The Dakotas…Potholes and Prairies

Note: This article appeared in the July 1 Seabrooker. It’s been updated for SIB blog.

After all the stops and starts of travel during Covid, we had an itch to get on the road again! You may wonder, why the Dakotas? They happen to be wonderful places for birdwatching, particularly in June and July. The birds are plentiful, the weather is wonderful, and the scenery is spectacular. We drove from Atlanta to Fargo, ND, then west across the state, south into SD, and back east across SD to Sioux Falls. A grand total of 5,000 miles!

Common Merganser, Eared Grebe, Ruddy Duck, Western Grebe

The Dakotas are part of an area called “potholes and prairies.”  The potholes are shallow depressive wetlands of glacial origin that hold water from snow melt and rains. In the summer, they’re a haven for breeding waterfowl and other birds. North Dakota is sometimes called the “duck factory”  of the Midwest because it supports more than 50% of our nation’s migratory waterfowl. Many of the ducks that we see at Seabrook in the winter go to the Midwest to breed in the summer. There is nothing like seeing a breeding plumage Ruddy Duck, who is so plain for us at Seabrook in the winter, but has a shocking blue bill and rusty plumage in the summer. Another highlight was breeding Western Grebes, sometimes colonies of over several hundred. Seeing them doing their synchronized mating dance was a first for us! Another striking grebe was the Eared Grebe, in breeding plumage Eared Grebe with its “maraschino cherry” eye. We saw a Common Merganser with adorable striped ducklings. In the wetland areas are Yellow-headed Blackbirds, with shocking yellow heads and voices that sound like a fax machine from back in the day! 

Yellow-headed Blackbird, Upland Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope

Another of our passions is birding the grasslands of the Midwest. There are several national grasslands in North and South Dakota, and they harbor a wonderful population of birds. We enjoy the drives along miles of dirt roads, with no one around but an occasional farmer waving hi, as we look for Upland Sandpipers sitting on fence posts. It is awe inspiring to see the vast expanses of farmland and meet some of the people that farm it…truly American’s breadbasket. And how out of place and fun to see some of our Seabrook shorebirds in the grasslands of the Midwest – many Marbled Godwit, Black Terns and Willet in the fields and on the roads. Another striking shorebird, the Wilson’s Phalarope, also breeds in the grassland areas.

Other western grassland birds were the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a bird we had seen in previous trips, but never quite as good as on this one. Western Kingbirds dotted the fences everywhere, as did Lark Buntings with striking black plumage and white wing patch. Horned Larks called with their tinkling chirps. Bobolinks in distinctive breeding colors, and their little bubbling “Martian-like” song gave us great looks.

Chestnut-collared Longspur, Western Kingbird, Lark Bunting, Horned Lark, Bobolink, Lark Sparrow

Teddy Roosevelt National Park is a hidden treasure. It has impressive scenery, a herd of bison and beautiful birds – like the Lark Sparrow with its harlequin face pattern, and the stunning Lazuli Bunting. In South Dakota we drove the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Parkway where we found one of our favorite birds, the American Dipper. It is the only songbird that regularly swims and submerges in fast running streams, looking for aquatic insect larvae. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, but we were able to spot one and saw it’s diving behavior! Western woodpeckers are always fun to find, and we found a Red-naped Sapsucker at higher elevation in SD.

Bison, Lazuli Bunting, American Dipper, Red-naped Sapsucker

As always in our travels, I am always looking to add another life bird to my list of US birds. While searching for a Golden Eagle nest, we had an up close look at a Ferruginous Hawk, a life bird for me, as it devoured its prey in a prairie dog town. Another life bird was a Gray Partridge, which we expected to find on the prairie, but instead found it in a downtown city park in Fargo! The park had done an excellent prairie restoration in the center of the city, and it was a great habitat for this elusive bird. We ended our trip with a very special Burrowing Owl, who nests in abandoned prairie dog holes. We drove a long way on dirt roads in Ft. Pierre National Grasslands and it did not disappoint! Two were sitting up by their nest holes late in the day. And a trip to SD would not be complete without its state bird, the Ring-necked Pheasant!

Ferruginous Hawk, Gray Partridge, Burrowing Owl, Ring-necked Pheasant

Along with all the beautiful birds we saw, the scenery in the Dakotas is magnificent. The Badlands are spectacular, and Needles Highway is a 17 mile drive of majestic views of rock formations. Custer State Park has a herd of over 1,000 bison, many had calves and they roam freely through the park. We also caught a great look at a coyote and hundreds upon hundreds of prairie dogs. So, if you have a chance, you may want to venture to the Dakotas!

Article by Aija Konrad, photos by Ed Konrad

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