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Tips For Finding ND Specialties
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Tips for Finding ND Specialties

Most visiting birders come to North Dakota for grassland birds. These species have evolved in a dynamic system characterized by changing local conditions from year to year.

A prairie pasture that has Baird's Sparrows one year may not be suitable the following year. Use the following guide to help you identify the proper habitats for each species.

Baird's Sparrow

Uncommon to fairly common summer resident, occurring from May through August. Prefers lightly to moderately grazed mixed-grass prairie. The species usually does not perch on fence wires.

The Chase Lake region can be good for this species, but it is more common further west. Kidder, and McHenry Counties can host for the species. Stewart Lake NWR is a good bet.

Be patient and listen for the species' song, which includes a few ticks followed by a lilting trill.

Current locations:
Lostwood NWR: Baird's Sparrows can be found at various places along the auto tour. There are several territories of each species in the area of the Sharp-tailed Grouse blind.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Common to abundant summer resident, occurring from April to late September. This elegant species prefers heavily grazed native prairie and recently burned areas. It occasionally uses cropland.

The species becomes more common as you go west in the state. It is most easily found on private land.

Watch for them skylarking over the prairie or sitting on fences along the roads in the Missouri Coteau and in the southwestern quarter of the state.

Ferruginous Hawk

Rare to uncommon. Occurs from mid-March to October. Look for this majestic buteo near heavily grazed native prairie with Richardson's Ground Squirrel colonies or Prairie Dog towns.

The best areas for this species are southwestern North Dakota and on the Missouri Coteau, particularly in Burleigh and Kidder Counties. Look for their large nests on the ground, in isolated trees, and on large steel powerline towers.

Gray Partridge

Fairly common year-round resident. This well-established exotic species is characteristic of agricultural areas.

The best way to search for this species is to drive gravel roads in cropland areas very early in the morning in May and June. Stop every one-half mile to listen and scan. They often are seen along the edge of roads.

They are easiest to find in winter, when coveys can be seen in fields near farmsteads or on gravel roads in late afternoon.

Le Conte's Sparrow

Common summer resident during wet periods and uncommon during dry periods, occurring from May to early October. This sparrow prefers wet grassy areas, marsh edges, sedge meadows, and CRP fields. They do respond to pishing.

Typically, this species sings from a perch just below the top of a grass tuft. They can be difficult to view, so be patient. If flushed, LeConte's Sparrows usually drop into heavy vegetation and may be difficult to flush again.

LeConte's Sparrows often sing at night, and are particularly vocal in the early morning when it is still quite dark. Their insect-like call can be difficult for some people to hear. McHenry and Kidder Counties are some of the best areas.

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Uncommon summer resident, occurring from late May to late September. This species prefers slightly wetter habitat than LeConte's Sparrows. Marsh edges, where there is a mix of vegetation, and fens are particularly favored.

The species generally does not prefer areas with dense cattails. However, cattails are a good place to find this species in migration in September. This sparrow often is heard in the same areas as LeConte's and often sings at night as well.

This species, like LeConte's does not sit in full view. The species has a very unusual song, which sounds like a hot poker being stuck in a bucket of water. Look for this marsh edge denizen in all good habitat east and north of the Missouri River.

Piping Plover

Rare to uncommon summer resident. Occurs from late April to August. This federally threatened shorebird prefers rocky or saline lakeshores with minimal vegetation.

The best place to see this species is The Nature Conservancy's John E. Williams Preserve near Turtle Lake. Other good areas are Lostwood NWR and the saline lakes in the Westby, Montana area. Also a good bet is the sandbars of the Missouri River.

Occurs locally on numerous saline lakes on the Missouri Coteau. When lake levels are low this species can be found on the shores of Lake Sakakawea.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Fairly common year-round resident. This popular game bird is most easily seen in the spring at the various National Wildlife Refuges where observation blinds are maintained at leks. Peak dancing activity in the spring occurs in April and May.

During other times of the year a walk near a lek will usually produce a few birds, as males often remain near the lek throughout the year. Contact refuge headquarters for lek locations.

In fall and winter, flocks may be encountered almost anywhere, but harvested sunflower fields and rows of Russian Olive trees are especially favored.

Sprague's Pipit

Uncommon to fairly common summer resident. Occurs from late April to October. This species is much more easily heard than seen, as they are rarely seen on the ground. This native prairie obligate is usually encountered skylarking high over praries.

Peak singing activity occurs in May and July. It is crucial to know the song if you intend to find this species. It prefers the drier hilltops and breaks along river valleys and escarpments. The species also uses alkali meadows.

When singing, this species has a very unique shape in the air, with a plump body and narrow base of the tail. Lostwood NWR and J. Clark Salyer NWR are regular areas for this species. Usually not found east of Stutsman County.

Yellow Rail

Rare to uncommon summer resident. Occurs from May to September. The Yellow Rail is a very difficult species to find, and even more difficult to see. The species prefers fens and boggy swales with shallow, slowly running water.

Spring-fed areas are especially preferred. Quaking mats of vegetation often characterize these areas.In Grand Forks County they occur in wet, saline grasslands. The species is more common during wet cycles.

During dry periods this species is found only in the most preferred areas. McHenry, Sheridan, Kidder, and Grand Forks Counties are the best areas to look for this species. Listen for their unusual clicking calls after dark or well before sunrise.

Info provided by Ron Martin.