By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
North Dakota may well be the most under-rated birding destination in the country. Birders who’ve made a visit in late spring or summer know what makes the state special: parks and refuges with distinctive grassland and wetland birds, ease of travel, and an utter lack of crowds. Also not to be discounted: the feeling of freedom that comes from roaming wide-open spaces, bins in hand.
Several national wildlife refuges and Sheyenne National Grassland host some of the state’s most sought-after birds. Those include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Baird’s Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, and Nelson’s Sparrow.
Though it’s best know for its grasslands, North Dakota is hardly lacking for waterbird habitat. Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge host masses of waterfowl, both nesting and migrant.
The Missouri River below Garrison Dam boasts a species list of more than 170, including 14 kinds of gulls.From the marshes of Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge to the riparian habitat of the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota’s great birding awaits discovery by more travelers.
North Dakota Birding Hotspots
Devils Lake Wetland Management District is known for “prairie pothole” habitats vital to the nesting success of many waterfowl species. Several units of the district are scattered around the Devils Lake area. The lake itself may have numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds in migration.
Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, part of the district, is also known for a notable variety of birds, attracted to woodland, mixed-grass prairie, and wetland habitats. Bison and elk roam the preserve, and prairie dogs inhabit lively colonies.
A four-mile wildlife drive and more than two miles of hiking trails offer access to Sullys Hills habitats. Some of the birds found here in summer are Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole.
Beautiful and historic, this park in western North Dakota is composed of two units about an hour’s drive apart. Both have their attractions and both reward a visit with wildlife including bison, elk, pronghorn, and a wide range of birds.
President Theodore Roosevelt was, in addition to being a strong conservationist, a lifelong birdwatcher. He operated a ranch here in the late 19th century and decided strong action needed to be taken to protect America’s environment from the abuses he saw.
Driving the loop drive in the South Unit and walking trails, including riparian habitat along the Little Missouri River, could bring sightings of Sharp-tailed Grouse, Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper (scarce), Black-billed Cuckoo, Burrowing Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Black-billed Magpie, Rock Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Sprague’s Pipit (scarce), Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow-breasted Chat, Grasshopper Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
The North Unit bird list is very similar. The park road here is out-and-back, not a loop, and features some wonderful overlooks of the Little Missouri River and some excellent hiking trails for birding and more.
There’s a special kind of beauty in the great expanse of this refuge in northwestern North Dakota. In places it’s possible to imagine the landscape of a century or more ago, when the song of Sprague’s Pipit sounded over a far wider range then it does now—when more of America’s grasslands remained wild.
Lostwood’s 27,589 acres encompass more than 14,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie, a true refuge for many grassland species such as Baird’s Sparrow. Dozens of large and small wetlands dot the rolling grassland here, making the refuge a home for waterfowl and shorebirds as well as prairie species.
Lostwood’s seven-mile auto tour route, open from May through September, passes wetlands that can bring sightings of a dozen species of nesting ducks, plus Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Sora, American Avocet, the endangered Piping Plover, Willet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Black Tern, and Nelson’s Sparrow.
On the prairie, breeding species include Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Short-eared Owl, Say’s Phoebe, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow, Baird's Sparrow, Le Conte's Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Bobolink, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Brewer’s Blackbird.
Sharp-tailed Grouse males “dance” at their leks on the refuge, and viewing blinds are available by phone reservation in spring.
Around the beginning of October thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop at Long Lake on their way south, joining the great flocks of geese and ducks here. The thongs of birds at this season make up a highlight of the refuge, but there are many others.
Long Lake’s 16,000-acre expanse is managed in part to benefit shorebirds, and it has been named a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. As many as 20,000 shorebirds stop here in migration, and nesting species include the threatened Piping Plover. On a good day in spring or late summer you might see 20 or more shorebird species here.
Other wetland breeders include Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Virginia Rail, Sora, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Black Tern, Common Tern, Forster’s Tern, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Sharp-tailed Grouse nest at Long Lake, and visitors can reserve a blind from which to watch the males breeding dance. Other grassland birds nesting here include Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Bobolink.
Garrison Dam impounds huge Lake Sakakawea, sprawling across western North Dakota. Like many similar reservoirs in the Midwest, the dam attracts throngs of gull in winter, regularly including rare species.
From viewing areas below Highway 200, the most common gulls are Ring-billed and Herring, but birders sometimes find Black-legged Kittiwake (very rare), Sabine’s (fall), Bonaparte’s, Mew, California, Thayer’s, Iceland, or Glaucous. Dabbling and diving ducks can be common around the dam area.
Aside from winter birding, the dam area can host American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Franklin’s Gull, Caspian Tern, Common Tern, and Forster’s Tern.
The dam area also has a fish hatchery where water remains open in winter, attracting waterfowl and Bald Eagles. Hiking trails offer birding in spring through fall.
Great numbers of waterfowl nest on the 23,000 acres of wetlands on this refuge stretching along the Souris River to the Canadian border. But that barely touches the avian diversity on this rewarding tract.
At 58,700 acres, J. Clark Salyer is the largest national wildlife refuge in North Dakota. It comprises mixed-grass prairie, riparian woodland, marsh, sandhill grassland, as well as impoundments managed for waterfowl and shorebirds. It’s been named an important habitat by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
The 22-mile Scenic Trail auto route passes through most of the refuge habitats. Nine miles north, the five-mile Grassland Trail route traverses prairie adjacent to marsh. In addition, the refuge has two hiking trails and an observation platform.
J. Clark Salyer is a birder’s dream destination. Just a few of the nesting birds are Sharp-tailed Grouse, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American Bittern, White-faced Ibis, Northern Harrier, Virginia’s Rail, Sora, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Black Tern, Forster’s Tern, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole.
Look in prairie habitat for breeding Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow.
Located in southeastern South Dakota about 35 miles southwest of Fargo, Sheyenne National Grassland covers more than 70,000 acres of rolling terrain. Like many national grasslands, the public land is intermixed with private land.
This large expanse hosts North Dakota’s largest population of Greater Prairie-Chicken, as well as several other prairie-specialist birds, including Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Grasshopper Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink.
Patches of riparian forest along the Sheyenne River, as well as other woodlands create a contrasting habitat to the grassland, where birds of local interest nest. Among them are American Woodcock, Black-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Some of these birds might be found at the H.R. Morgan Nature Preserve-Mirror Pool area in the northern part of the grassland. Another good spot is the Oak Leaf Trail, a four-mile loop.
Before exploring the grassland, it’s a good idea to contact the regional office in Lisbon for maps, information, and advice about finding Greater Prairie-Chicken and other species.
Arrowwood, 25 miles north of Jamestown, is one of the best places in the state to see Sharp-tailed Grouse. Very early on spring mornings, the males of this chicken-like bird gather on courtship grounds called leks to dance for the affection of females. Visitors can reserve a blind on the refuge to watch this ritual.
Tens of thousands of geese, Tundra Swans, and ducks gather here in spring and fall, creating a birding experience thrilling for the sheer numbers of birds. Much of this can be seen on the refuge’s 5.5-mile auto tour route. Following this drive in nesting season can offer sightings of ducks such as Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Hooded Merganser, as well as Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, American Avocet, Piping Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Tern, Horned Lark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bobolink.
In marshy areas, birders search for American Bittern, Sora, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, and Nelson’s Sparrow.
The Warbler Woodland Watchable Wildlife Area, on the southeast side of Arrowwood Lake, can be good for migrants in spring and fall, and in summer may have Willow Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Warbling Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, and Orchard Oriole.
Located in the northeastern part of North Dakota, Icelandic State Park and the adjacent Gunlogson Nature Preserve host many species of rare plants as well as several nesting birds that are uncommon in the region, or at the edge of their range.
Moist forests of oak, basswood, elm, and ironwood give the park and preserve a feeling quite different from the grassland of much of the state—like “islands” of deciduous forest in the prairie.
The “drumming” of Ruffed Grouse and the trilling of Veery can be heard here at times, along with the loud call of Pileated Woodpecker. Other notable birds that may be found are Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch.
Just west of Grand Forks, Kellys Slough isn’t an expansive national wildlife refuge; it has only a two-mile auto route and three short walking trails. Nonetheless, it’s one of North Dakota’s top birding destinations.
Twelve species of ducks nest here, with Mallard and Gadwall most abundant. Other nesting ducks include Canvasback, Redhead, and Hooded Merganser. Among the nesters are Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Sora, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Franklin’s Gull.
Kellys Slough is also known as a vital stopover for migrant shorebirds, with more than 20 species often seen in one day in July.
In nesting season, also look here for Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Bald Eagle, Marbled Godwit, Willow Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Bobolink.
The phrase “birding drives Dakota” is a clever play on words and an optimistic claim about the importance of ecotourism in this state. Plus the “birding drives” themselves make up an excellent trio of birding trails. Centered around several national wildlife refuges in southeastern North Dakota, they take in some of the most beautiful and bird-rich prairies and marshes anywhere. The abundance of birds here in summer may be a shock when you see it for the first time. There are ducks on every pothole and pond, often including pintails, gadwalls, teal, canvasbacks, and many more. Clouds of Franklin’s gulls, patterned with black hoods and frosted wingtips, circle and soar over marshes a thousand miles from the coast, firmly putting the term seagull to rest. Western grebes splash noisily across open lakes in fast-moving courtship dances. At the same time more sedate Wilson’s phalaropes pirouette on smaller ponds. The area also holds elusive grassland species that are prize finds for traveling birders: Nelson’s sharp-tailed, Baird’s, and Le Conte’s sparrows all sing from the tops of weed stalks, while Sprague’s pipits pour out their liquid songs as they flutter high above the swaying grasslands. —Kenn Kaufman