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Flight Lines: A birder's yin to landowner's yang

Tundra swans are just one species of birds that will take advantage of flooded fields in the area during migration. Expect staggering numbers of waterfowl to be in the area during the coming days. Keith Corliss

The latest word from the experts regarding the upcoming high water event in our region is that, due to the ideal melting weather of late, area rivers are predicted to crest at levels manageably lower than previously feared. That's good news for everyone around here. The last thing anyone wants is to defend life and property against yet another flood event.

Yet melt water will still be quite high in the river courses as well as overland. While farmers and ranchers certainly don't relish this sort of start to their planting season, a silver lining in this dark cloud can be found at least among bird aficionados.

Several times over the course of the past couple of decades huge areas of area farmland have become inundated with melt water. What this temporary situation creates in the way of habitat for birds is nothing short of miraculous.

Gigantic wetlands such as the Florida Everglades or South America's Pantanal host bird numbers that can stagger the mind. We don't come close to matching world class wetlands such as these but for a few brief days or weeks, area fields can host birds in some astounding numbers before they dry up.

Assorted goose species counted by the tens of thousands, ducks and swans in similar numbers. Also shorebirds, gulls, and even songbirds will home in on these areas like a magnet and drop in to rest and feed during their migratory journeys. It's a prime example of the oasis effect, sort of an "if you build it, they will come" kind of thing. These broad swaths of flooded land can create viewing conditions that rival almost anything in the world.

It's been a cold snowy winter followed by a similarly cold early spring. Thus the conditions described above haven't really taken place yet. But it is my belief that it will. And soon. By the end of this week temperatures are forecast to be close to 60 degrees. If that happens, water will be freely melting and flowing. And because of our flat Red River Valley contour, the flowing doesn't happen quickly. The water will necessarily take its time meandering before ultimately oozing to the Red River. This is what will create ideal conditions for bird viewing if I can risk taking a peek into the crystal ball and predict the future.

During such occurrences, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, driving on gravel roads during high water is risky. The roadbeds can be soft so use caution, especially if pulling over. You don't wish to call a tow truck to pull you out of a mucky mess. Second, obey "road closed" signs. The last thing authorities want to deal with is people driving around road barriers and getting stuck. Third, if you do encounter a washout or unsafe road condition that hasn't been marked, please inform authorities.

During one of these high water events several years ago, a fellow showed up taking hundreds of photographs of birds in and around the water over the course of several days. I got to meet him. It was Richard Crossley, a bird authority who published an amazing field guide to North American birds some time later which included many pictures taken here. I guess this event is not a secret to birders with their ear to the ground.

The bottom line is this: This next week or so is likely setting up to be yet another opportunity for nature watchers to witness a fairly rare event, one that we should not ignore. I cannot stress enough just how special these few days can be. Take advantage of what nature will likely offer. The alignment of elements—flat terrain, an overage of moisture, and a late melt timed with the height of migration—are here and gone in a flash. Just use caution and judgment if you choose to get out there.

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