Exploring the Dakota’s – Late June on the Great Plains

During the last few days of June (June 27- June 30), Steve Huggins – a good birding friend of mine from Chicago – and I decided to go on a whirlwind trip of the prairie states out west in search of fun summer breeding birds, including a few lifers. Steve is a well-traveled world birder, boasting a world list of over 4,000 species. He had not, however, seen a Sprauge’s Pipit before, making that a major target of our trip. I had never been to North or South Dakota in my US travels, and after hearing numerous rumors over the years of the natural beauty and incredible birdlife of the prairie pothole region, I was ready to see it for myself.

Steve and I left Chicago at 4:30 AM on Thursday, July 27th with the intention of covering some serious mileage. A good friend of mine – Garrett MacDonald – who I used to bird with at Cornell, now lives with his wife in Jamestown, ND. He had invited me out to explore his new stomping grounds and I finally took him up on the offer. Chicago to Jamestown is over 700 miles, so Steve and I didn’t have much time for birding along the way.

With Garrett’s help though, we learned about some spots in Minnesota that were past Minneapolis and worth investigating. A mini-target of mine on this trip was to see Golden-winged Warbler on territory, as I’d missed it in migration this past May. It turned out, a good area for general birding as well as Golden-wings was Sherborne NWR, right off I-94. With only about 2 hours for birding we decided to give it a go.

The birdlife here was wonderful and had a northern feel while still not completely different from the avifauna in Illinois this time of year. However, the numerous Black Terns and Trumpeter Swans were a nice change of pace, as well as the numerous winnowing Snipe overhead in the afternoon due to the overcast skies. After we finished the wildlife drive, we headed a couple miles away and found a trail that was known to have Golden-wings. Without much effort, we soon had a cooperative singing male who perched to sing for us.

Continuing west, we made a brief stop off of I-94 near the town of Osakis. The sewage ponds nearby had some ducks including Canvasback and Redhead, as well as three Franklin’s Gulls. Nearby Clifford Lake (off I-94) held our first Forester’s Terns of the trip, numerous species of duck, as well as American White Pelicans.

Given our time crunch to get to Jamestown, we continued on and only stopped once we crossed into North Dakota to have a celebratory brew at Fargo Brewing Company. Grabbing a growler as a gift for Garrett, we arrived around 10 PM, exhausted and ready for the morning.

Up bright and early, the goal was to get to a prairie site Garrett knew about in Kidder County, an hour west of Jamestown. Birding started immediately as we exited the highway, and we hit Tappen Slough which was a pothole that straddled the country road. Waterbirds were everywhere, including Canvasback, Bufflehead, and Lesser Scaup, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were calling all over the place. Nesting Red-necked Grebes were the major highlight here for me, and it was neat having both Eared and Western Grebes sharing the same body of water with them as if it was normal.

Red-necked Grebe – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Continuing onto the prairie, Garrett took us to a site nearby known as Kunkel School Section Prairie. The school manages the land, allowing cattle ranchers to graze their cattle there as well as granting birders the ability to wander the property. The land apparently is pristine prairie that has been protected from farming for generations. Due to this, it is also one of the main sites in eastern North Dakota for Sprauge’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow – two birds that have had precipitous population declines due to habitat loss.

Kunkel School Section Prairie – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Fortunately for us, we had a Baird’s Sparrow perched up singing immediately as we got out of the car. We were able to get great views of it both with binoculars and in the scope as it sang.

A fairly common bird in this prairie habitat were Chestnut-collared Longspurs, which proved to be numerous and we found them often singing from their favored perches.

Chestnut-collared Longspur – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Wandering around the prairie, we were listening for the skylarking song of the Sprauge’s Pipit. I thought it sounded a bit like a Canyon Wren, and eventually Garrett picked out a Pipit singing distantly. We headed to the area the song was coming from, and soon enough could hear it distantly above us. Incredibly, Steve was able to spot the bird high in the sky, and Garrett then did the impossible and got it in the scope! After we all got views, we realized that seeing one on breeding territory standing on the ground would be nearly impossible. Happy with our lifer, we continued on.

Happy birders after a lifer – from left, Nathan, Steve, and Garrett

It soon began to rain so we headed to a nearby area with lots of potholes and marshland. It proved to be a magical area, with numerous LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows singing, Sedge Wrens, Black Terns (like everywhere else), Common Terns, Wilson’s Phalarope, a defensive Marbled Godwit, and our target – a Yellow Rail. We had access to a piece of land that apparently had 4-5 calling Yellow Rails earlier in the week at night, and after walking a short loop, miraculously flushed one! It quickly flew from between Garrett and I and headed to the back of the marsh behind us only to dive back in after a few seconds. We were dumbfounded by our luck, an incredible morning that only kept getting better.

Since we hit our targets quite early on, Steve and I decided to head west and try to get to Montana for the night, as I’d never been and it was one of only two remaining Lower 48 States I hadn’t been to (North Dakota being the third). Garrett tagged along for part of the way, and about an hour later we found ourselves at the Missouri River looking at Piping Plovers and Least Terns. With huge smiles, Steve and I parted ways here and Garrett headed on to get some state birds in that region he still needed.

We continued heading west, with roughly a half day of birding left before dusk and a lot of miles to cover. We checked a site that Garrett knew about for Long-eared Owls, but unfortunately only found a LOT of ticks (not good) and no owls (even worse). Hopping back in the car, we de-ticked and headed to the Little Missouri Grassland to explore. Along the way we found a nice Swainson’s Hawk, one of a few we had on the trip.

Once we got to the grasslands, we found our only Burrowing Owl of the trip here, heard more Baird’s Sparrows from the road, and unfortunately did not find any Sprauge’s Pipits. We did get nice views here of a group of Pronghorn, always a great mammal to see, as well as a cooperative Thirteen-lined Ground-Squirrel.

Hopping back onto I-94, we stopped at the Painted Canyon Overlook to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, and were not disappointed. The views from here are jaw-dropping, and a stop is highly recommended if you are headed west on this route.

Painted Canyon Overlook of Teddy Roosevelt National Park – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

A short drive south of I-94 had us on near the border of North Dakota and Montana, and the habitat surely felt western with large cliffs and stone formations surrounding us. We birded Sully Creek State Park for an hour or so, and connected with many of our first real western specialties including Lazuli Bunting and Black-headed Grosbeak, as well as more eastern species like Yellow-breasted Chat, American Redstart, and Black-capped Chickadee. With limited light and sleep on our minds, we headed back to the highway and crossed into Montana at around 9 PM headed for Glendive. With big plans for the morning, we had a couple beers at the local pub – Beer Jug – and got quickly to sleep.

June 29th, another early start, we headed first thing to Makoshika State Park, well known in the dinosaur world for its well preserved fossils (specifically those of the famous Triceratops). A new ecosystem and state for us, the birding had quite a “western” feel. We quickly found Rock Wrens, as well as Violet-green Swallows and Mountain Bluebirds. However, the two oddest species we ran into were actually warblers, an Ovenbird and a few Black-and-white Warblers. Having seen these birds in the east during migration and on breeding territories quite different from this area, it was quite fascinating to see the same species we’re familiar with in such an unfamiliar habitat.

We had a goal today of getting to South Dakota and hitting the Black Hills in the afternoon, so we began our trek south. We found some wet areas along the way that had American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, as well as numerous species of duck including American Wigeon, Pintail, both Teal, and more. One special bird we found were Lark Buntings, a target of mine in this area. Fortunately, they are numerous in this area and we found many males skylarking along the road.

Lark Bunting – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Looking at eBird, I tried to find a location to look for Red-naped Sapsucker, a lifer I didn’t realize we had a chance for until speaking with Garrett back in ND. There was an old checklist that had sapsuckers on it from Ekalaka Hills, part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and right along our route. We decided to stop along the way and bird it for an hour or two, and it was quite worthwhile. Immediately upon entering the hills, we ran into many Red Crossbills – confirmed as Type 2 (Ponderosa Pine) – as well as Western Tanagers, Spotted Towhee, Black-billed Magpies, and an out of place (to us) Red-headed Woodpecker. Exploring further we eventually connected with the only Plumbeous Vireo of the trip, but unfortunately no sapsuckers.

Plumbeous Vireo – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

A nice break from driving, we continued on and hit the Wyoming state border and soon after, South Dakota. With this final state, I’ve finally been to and birded all of the lower 48 states as well as Hawaii, leaving only Alaska! It’s been quite an experience, and I still have so much more to see and do across the US, but I’m happy to have seen so much at such a young age.

Steve and I after crossing into South Dakota

It didn’t take long after crossing the state line to get to the Black Hills, and the habitat was simply stunning. We entered Spearfish Canyon and quickly had calling White-throated Swifts overhead as well as our first Western Wood-Pewee of the trip. Due to limited time, we did not focus on finding an American Dipper – though they are fairly easily found in the area. Our goal for the afternoon was to get to Ward Draw, a spot I found on eBird thanks to Kim Eckert. This area seemed to be a good bet for both Red-naped Sapsucker as well as American Three-toed Woodpecker, birds we both wanted to find.

Fortunately, after a bit of looking, we had a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers calling and feeding around us – my third lifer of the trip. However, moments later Steve found a very cooperative pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers, which both ended up providing incredible views and photo ops for us. In addition to the woodpeckers, we also had our only Dusky Flycatcher from the trip here, as well as a small group of immature Canada (Gray) Jays. There was also a small Least Chipmunk that sat and fed next to the road on our way out. Additionally, once back on the road, we ended up finding a nesting pair of sapsuckers that were flycatching over the road, tending to an active nest, and perching on the telephone poll overhead.

American Three-toed Woodpecker – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Least Chipmunk – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Flycatching Red-naped Sapsucker – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

Heading out, we decided to try and get to the Badlands for the evening. Steve really wanted to see a Ferruginous Hawk this trip, but unfortunately upon arrival we realized it was going to be too late in the day for them. We did get to see Bison and Bighorn Sheep, as well as our only Loggerhead Shrike of the trip. The views and sunset were incredible here, and I’d love to come back and spend more time exploring.

With the need to be in Pierre tomorrow morning (June 30th) for our final target of the trip, we had to book a place to sleep for the night. It soon became apparent, though, that that was not going to be easy. After calling over 40 hotels and motels throughout the capitol region, we finally found a small motel in Presho, SD after over an hour of searching. This did come at a cost though, which I’ll take full responsibility for. Due to the hotel fiasco and simple exhaustion of 700+ miles through the day, I neglected to monitor our gas tank and we unfortunately ran out about 10 miles from any exit off I-90. Fortunately, I flagged down an ambulance passing only moments after running out of gas and got a ride to a station to remedy this. Overall, off and on the road again in under an hour. An incredibly lucky situation, and a good learning experience.

After a short night’s sleep, we got on the road again with a long day ahead. Heading an hour north to Pierre, our first stop was Oahe Downstream State Recreation Area, which is along the Missouri River. There had been a continuing Yellow-billed Loon here for over a week, and it would have been another lifer for me. We arrived and within minutes of looking were able to spot a loon that looked slightly different from the two Common Loons it was with. It finally raised its head, and the pale bill was very apparent. My fourth and final lifer of the trip! It ended up being incredibly cooperative, and we were able to get some nice close photos.

Yellow-billed Loon – Photo by Nathan Goldberg

The birding in the area was interesting as well as it was a mix of eastern and western birds. We had both Eastern and Western Kingbirds flying around, along with Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and a very nice American Goldfinch. There was also a nice adult Franklin’s Gull along with California, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls. However, with the goal of getting to Chicago at a reasonable hour (and a 16-hour drive ahead), we needed to get on the road.

Heading back, we had a few interesting roadside birds including some at a prairie pothole that had White-faced Ibis, lots of Great Egrets, and some more American Avocets. Our main stops on the drive though were at two breweries, one in Sioux Falls (Remedy Brewing) and the other in the Wisconsin Dells (Moosejaw Pizza). Good birds, good beer, and a great end to an absolutely fantastic trip.

We totaled over 185 species in the four days of birding, covered over 2600 miles, and both Steve and I got some lifers. Overall, a highly recommended birding trip with some stunning landscapes – the prairies are not in fact flat! Thanks again Steve for joining me, time to start planning the next trip.