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.
It may have happened to me before but I can't recall. Certainly it's rarely experienced even during this season. But happen it did. Late last week, I found myself taking a stroll in the cold and light snow in a wooded area along the Red River. All told, I probably walked a mile through the trees and weedy overgrowth. A half hour later I returned to my car somewhat stunned. During the entire excursion I had not seen nor heard a single bird. Not a woodpecker, not a chickadee, not a crow, nothing. For a few weeks in May a person could reasonably find 100 species in this same area.
I've grown used to the funny looks; the subtle little side glances as they pass by on bicycle or on foot, often walking a dog. Or maybe it's the delayed turnaround after putting enough distance between us, just to make sure they aren't being followed by the strange guy with the binoculars. From the homebound, it's the furtive peek around the curtain. It's the rare person - often a young child - whose curiosity can't keep them from asking that which is begging to be asked, "Are you a bird watcher?" I can't blame them, of course.