When they think of North Dakota, many people embrace its peaceful environment. They escape the stresses of everyday life by standing on the North Dakota prairie. It's green with native grasses, the breeze blows through their hair, and the birds sing in this unspoiled land of wonder.
Others see in the North Dakota wilderness exciting opportunities to quench their thirst for adventure. To track something until they find it. To return home with a feeling of triumph - and maybe a photograph - of their accomplishment.
Both the oneness with nature and the excitement of achieving a long-sought-after goal contribute to the boom in the nature-based tourism industry. In that industry, the most popular activity is birding. During the past 20 years, birding has become one of America's fastest-growing outdoor activities. A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that 66 million Americans enjoy wildlife-related activities that include birding. These 66 million are about 31 percent of Americans, and they spend $38 billion each year!
According to Paul Konrad, an ornithologist, photographer, and former editor of WildBird magazine, there are two primary types of birding. One involves traveling out in the field, and the other is observing, feeding, or photographing birds in a specific place such as a yard, office grounds, or schoolyard. "Birding is usually a primary activity, but it can also be enjoyed while participating in other activities, such as hiking, backpacking, cycling, canoeing, boating, camping, and auto touring," Konrad says.
Some people who are very serious about birding are willing to jump in their cars at a moment's notice just to find a bird they want to add to their life lists.
A premier destination for birders
North Dakota is quickly becoming a premier destination for birders, and the state has a lot to gain economically from them. A 2001 national survey of fishing, hunting, and wildlife-associated recreation found that 190,000 people participated in wildlife-watching activities in North Dakota, including observing and photographing wildlife. The study also found that residents and non-residents spent $351 million on wildlife recreation in the state.
Other nationwide studies show that birders account for $38 billion in retail sales, $85 billion in economic output, $13 billion in state and federal income taxes, and the creation of 863,406 new jobs. When it comes to birding-related trip expenses, a bulk of the money - 37 percent - is spent on food. Lodging follows at 25 percent, with transportation at 24 percent.
North Dakota is starting to reap some of the economic benefits birding has to offer, thanks to the recent charge by people like Konrad. Initially, local communities worked together to promote birding by using Konrad's plans to develop a series of "birding drives." Since then, Steele, Bismarck-Mandan, Drake-Anamoose, Jamestown, and Carrington have developed birding drives under Konrad's leadership. These birding drives were developed so tourists who visit the state will know when to come, where to go, and how to find a remarkable variety of birds.
During recent years, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and North Dakota Tourism jumped on board, offering momentum to the birding movement. Game and Fish has organized field trips and printed several birding publications, including a statewide guidebook entitled Birding in North Dakota, which provides a wealth of information and describes 63 prime birding locations across the state. It has also added birding to its list of volunteer education topics, and developed a backpack filled with its birding publications, identification slides, a CD, binoculars, and field guide to assist in both classroom and field lessons on birding.
North Dakota Tourism is doing its part by pitching birding spots in North Dakota to outdoor writers by including birding in the North Dakota mix at the travel and sports shows its staff attend. Tourism also recently updated the birding section of its website (www.ndtourism.com). This resource features birding events held around the state and describes the best birding destinations across the state - again, the product of Konrad's input.
North Dakota Tourism also publishes printed materials that feature birding. The 2005 travel guide features a two-page spread about birding, which Konrad prepared. Some 350,000 of these guides are mailed to interested travelers each year. And Tourism, in conjunction with the North Dakota League of Cities and other partners, is preparing a brand-new "Birding Along the Lewis and Clark Trail" brochure, which is scheduled to be printed in Mayand will be available throughout the state at rest areas and visitors centers.
A vast variety
Jeb Williams, an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, says the reason the state holds so much promise as a birding destination is because of the vast variety of birds that can be encountered here.
"North Dakota has prairies, wetlands, Badlands, river bottoms, and forested areas that offer a great amount of wildlife diversity," Williams says. "If you want to find sparrows, visit North Dakota's grasslands. If you want to find waterfowl or shorebirds, visit the Prairie Pothole Region. One of the reasons the state is so attractive to serious birders is the opportunity to discover something different each day."
Among the most impressive attractions in North Dakota are its 63 national wildlife refuges - more than any other state. In addition, North Dakota provides a wealth of public lands for birders to enjoy, including wildlife management areas, state parks, waterfowl management areas, national grasslands, and a national park.
Konrad travels extensively, having visited 44 countries and all seven continents. "Birds are the main reason I travel," he said. Despite all his travels, Konrad maintains that North Dakota is the best birding location in the Northern Great Plains, and one of the best in the country. In an article he published in WildBird magazine in 1996, Konrad ranked Kidder County, North Dakota, as number eight on the top 50 birding hot spots in North America. This ranking was due to its prime prairie pothole habitat. "Today, I would move it up to number seven, and I would include the entire state because of all the great locations, such as the Turtle Mountains, Badlands, Pembina Gorge and the northeast corner of the state, and the Sheyenne National Grasslands," he says. "That's phenomenal, because there aren't only 50 hot spots, there are hundreds, even thousands of prime birding locations. I would also put North Dakota into a worldwide context," he adds. "It's a great destination, especially for Europeans, because North Dakota attracts birds they find very different from European species."
Listing is a popular way to keep track of the birds encountered in a certain location, day, trip, or lifetime. In 2003, three of the most active birders in North Dakota listed more than 400 different species of birds. "That is a benchmark for North Dakota," Konrad says. "It is a great testament to the state's avian diversity."
Williams says the number of out-of-state birders has increased significantly. "The number of birders is hard to gauge because unlike hunting and fishing a license isn't required, so there is no real way to track numbers of visiting birders," he says.
Konrad believes that increased efforts to promote birding-based tourism through an appreciably increased national and international marketing effort will bring "flocks" of birders to North Dakota. "We need to concentrate on attracting birders to the state. Once they get here, we've found they have a 100 percent satisfaction rate," he says. "They are thrilled with the birds, the landscapes, and the people."
Rendezvous Region Bird Club
With the good wishes of Governor John Hoeven and the city council's approval, Edinburg, population 284, was declared the "Bird Capital of North Dakota" last August.
It is only fitting that a town with this honor be home to a local bird club, and it is - the Rendezvous Region Bird Club.
One of a handful of bird clubs in North Dakota, the Rendezvous Region Bird club has some 20 members who regularly attend its meetings, which are appropriately held just outside the "bird room" of the Edinburg General Store. (The bird room is a 12 by 30 foot room full of bird food, feeders, birdhouses, figurines, books, binoculars - anything that has to do with birds.)
Members of the bird club come from all over northeastern North Dakota, driving as far as 100 miles each way every month. The club has birders at every level - some are casual backyard birders, some are very serious, while some go along on the outings for the pure joy seeing the different bird species.
Outings are quite regular, and are held once or twice a month March or April through October. These excursions begin at 6:30 or 7 a.m., and are held in areas in the northeastern part of the state in places such as Kelly's Slough, the Pembina Gorge, or local farmers' Conservation Reserve Program land.
Every fall, the group invites the public to attend a special birding presentation given by an expert in the field. Because this has received such a positive response, plans for a fall birding festival in the area are also in the works for this year.
In addition to all these activities, every year the Rendezvous Region Bird Club conducts the area's official annual Christmas bird count, sanctioned by the National Audubon Society. During this event, these birders join with bird lovers from around the world who count every species of bird found in their local 15-mile radius.
Janne Myrdal, the club's unofficial leader, says that a small $5 to $10 annual fee to cover mailings is all it costs to join. And, there are no officers and no bylaws to complicate things. "We're just a bunch of people who love the outdoors and getting together to share it."
For more about the Bird Club, contact the Edinburg General Store, 701-993-8122.
Distinguished Ornithologist, Editor, and Wildlife Photographer Returns to North Dakota
During the past five years, North Dakota has come into its own as a first-class birding destination. This recent charge to attract birders from all over the world did not happen by accident. It took the careful planning of several local, state, and federal agencies, and it was inspired in large part by world-renowned birder, wildlife biologist, writer, editor, and photographer Paul Konrad.
Konrad is a native North Dakotan who grew up in Bismarck and graduated from North Dakota State University. He began traveling abroad to conduct research on birds in southern Africa in 1978-79, and hasn't stopped since then. Konrad says he "migrates like birds" and has lived in Colorado, Arizona, California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Mexico.
While living in southern California, Konrad served as the editor of WildBird magazine for eight years. During his tenure, WildBird was the largest birding magazine in the United States with a half million readers, and it was the only monthly birding publication.
In addition to being a lifelong birder, Konrad has 30 years of professional experience as an ornithologist and photographer. He is also one of the most published wildlife writers in the country, with more than 400 articles, 1,100 photographs, 22 research publications, seven web sites, and one book published to date.
Most recently, he returned to North Dakota in 1999 to continue his wildlife-oriented work. Today, Konrad is an avid promoter of nature-based tourism in North Dakota; his newest interest is developing community-based birding drives.
Konrad currently lives in the town of Kulm, in southeastern North Dakota, during what he calls its "habitable seasons," and "migrates" to Southern California and northern Baja, Mexico, during winter.
"I appreciate the opportunities of living and working in rural North Dakota where it is easy to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities - especially the super birding, including great bird photography," Konrad says.
His favorite birding locations? "Southern Africa, southeast Peru, Panama, northern Australia, and North Dakota, of course!"
Visit Konrad's website: www.wildlifeadventures.biz.
Birding Hot Spots
Jeb Williams, an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, credits North Dakota's exceptional habitat for the diversity of species birders come to the state to see. North Dakota has 63 national wildlife refuges, and these are among the state's birding "hot spots." Williams says some of the best refuges, as well as some other "hot spots" are:
- Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Medina This refuge boasts the largest colony of nesting white pelicans in North America. It is also home to the rare Piping Plover, and Baird's Sparrow and Sprague's Pipit, two of the state's most sought-after birds.
- Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, Kenmare This refuge is a mixture of native prairie and potholes. Its natural areas are a wonderful staging and breeding ground for waterfowl, and its prairie is known for its Sprague's Pipit and Baird's Sparrow habitat.
- Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Moffit This is a tremendous area for shorebirds because of the variety of habitat. It contains both temporary and seasonal wetlands, which are ideal for the shorebirds that use their long bills to feed on the many invertebrates in the muddy, shallow areas.
- Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, Minot Like the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, the Upper Souris refuge contains natural prairie, which is good habitat for the Sprague's Pipit and Baird's Sparrow. Williams says anytime those two birds are in a site's equation, it is considered a "hot spot" because they bring lots of people from long distances to see them. The Upper Souris area is also well known for its waterfowl breeding and staging areas.
- Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, Coleharbor This refuge, too, has native prairie and wetlands on its landscape. It is famous for its many species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds.
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora This area has a different landscape than many of the other birding "hot spots." It is located in western North Dakota, which offers a different habitat than the rest of the state. Williams says once birders enter the Badlands, they start to see species that aren't found elsewhere in North Dakota, such as the Rock Wren and Golden Eagle.
- Prairie Pothole Region North Dakota is considered the "duck factory of North America," and is second in duck production only to Alaska. Besides ducks, shorebirds also rely on its native grasslands and wetlands. This area provides great habitat for many of North Dakota's many bird species.
- Big Sage Area, extreme southwest North Dakota
This area is known for its Sage Grouse population. In general, North Dakota doesn't have a very big Sage Grouse population - it has decreased significantly over the years. Extreme southwestern North Dakota is one of the few places to view this bird. Williams says a major effort to maintain this bird's population is needed.
North Dakota has many more birding hot spots where people can see the state's hundreds of bird species. More information about the best places to bird in North Dakota is in the free handbook Birding in North Dakota. It is available from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service Dakota Prairie Grasslands office.
What has happened to the Meadowlark?
One of North Dakota's best loved birds is the Western Meadowlark. According to Shane Molander, a reference specialist with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the Western Meadowlark was chosen as North Dakota's state bird by the 13th Legislative Assembly in 1947, because House members believed it to be truly symbolic of the state and its people. The Western Meadowlark has been described as fearless, abundant, and easily recognized by its loud, cheerful song. How this relates to North Dakota's people is up to individual interpretation.
Over the last few years, many have noticed the absence of this bird, which at one time was one of state's most prevalent. Is this disappearance just our imagination? Dan Svingen, a wildlife biologist with Dakota Prairie Grasslands, says this is actually happening - and it's pretty dramatic.
"Some 30 years ago, when driving along the highway, it wasn't uncommon to see a Western Meadowlark on every third fencepost. That's no longer the case," Svingen says. "This summer, another birder and I went out looking, and drove 16 miles without seeing a single meadowlark."
Svingen says that while there has been a lot of publicity about the decline of the neotropical birds, such as warblers and orioles, the decline of grassland birds is even more severe. This decline includes the Western Meadowlark. There are several reasons for this phenomenon:
- The loss of native habitat on both the breeding ground and wintering ground. Meadowlarks winter in the southern plains and the plateaus of Mexico. Much of this area is now plowed or brushed over.
- The loss of suitable tame grasslands. Even though meadowlarks prefer native prairie to acres enrolled in the popular land conservation program commonly referred to as CRP, the CRP areas are still much better than active cropland. As CRP acres age, however, vegetative litter and dead grass pile up to the extent that these areas become unsuitable for the species. Meadowlarks spend most of their lives walking, and with only a one-inch stride, it is difficult for the birds to climb over the mounds of debris.
- Over the next few years, with a great deal of CRP land expiring, Western Meadowlarks will be affected by the change in use. If the land is converted to pasture for grazing, the birds will benefit. If it is converted into cropland, the fields that once had value for the meadowlarks will be lost.
In response to the declining number of Western Meadowlarks and other prairie bird species, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is in the process of writing an all-bird conservation plan, which will touch on all of the state's 400 species, and especially the 100 which are of concern. And, while Svingen says it's probably not possible to bring the Western Meadowlark population back to what it was in the 1950s, increased conservation efforts and mitigation could significantly increase today's numbers. This would surely be a cause for North Dakotans to sing a loud, cheerful song.
Remarkable Birds Found in North Dakota
Why are North Dakota's birds so attractive to birders - residents and non-residents alike? We can boast some of the most spectacular, secretive, migratory, and rarest birds anywhere! What's so interesting about North Dakota's birds? According to Paul Konrad, there is no end to the excitement North Dakota species offer birders. Here are some examples:
Regal Birds of Prey
Ferruginous Hawks, the largest hawks in North America, with a wingspan of nearly five feet, are one of the most spectacular birds found in the state. The largest nesting population of Ferruginous Hawks is in central North Dakota. These highly adaptable birds build their sizeable nests in trees, on steep hillsides, on haystacks and rock piles, and even in metal powerline towers.
Swainson's Hawks are more common and widespread in North Dakota, and like Ferruginous Hawks, they feed on small mammals. This long-distance migrator nests in the western United States and spends North Dakota's winters in the grasslands of northern Argentina, where it is summer.
North Dakota can boast more than 20 species of sparrows. Because some species are difficult to identify by sight alone, birders use their songs to differentiate between similar species and find where they are hiding. Three sparrows that attract birders from far and wide to North Dakota are Baird's Sparrows, LeConte's Sparrows, and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows.
Sharp-tailed Grouse, native to North Dakota, also attract birders, along with Grey Partridges, which were introduced from central Europe. They thrive in habitat that provides a mixture of grasslands with some agriculture.
Long Distance Migrants
Hudsonian Godwits and Buff-breasted Sandpipers are long- distance migrators that spend North Dakota's winter in the southern coastal marshes of Argentina in South America. They migrate across North America, stopping in North Dakota in the spring and sometimes during late summer. These remarkable shorebirds nest in the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska, where they are very rarely seen. However, they are relatively easy to find in North Dakota during appropriate migration periods.
Whooping Cranes are one of the rarest birds in the world, as well as the tallest birds in North America, at almost five feet. These captivating birds migrate through North Dakota en route between their nesting range in the Northwest Territories of Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Only 14 Whooping Cranes were found during a 1941 census, but with concentrated efforts to bolster their numbers, the Whooping Crane population has slowly but steadily increased to more than 200 today.
Cold Weather Birds
The most spectacular winter visitors to our state, Snowy Owls usually inhabit the Arctic tundra, but a few migrate to North Dakota during winters when their primary food source, lemmings, become scarce.
Snow Buntings also nest in the Arctic tundra, but migrate to the Great Plains each winter and are one of the few songbirds that are found in the open terrain of rural North Dakota during winter.
The unique White-winged Crossbills usually inhabit the boreal forests of Canada, where they nest in pine forests and feed on the seeds inside pine cones. During seasons when few pine cones are produced, this species can be found in North Dakota, where they feed on pine seeds or seeds offered in bird feeders.
After learning a little bit about some of North Dakota's most interesting birds, who could resist learning about the other 390 species? Check out North Dakota's remarkable birds this year!
North Dakota Bluebird Trails
By Patricia Stockdill
They may extend for miles, adorning fenceposts or other structures.
Or they could only number as few as one or two.
Regardless of how many nest boxes comprise a bluebird trail, one thing is certain: they provide more than a home.
Jim and Analene Torgerson, Ray, have monitored bluebird boxes for longer than they care to admit. Their interest was piqued during Jim's days as a seventh grade life science teacher. Since then, a casual interest has developed into a passion. "There's something about the bluebird that revolves around serenity, calmness and happiness," Jim said.
Besides, their bright blue hues are a joyful sign of spring and the coming of new life.
Today, parts of their bluebird trail are visible along N.D. Highway 1804, where the Torgersons own Lund's Landing Resort. They have about 120 nest boxes along six different trails. Their location in northwestern North Dakota is on the eastern fringe of mountain bluebird habitat and the western fringe of eastern bluebird habitat, providing opportunities for the Torgersons to enjoy both species.
Over the years the Torgersons have experimented, researched, conversed with other bluebird enthusiasts from throughout the country, and monitored countless nests of bluebirds and tree swallows.
They offer several "Bluebird 101" tips for attracting, raising and caring for bluebirds and their nest boxes:
- Entrance size is critical to keep predators and un-wanted birds, such as house sparrows, away.
- Eastern bluebird boxes should have a 1 1/2-inch round entrance hole, mountain bluebird boxes a 1 9/16-inch oval hole.
- Holes should be six inches above the floor.
- Do not use pressure-treated wood, milk cartons or corrugated cardboard.
- Redwood or cedar is excellent. Boxes are best left unpainted and unstained.
- Boxes should be well ventilated, watertight, easy to open, monitor and clean, and have drainage holes.
- Place boxes on predator-resistant smooth round pipes so snakes, raccoons and other predators can not access the entrance. If necessary, place baffles around the pipe or pole or apply grease around the base.
- Never use perches.
- Place along areas with limited human traffic and away from potential predators.
- Avoid areas with abundant house sparrows, such as farmsteads and feedlots.
- Mount at least five feet above the ground, facing away from prevailing winds and direct sun.
- Mount boxes in pairs five to 25 feet apart where tree swallows are present. Bluebirds will tolerate tree swallows, and they, too, are insect eaters.
- If possible, monitor weekly but do not open the box once nestlings are 12 to 14 days old because they could inadvertently leave the nest before they are able to fly.
- Clean boxes in mid-March.
- Remove house sparrow nests. A bluebird nest is cup-shaped, usually made completely of woven grass. Eggs are light blue and incubate for 12 to 14 days.
It may be difficult to determine who benefits the most from the trails - the Torgersons or the birds. "There's lots of self-satisfaction and pleasure in working with these birds," Jim says. The couple has a sense of connection with the birds and enjoys their time spent sharing the bluebird's environment.
Those sentiments are common among those who take the time and effort to establish a bluebird nest box trail - regardless of its length. Loss of nesting habitat and introduction of two non-native birds, the house sparrow and European starling, are two major reasons for declining bluebird populations. But efforts of people such as the Torgersons and others across the state mean there could be a blue sky for the bluebird after all, including in North Dakota.
The Torgersons were recipients of the Souris River Valley Humane Society's 2004 Humane Hero Award because of their bluebird efforts. It is an honor they cherish, in part because they are simply doing what they enjoy and have received so much pleasure in return for their efforts.
- A wealth of resource information is available to help people establish a bluebird trail:
- North American Bluebird Society: Box 244, Wilmot, Ohio 44689 or its website: www.nabluebirdsociety.org
- North Dakota Game and Fish Department free booklet, Attracting Bluebirds and Other Cavity Nesting Songbirds in North Dakota, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, 100 North Bismarck Expressway, Bismarck, ND 58501.
- Other websites include www.bluebirdnut.com and www.bluebirder.com. Be on the lookout for rectangular boxes while driving the prairie landscape. They could be anywhere and they may number many or just a few. And then maybe, just maybe, a little azure-hued bird may flit into the scene - a bluebird that in its own way offers serenity, calmness and happiness.
2005 North Dakota Birding Festivals
For the Birds - Steele Birding Drive Guided Tour
April 30, May 7, May 14 - Kidder County Courthouse, Steele
Drive in a car caravan to take in the birding sites. The trip has scheduled stops for bird watching in all the good areas. The April 30 trip goes to the Dawson area. On May 7, the tour goes to the Horsehead Lake area. And on May 14, the trip goes back to the Dawson area. All tours are 8-11:30 a.m. Evening walks in Steele are May 9 and May 16 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Pre-registration is required. Call 701-475-2672, Ext. 27, for reservations.
May 7, Lake Il - National Wildlife Refuge, Dunn Center
May 14, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, Coleharbor
Learn the basics of identifying waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors while hiking the North Shore Trail through grasslands and wooded areas along Lake Ilo from 9-11 a.m. (Mountain Time), or check out the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and its birds in various habitats during a guided bird watching class from 7-10 a.m. Both classes are free, and binoculars and field guides will be provided. Call 701-442-5474, Ext. 17, for more information.
International Migratory Bird Day Celebration
May 15 - Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, Berthold
The wildlife refuge will observe International Migratory Bird Day with free activities all day. The event will include a birds of prey presentation, bird banding demonstrations, an early morning bird walk, bird identification classes and kids' games. For more information, call 701-468-5467.
Turtle Mountain Birding Festival
May 20-22 - Bottineau
Join the fun at one of the best prairie and wetland birding locations on the Great Plains, within minutes of the forest and lake country of the Turtle Mountains. Share the weekend with top birders and biologists who will lead informative field trips, and enjoy the photo presentations of keynote speaker Paul Konrad. Call 800-542-6866, Ext. 410, for more information or visit http://www.misu-b.nodak.edu/birding.htm
Third Annual Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival
June 3-5 - Carrington
Sponsored by Birding Drives Dakota, this festival is packed full with birding activities, including bus tours guided by birding experts who will take participants to some of the best birding sites in the nation. Participants will also enjoy entertaining and informational seminars presented by professionals, as well as casual socials. Birders will also "have a hoot" with presenters Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, and Julie Zickefoose, natural history writer and artist. For more information, call 888-921-2473, or visit www.birdingdrives.com.
Sixth Annual Sully's Hill Birding & Nature Festival
June 16-19 - Fort Totten
Celebrate birding, nature, and history with guided birdwalks, workshops, amphitheater programs, hayrides, and activity booths. This festival is free and open to the public. For more information, call 701-776-4272 or visit www.sullyshillbirdfest.com.
Breakfast with the Birds
September 17 - Williston
This all-day program features a variety of activities about the nature and wildlife at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. It will begin with a morning birdwalk along the Missouri River, followed by a variety of activities focused on the nature and wildlife of the area. For more information, call 701-572-9034.