Saturday, June 21, 2008

Trip to Agassiz NWR, then North Dakota

Wed to Friday, June 11-13, 2008

Wednesday continued - I had spent a day at Agassiz on a previous trip, and loved the place. I wanted one of their baseball hats but they were sold out. It was blowing about thirty mph, but I was still able to get some good duck tics when I could find clusters hiding near cover. South of the official NWR is a WMA, and I had some info that I should check that. On the way down a storm was piling up, and bay the time I headed north the rain had started. There was a parking area with a modern outhouse, so I got that between me and the wind and hunkered down for an outrageous storm through the night, severe wind and continuous flashing and thundering until almost dawn.

Thursday - What I discovered then was that the lot I was in was at the beginning of a trail along a levee with woodland, long but narrow, on one side and some open boggy habitat on the other side. The trees had some fresh wind broken limbs, but the path was open. I spent about an hour there before heading back to the VC about 7 when they opened. Actually I was enough early that I had time to hike the short woodland trail by the HQ as well, which was pretty productive. Some Tundra Swans had shown up in a pool across the road, with a fledgling. In an hour there were three pairs and two young visible, and they said inside that this was their first day in public. I did my normal quizzing of the desk folk, mostly trying to find locations for Hooded Mergansers and Pintails, about the only ducks still missing on the MN list. I'd been lucky with the cool wet spring running late and had found Greater Scaup and others that should have been gone. They also gave locations for a missing Tern and an uncommon gull, but I dipped on those. They were very pleased at the report of Western Grebe's and, no, I couldn't make any into a Clark's. Got a heads-up on Garbled Modwits at a road crossing, which had been driven off for the morning by a working read crew, and was sent back to the WMA for my ducks-of-desire. I drove that levee to the bitter control burn end, no luck, but did get a Red-shouldered Hawk, not on the refuge list and well out of its range. A good look, enough that I saw that the window marks on the upper wing are actually crescent shaped. A nice detail for a god to hide in.

I ended up seeing 114 species in MN in less than three days and two nights, Brought the overall total to 174, 40% of the list, and made lots of motivation to go back. Especially when I realized that I had very few common eastern woodland birds since I'd spent no time in the southeastern corner where it's most like, say, Arkansas or Pennsylvania.

It's about an hour drive to North Dakota from Agassiz, not long even studying puddles for d-o-d. About the first bird in ND, seen at the first crossroad stop sign, was a prairie Falcon lifting off. It took a little while to puzzle out the ID, and I wasn't fully certain until I saw another the next day. My first main goal was Sully's Hill NWR, and was really pleased when I got there to find they were having a birding festival the next day and through the weekend. As mentioned before, ND was the worst challenge for the trip, needing 91 species to break 100. The thought of going around some good habitat with local birders was a breath of luck. Sully's is kind of like Waubay further south with extensive woodlands and wetlands in a mostly grassland area, and probably as far west as they can be found in any amount in ND. So I signed up for two trips/hikes, birded around the grounds near the VC, not so good, late afternoon and warm, then back into town which was Devil's Lake (a bastard English translation of the native name "Spirit Lake") for some food and Wifi in a WalMart parking lot. Then west to Graham Island SP, where the birding was OK, new tics, but not much variety, the campground was too groomed, and the wind didn't help. Did I mention that it had stayed relentlessly windy all day. Good showers and good sleep.

Friday - Up really early and back through town, grab a muffin, and make the early festival bird walk. It was everything I'd hoped for, many tics, some I would have never figured out without local help, like Northern Waterthrush (who knew?) a roosting Common Nighthawk, learned how to tell it and the two Wills apart while they hunkered, Limited Warbler variety, but good sparrows. Some ducks. Lots of good birds on the feeders at the VC, including House Finches, Clay-colored Sparrows, and Pine Siskins. Then I had to decide whether to stick around for the bus trip the next day, or try to find the wetlands it targeted on my own. I managed to find a local expert and quizzed him hard just before he had to give a talk, which might explain why the map he drew me had part of it with north and south reversed. That cost most of an hour before I finally found the right roads, such things used to be trivial aggravations, but the new world petroleum order made them expensive aggravations. Anyway I got some very good birds on small mudflats, Willets and Phalaropes, a couple of herons, the beginning of gazillions of Eared Grebes, and a LeConte's Sparrow. Made it worth it after all.

Then about three hours driving into a much more thinly inhabited biome, serious Short Grass Prairie, high and flat and still windy. There are four big refuges spread north of Minot ND, and the first I hit from the east was Salyer NWR. I spent three hors on their tour route, filled in lots of ducks and other wetland critters, got lots of practice on Marsh and Sedge wrens. Salyer is on the west side of the east/west Marsh Wren divide, unofficial, but eventually it'll turn into a countable split. From there it was west through Minot, supper, skip Upper Souris, I'd been there before, and on to Kenmare in blinding but localized rain. Just as I was coming out of the rain edge, I had a Raven over the truck chased by blackbirds, they seemed tiny. In Kenmare I stopped for gas, was invited to park behind the station when I asked about camping, it was a 24/7 truck stop, but not too noisy or floodlit, so pretty comfortable. Did an exploratory drive through town to the DesLacs NWR headquarters, got brochures, checked out a road along the eastern edge of the southern wetland, found it way muddy from the recent rain, so headed back to the station. I sat on the tailgate and watched the sunset at almost 10pm, a wonder of the northern latitude and the west edge of the time zone.


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