenne National Grasslands. I consider it a large public playground with limitless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast. It's truly a gem, administered by Dakota Prairie Grasslands, falling under the umbrella of the US Forest Service. I recently interviewed (via email) the District Ranger in charge, Bryan Stotts.
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.
Four years ago, I wrote of a bird that seemed destined to colonize our fair area after having been found in Kindred, a first for Cass County. Well, it's happened. Nearly every burg a person ventures into these days gives up a Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto) or two. All this, as some may recall, started from the accidental release of this Old World bird in the Caribbean. From there, the bird made its way to the mainland in Florida; some years later, North Dakota and virtually the rest of the continent. Last summer, the birds even nested in the middle of West Fargo.
A red-tailed hawk, the most widespread soaring hawk (buteo) on this continent, is more likely to be seen in the open country than in the middle of forested habitat. Most buteos share this trait. One large hawk of the western Great Plains is so linked to prairie that it commonly nests on the ground - the ferruginous hawk. In the woods others predominate. Species like the accipiter group (eg. Cooper's hawk), broad-winged hawks and red-shouldered hawks are more tied to treed habitat. This divide among diurnal raptors is evident even among our nocturnal ones.
About noon this past Monday a magical event occurred. It went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated by most, but it had a hemisphere-wide impact on us in the North. At 1747 (GMT) the sun reached its most southerly declination, an annual happening known as the winter solstice. Indeed we have bottomed out for the year and now stare six months of growing day length squarely in the face. I love it. It will take a month or so for the temperatures to round the corner but with more minutes of daylight, winter now becomes easier to take.