Venture to North Dakota

June 20-28, 2021

Narrative and Photos by Clifton Avery

Our weeklong tour in North Dakota focused on birding in the central ‘Prairies and Potholes’ region all the way west to where the landscape dramatically shifts to the Badlands. Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, Piping Plover, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Long-billed Curlew were a few of the target species we hoped to encounter.

The night before the first day of the trip we all arrived in Bismarck and had dinner together and got to know one another a bit, sharing our hopes and excitement for the upcoming trip.  The next morning, we began heading west, crossing to the west side of the Missouri River and birding in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Piping Plover, Least Tern, 5 species of swallow and a nice variety of eastern US birds gave us a nice start to the trip. Lunch at Sweet Briar Lake was beautiful as we observed American White Pelicans slowly soaring over the water. We finished out the day birding some local lakes around Dickinson where we would be staying the next couple nights.

The next morning we began birding in the Little Missouri River National Grassland. A small herd of Pronghorn crossed over the vast prairie as well as a pair Gray Partridges. We had our first Sprague’s Pipit, a lifer for many!

We then headed into the Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was hot but the scenery was stunning. A truly desolate landscape of rocky peaks and buttes with very little vegetation except along the Little Missouri River where Cottonwoods and other plants could subsist.

We were birding in the south unit of Theo Roosevelt NP and we drove the 25 mile loop within the park that has numerous pull-offs and hiking trails to explore for birds and other wildlife. Small herds of Bison roamed throughout the park giving us a glimpse of what life used to be here hundreds of years ago before people hunted all of the bison out. Say’s Phoebe, Violet-green Swallow, and Mountain Bluebird were some nice finds within the park.

The next day we returned to the Little Missouri River National Grassland in hopes of finding the range-restricted Baird’s Sparrow. No luck but we still found lots of nice prairie birds including our first Dickcissels of the trip. Before entering the national park we stopped just outside of the entrance at the Medora water treatment plant and had our only Bullock’s Oriole of the trip fly by. This proved to be the hottest day of the trip, but we still managed to find some good birds including a handful of Rock Wrens and a pair of Prairie Falcons.

Midafternoon we began driving to the southwest corner of the state and on the way down we stopped off to see some reported Burrowing Owls. We also had our first Chestnut-collared Longspurs. We arrived exhausted from the heat and long day in Bowman where we had a quick dinner and turned in for the night.

We began the next morning birding the Bowman water treatment plant. A pair of Wilson’s Phalarope and their newborn young walked around at the edge of the water giving us excellent views of the little fluffball fledglings. We then headed towards the southwest corner of the state birding in the Rhame Prairie. The calls of Long-billed Curlew overhead brought our vehicles to a screeching halt and we were lucky to have a few curlews fly in close and land. As you move closer to the Montana border the vegetation begins to change into sagebrush habitat, which is where one can find Brewer’s Sparrows. We had a few Brewer’s Sparrows as well as our first Ferruginous Hawks.

We dipped into South Dakota and Montana for a quick bird list and photo before beginning the long drive to Jamestown. On the way we stopped off again in the Little Missouri River National Grassland and finally got glimpses of a Baird’s Sparrow. The effort in viewing this bird involved me running around in the grasslands trying to flush the bird in the direction of the group. It kind of worked! We had lunch under some large cottonwoods and saw our only Red-headed Woodpecker of the trip there. A big storm was brewing, so we got back on the road, had dinner in Bismarck, and rolled into Jamestown as the sun was setting.

The next day was our first day of birding in the pothole region but first we had to stop at the world’s largest buffalo to examine the enormous statue. Surprisingly, we did pick up a few new birds for the trip at the buffalo statue such as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

The next stop was Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge and it was spectacular. Dozens upon dozens of Marsh and Sedge Wrens sang from the vast wetlands that lined the lakes which housed thousands of waterfowl. We had lunch at the visitor center which was closed and it was raining, but we spread out our picnic under an awning and enjoyed watching a colony of Purple Martins and a nesting Say’s Phoebe as we ate our sandwiches. After lunch we continued to bird around Arrowwood flushing a roosting Great Horned Owl before the rain forced us to move on.

Our final stop of the day was Chase Lake NWR where we continued to see a large diversity of waterfowl. We also had our first American Avocet. Four Black-crowned Night-Herons flew over, another first, before we had to turn towards our hotel. We had dinner at a classic roadside diner before arriving at our hotel in Steele, ND.

The pothole birding continued to be the theme the next day as we stopped at numerous bodies of water ranging from small ponds barely bigger than our vehicles to vast lakes such as Horsehead Lake. Enormous numbers of waterfowl continued to rule the day but we also had some other highlights. We got our best looks at a handful of Sora as they called and foraged among the wetlands. Dozens and dozens of Yellow-headed Blackbirds stunned us with their beautiful colors and caused some of us to cringe whenever they vocalized. For the record, I think their call is wonderful!

Black Tern, Ferruginous Hawk, and Canvasback were two of the favorite sightings for the day. Horsehead Lake was especially spectacular and we had our first Nelson’s Sparrow of the trip. Our final stop of the day was Dewald Slough and it didn’t disappoint either giving us highlights such as White-faced Ibis, Dickcissel, Common Tern, and Caspian Tern. We drove to Bismarck for dinner at a cool brewery with excellent pizza. Night in Steele.

Our final full day of birding in North Dakota was mostly birding the potholes trying to pick up two targets, LeConte’s Sparrow and Clark’s Grebe. We had some luck finding a Clark’s Grebe at the first stop of the day. We also had a Least Bittern fly through the marsh, a first for the trip as well! Chestnut-collared Longspurs gave the photographers good opportunities at the Kunkel School Prairie. We had our lunch back in Steele at a small park where a few California Gulls watched us to see if we left any food scraps. Back to Horsehead Lake and the surrounding area to search for LeConte’s Sparrow but we had no luck. However, we did find displaying Wilson’s Snipe and large numbers of Dickcissels and other grassland/marsh birds. We returned to the same restaurant in Bismarck as the night before because it was so delicious! A wonderful final meal together.

Here are a few more photos of birds from the trip that were not mentioned above:

Our final day of the trip began with us birding a slough just outside of Bismarck where we had nice numbers of Sora calling. Then we turned south and stopped at Long Lake NWR, which had spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We drove south all the way to the Beaver Creek Recreation Area, a section of the Missouri River, where we found some staked out Bell’s Vireos. We also found a number of new birds for the trip including Blue Grosbeak and Eastern Wood-Pewee. We spread out our picnic lunch and enjoyed one another’s company one more time before heading back to Bismarck and departing for home. We ended the trip with 160 species and lots of lifers for everyone, well except Simon!

Complete Species List:

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Wood Duck
  3. Blue-winged Teal
  4. Northern Shoveler
  5. Gadwall
  6. American Wigeon
  7. Mallard
  8. Northern Pintail
  9. Green-winged Teal
  10. Canvasback
  11. Redhead
  12. Ring-necked Duck
  13. Lesser Scaup
  14. Bufflehead
  15. Hooded Merganser
  16. Common Merganser
  17. Ruddy Duck
  18. Ring-necked Pheasant
  19. Gray Partridge
  20. Sharp-tailed Grouse
  21. Pied-billed Grebe
  22. Red-necked Grebe
  23. Eared Grebe
  24. Western Grebe
  25. Clark’s Grebe
  26. Rock Pigeon
  27. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  28. Mourning Dove
  29. Common Nighthawk
  30. Chimney Swift
  31. Virginia Rail
  32. Sora
  33. American Coot
  34. American Avocet
  35. Piping Plover
  36. Killdeer
  37. Upland Sandpiper
  38. Long-billed Curlew
  39. Marbled Godwit
  40. Least Sandpiper
  41. Wilson’s Snipe
  42. Wilson’s Phalarope
  43. Spotted Sandpiper
  44. Solitary Sandpiper
  45. Greater Yellowlegs
  46. Willet
  47. Lesser Yellowlegs
  48. Franklin’s Gull
  49. Ring-billed Gull
  50. California Gull
  51. Least Tern
  52. Caspian Tern
  53. Black Tern
  54. Common Tern
  55. Forster’s Tern
  56. Double-crested Cormorant
  57. American White Pelican
  58. American Bittern
  59. Great Blue Heron
  60. Great Egret
  61. Snowy Egret
  62. Cattle Egret
  63. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  64. Least Bittern
  65. White-faced Ibis
  66. Turkey Vulture
  67. Osprey
  68. Golden Eagle
  69. Northern Harrier
  70. Bald Eagle
  71. Swainson’s Hawk
  72. Red-tailed Hawk
  73. Ferruginous Hawk
  74. Great Horned Owl
  75. Burrowing Owl
  76. Belted Kingfisher
  77. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  78. Red-headed Woodpecker
  79. Downy Woodpecker
  80. Hairy Woodpecker
  81. Northern Flicker
  82. American Kestrel
  83. Merlin
  84. Prairie Falcon
  85. Western Wood-Pewee
  86. Eastern Wood-Pewee
  87. Willow Flycatcher
  88. Least Flycatcher
  89. Say’s Phoebe
  90. Western Kingbird
  91. Eastern Kingbird
  92. Bell’s Vireo
  93. Warbling Vireo
  94. Red-eyed Vireo
  95. Loggerhead Shrike
  96. Blue Jay
  97. Black-billed Magpie
  98. American Crow
  99. Common Raven
  100. Black-capped Chickadee
  101. Horned Lark
  102. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  103. Purple Martin
  104. Tree Swallow
  105. Violet-green Swallow
  106. Bank Swallow
  107. Barn Swallow
  108. Cliff Swallow
  109. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  110. White-breasted Nuthatch
  111. Rock Wren
  112. House Wren
  113. Sedge Wren
  114. Marsh Wren
  115. European Starling
  116. Gray Catbird
  117. Brown Thrasher
  118. Mountain Bluebird
  119. American Robin
  120. Cedar Waxwing
  121. House Sparrow
  122. Sprague’s Pipit
  123. House Finch
  124. American Goldfinch
  125. Chestnut-collared Longspur
  126. Grasshopper Sparrow
  127. Chipping Sparrow
  128. Clay-colored Sparrow
  129. Field Sparrow
  130. Brewer’s Sparrow
  131. Lark Sparrow
  132. Lark Bunting
  133. Vesper Sparrow
  134. Nelson’s Sparrow
  135. Savannah Sparrow
  136. Baird’s Sparrow
  137. Song Sparrow
  138. Swamp Sparrow
  139. Spotted Towhee
  140. Yellow-breasted Chat
  141. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  142. Bobolink
  143. Western Meadowlark
  144. Orchard Oriole
  145. Bullock’s Oriole
  146. Baltimore Oriole
  147. Red-winged Blackbird
  148. Brown-headed Cowbird
  149. Brewer’s Blackbird
  150. Common Grackle
  151. Black-and-white Warbler
  152. Common Yellowthroat
  153. American Redstart
  154. Yellow Warbler
  155. Black-headed Grosbeak
  156. Blue Grosbeak
  157. Lazuli Bunting
  158. Indigo Bunting
  159. Dickcissel

2 thoughts on “Venture to North Dakota

  1. Awesome trip all around. Knowledgeable leaders, good lunches, clean accomodations, wonderful get along group dynamics, amazing landscapes and birds. Nicely written and accurate description in the Blog and Bird List Clifton! This was my first Ventures Trip and I’ve already aigned up for another!

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