There is much yet to know about bird migration. Oh sure, we've come a long way since the days of faulty beliefs such as swallows hibernating underground or hummingbirds riding upon the backs of flying geese. Still, many questions of how, why, when and where remain largely unanswered. Recent technological developments - namely miniaturization of GPS trackers - are aiding biologists in the pursuit of this knowledge. Yet there remains a lot of armchair guessing. I contend that's okay.
Early one morning last week I walked up the steps of a neighbor's house. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement. A moment later there was an explosion of sorts. Three or four young American robins fluttered out of a nest atop the porch light and scattered in every direction. Barely feathered, this was obviously their first excursion out of the nest. Life, from this point on, will get no easier for these birds than it was while snuggled in the care of doting parents. Most folks from my generation remember well the Walt Disney show which used to air on Sunday nights.
As a species, humans are far-and-away the most capable organisms with reference to the ability to modify the environment. After us, the impact of other organisms falls off pretty fast. Critters, such as locusts, come to mind. Numbering in the billions, these voracious insects can bring widespread devastation to seasonal plant growth in Africa. Bison, which once numbered in the tens of millions on this continent, could eat their way through untold tons of grass on the Great Plains.
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.