Prairie Finale

Two days ago marked the end of our 4.5-month prairie trip itinerary, in north-central Montana. This post will cover the last 3.5 weeks, while another post will summarize the prairies trip as a whole, with reflections on how the trip went, and what we though were the best spots.

From northwest North Dakota, we traveled east to J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), an excellent birding location. The highlight here was Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, but there were also good numbers of migrant shorebirds including a few Hudsonian Godwits and hundreds of Marbled Godwits. We paddled 10 miles round trip on the Souris (Mouse) River in the refuge. In camp, at Lake Metigoshe State Park (SP), the presumably nesting Red-necked Grebes frequently gave their bizarre vocalization.

We next headed south, to central North Dakota, and camped on the Missouri River for several days, exploring Cross Ranch SP and three nearby preserves managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In the John E. Williams TNC Preserve we saw Piping Plovers on their alkaline lake breeding grounds, and also enjoyed Chestnut-collared Longspurs. A pond next to the Davis Ranch TNC Preserve had 11 species of shorebirds, including Baird’s Sandpiper.

Bobolink, Zimmerman Prairie TNC Preserve, MN
Bobolink, Zimmerman Prairie TNC Preserve, MN

From there we headed east, to Sheyenne National Grassland (NG), in the southeast corner of North Dakota. This area had beautiful sandhills habitat with Bur Oak groves. We also enjoyed the moist woodlands of the adjacent  Pigeon Point TNC Preserve, which featured some eastern plants we’d not seen for a while. But one morning we awoke to find one of the tires flat. I raised the truck up using the Ford factory mechanical jack, which barely lifted the wheel off the ground. After removing the flat tire, I started bringing the spare tire over when the jack broke, and the truck dropped to the ground, landing on the hub, and bending a brake cover. Fortunately we were out of harm’s way, but it was scary!

The American Automobile Association (AAA) bungled the dispatch, not mentioning what I repeatedly emphasized about the weight of the vehicle and the fact that the axle was on the ground. So the first tow truck could not do anything to help us, and it was just under 7 hours before the vehicle was raised and the spare tire was in place. We then spent most of the next day in Fargo, ND, getting a new tire – it’s over $300 for these 18-inch Kevlar beasts. While in Fargo, we also arranged for a windshield replacement, as a flying piece of gravel had cracked ours a few weeks earlier.

Sedge Wren, Zimmerman Prairie TNC Preserve, MN
Sedge Wren, Zimmerman Prairie TNC Preserve, MN

Our last few tallgrass prairie sites were four lovely TNC preserves in western Minnesota: Agassiz Dunes, Zimmerman Prairie, Frenchman’s Bluff, and Twin Valley Prairie.  Agassiz Dunes are a remnant of sands from glacial Lake Agassiz, which was larger in surface area than the Great Lakes combined. At Twin Valley we found 33 species of native wildflowers in bloom, our best total on a single walk during the trip (though a similar number could probably have been seen at Pawnee Buttes, CO, on a properly designed hike). We had our first difficulty of the trip finding campsites during this time, but discovered a fine town park in Fertile, MN, where we stayed 5 nights, saw a Mink, had a nice selection of birds, and recorded 5 of 6 bats occurring in the region.

With a little time and mileage to spare, we headed 200 miles east, out of the prairies and into central Minnesota, to see McGregor Marsh again. Exactly 30 years earlier we had visited here, looking for two challenging, mostly nocturnal birds, Yellow Rail and LeConte’s Sparrow. There was an all-night laundromat in the small town of McGregor, so we put in our wash at 1 a.m., then headed to the marsh and heard both species, and saw the rail. We then returned to the laundromat, dried and folded the clothes, and headed back out at first light to see the sparrows, where we heard them at night. This strategy was successful, and that six hours probably represents our most accomplished multi-tasking ever!

Small Purple-fringed Orchis, Platanthera psycodes, Rice Lake NWR, MN

But as we knew in advance, late July is too late in the season for either species to be vocalizing much, and despite getting up at 2 a.m. two mornings in a row, we had no luck, though we did hear numbers of Sedge Wrens and Alder Flycatchers. Before leaving the area we toured Rice Lake NWR, where we finally saw Wild Rice, an attractive native grass species from which the culinary wild rice is harvested.

Having strayed east, we spent the next two days driving west and somewhat north to Grasslands National Park, just over the Montana border in Saskatchewan. The East Block of this park has scenic badlands and expanses of rolling mixed-grass prairie, while the West Block is noted for wildlife. Highlights here were seeing both Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit in the East Block, and paddling the Frenchman River and seeing teepee rings in the West Block. (Teepee rings are roughly circular arrangements of rocks used by Native Americans to weight down the perimeter of their conical tents.) Our last day in Grasslands NP was overcast and genuinely pleasant, prompting us to review our records. We found that it broke a streak of 32 consecutive days of decidedly uncomfortable heat!

Lilium michiganense, Rice Lake NWR, MN
Michigan Lily, Rice Lake NWR, MN

From Grasslands, we returned to Montana and spent an evening looking for Swift Fox. Around midnight we had an excellent sighting of one, with better views than we had in New Mexico! That officially ended our prairie trip itinerary, so we found a shady campground with a signal, where we are spending a few days getting caught up after quite a time with deficient connectivity. We now have a bit over a week during which we can dawdle in Montana, looking for Western Small-footed Myotis, before starting to head farther west for the total solar eclipse. We have seen only annular solar eclipses before, so this is an exciting prospect!

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