I have a very embarrassing secret…As of a month ago, I still needed Ferruginous Hawk for my Life List! Most of you may be saying “Huh?,” but the birders out there know what I mean. Seeing 600 of North America’s bird species is a Major milestone…and a month ago I was at 636 species and had yet to see this relatively common hawk of western North America (Sidebar: “North America” to bird listers is the Lower 48, Alaska and Canada…It does NOT include Hawaii or Mexico). So obviously the thing to do was to head out to central North Dakota’s Kidder County where the Ferruginous nest, and as one birder put it, “there’s one on nearly every hay bale!” More about how this saga unfolds below.
But after leaving Manitoba it seemed natural to swing through North Dakota on my way back to northern Minnesota and home in Wrenshall. Several of my birding friends had made MANY trips to Kidder and Stutsman County to see rare prairie birds and western raptors and soak in the abundance of ducks, shorebirds, and other marsh birds that inhabit the prairie pothole region. In fact, the major bird tour groups in North America (Wings and VENT) put this part of North Dakota on their tour itinerary each year. I had to check it out for myself…and I was not disappointed!
Lift off! An Upland Sandpiper takes wing from a prairie fence post. Though technically a shorebird, these long-necked, small-headed birds are really more at home in crop fields, hayfields, grazed meadows and native prairie. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 500; camera braced on car window]
Though there are spots in Minnesota where these sandpipers still breed (including the Sax-Zim Bog), they have a stronghold on the northern prairies. In some Eastern states, Uplands find airports to their liking as nesting spots…These airports mimic prairies much farther west with their short grass, flat terrain and wide open spaces. In the boreal forest they may nest in large semi-dry sedge meaows in huge bogs. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 at f6.3; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]
When the Upland’s alight on a perch they have a neat habit of holding their wings over their back and then leisurely folding them. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]
Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge
My first stop was to see Stacy Whipp at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge. I’d met Stacy at the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival a few years ago and knew that she is a very knowledgeable birder. Stacy helps organize the Potholes & Prairies Bird Festival and she gave me wonderful info and exact locations for many of my target species. These spots were fresh in her mind from her extensive scouting for the Festival and the field trips during the event.
My first truly Western bird of the trip was this Say’s Phoebe at the Arrowwood NWR Headquarters. Like “our” Eastern Phoebe, it has no problem with hunting near humans and their habitations. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]
Sparky scanning the rolling prairies of central North Dakota. Ethanol subsidies and governmental mandates on ethanol usage have created high corn prices and the result has been that many farmers in this dryer part of North Dakota have converted grazing land (i.e. great prairie bird habitat) into sterile corn fields (and soybean fields).
CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR with spider prey.
The longspurs are a colorful lot…at least the males in breeding plumage, and this Chestnut-collared Longspur is no exception. A bird strictly of the midgrass and long grass prairies, it was once a common Minnesota breeder but has been reduced by habitat loss (i.e. conversion of prairie to cropland) to survival in a few scattered prairies in the western fringe of the state. Ironically, cattle ranching is this species friend as grazing keeps the grasses shorter and hospitable to this picky species.[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]
I really think these are very attractive raptors, made more so by the fact that I don’t see them very often. They do nest in SW Minnesota but I rarely get to see them. Swainson’s Hawks are very common in this part of North Dakota. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]
While the days were warm (low 80s) the nights were nice and cool. And on this morning the combination meant dense fog in the valleys. Fortunately inclement weather can also be the photographers best friend, and in this case it created a moody shot of a Western Kingbird and a dew-covered orbweaver spider web. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 200; camera braced on car window]
[My pursuit of my lifer Ferruginous Hawk continued:] Sadly, I had to leave North Dakota without my lifer Ferruginous Hawk (insert sad-face here). I’d checked out the nest that Stacy said was active just a couple weeks before, but not a thing was stirring. I did snap a photo of yet another Swainson’s Hawk nearby and promptly forgot about it. Later that day I found three more Ferruginous Hawk nests…all empty. But, “Wait,” you’re saying “You have a photo of a Ferruginous Hawk in this blog post.” True, and here is the rest of the story. After arriving home and downloading all my memory cards, I discovered an image of a bulky and distant raptor. A major crop of the photo revealed that the bird was not “just another Swainson’s” but a juvenile FERRUGINOUS HAWK! Probably one that had just fledged from the nearby nest. I indeed had seen my Lifer Ferrug but had not known it at the time. We can argue about whether a bird identified later on your computer screen and not in the field can count as a new bird on your list, but I have no qualms about making Ferruginous Hawk #637 on my North American ABA Life List. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 200; camera braced on car window]
[NEXT POST WILL FEATURE THE WATER BIRDS AND SHOREBIRDS OF NORTH DAKOTA’S MARSHES]