Cold, windy drive to Arrowwood NWR


Snow-covered fields were not what I envisioned when I planned my late-May trip to North Dakota, but the northern plains are shaped by extemes of cold and hot. Five days after this chilly day it was nearly 80 degrees.

I headed west from Glacier Ridge NWR, glad to be in the calm warm air of the car. I crossed the Red River between Fargo and Grand Forks and came across the snow-dusted fields the eastern North Dakota on Highway 200, which had light traffic on a Monday morning. As you move west from the Red River valley, the landscape transforms from monotonous and vast fields of row crops to a more diverse landscape of Prairie Potholes, more extensive wetlands, rangeland, and cropland. The bird diversity and density rises precipitously. As I began to pass wetland areas, I noticed lots of birds hunkered down to get out of the cold wind. Finally I pulled over at the edge of a cattail-rimmed lake and angled the car so I could photograph birds in the wetland. The high winds had driven a mat of floating debris—mostly cattail stems—up against the shore. On this mat of floating debris was an incredible array of birds. There were Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds—the only species in their expected habitat. There were also about 50 swallows including barn, cliff, and tree that seemed to have flopped onto the wet mat to feed on something. Apparently, this debris mat was covered in something edible. With the swallows were about 10 Least and Willow Flycatchers hopping around feeding. There were also Yellow-rumped, Palm, and Yellow Warblers standing and feeding. Songbirds were obviously cold and hungry in this miserable weather.

Barn Swallows and a Least Flycatcher got their feet wet as they stood on a mat of flooting debris at the edge of a prairie pothole lake. This debris mat must have been crawling with things to eat because an array of birds had come out to feed in the cold wind.

About 15 miles from the entrance to Arrowwood NWR near the town of Courtenay was a wetland that had extensive open water that appeared to be deaper than most of the prairie lakes. This lake held an impressive array of ducks, as did most of the water in ND, but it also hosted Eared Grebes, Western Grebes, and the only Red-necked Grebe that I’d see on the trip. There were Franklin's Gulls along with the Ring-billed and California Gulls and flocks of Black and Forester’s Terns. I should have stayed and birded that wetland longer, but it was wide open and the wind was howling. Waves were crashing on shore like it was Big Sur. So I moved on toward the refuge.

This Red-necked Grebe bouncing in the wind-churned lake near Courtenay was the only RNGR that I saw on the trip.

In the rangeland north of Courtenay I saw a very light hawk that I first took to be a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird that I really wanted to see on the trip. But this light hawk turned out to be a Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tailed Hawks of the northern plains are much lighter in tail and ventral coloration than eastern Red-tailed Hawks which co-occur with Krider’s Hawks. They have long been considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, the “Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk”, but I’d like to see COI genetic data (DNA barcode data) on Red-tailed and Krider’s Hawks before I’ll accept that they are not a distinct species. The fact that Krider's co-occur with eastern Red-tailed Hawks sounds very suspicious to me. I’ll write a post in the near future on my views of species concepts. For the same reason that I had never seen a Harris’s Sparrow before this trip—I had not spent enough times in the Great Plains region--I’d never seen a Krider’s redtail before.

I found a flock of Hudsonian Godwits feeding in a flooded field just outside the boundary of Arrowwood NWR. This flock has some birds in full breeding plumage and other athat were just starting to molt from basic to alternate plumage.

As I drove east on 11th street toward the refuge, I saw a flock of large shorebirds feeding in a flooded field—Hudsonian Godwits. This is a species that I really wanted to see in breeding plumage on this trip. Hudsonian Godwits follow a vast loop migration route in moving from the top to the bottom of the earth. In the fall the entire population pulls east, to the Canadian Maritines and New England and then launches over the Atlantic, flying non-stop to South America. In the spring, the same birds come up through Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico and up through the central plains. They are very rare vagrants in Alabama in the spring. North Dakota in May was the time and place to see northbound Hudsonian Godwits in breeding plumage. These feeding birds were close enough that I could get some decent photos from the car.

The day stayed very windy as I arrived at Arrowwood. This is a fully developed National Wildlife Refuge with a huge and beautiful visitor center on a bluff overlooking Arrowwood Lake. The lake had lots of waterfowl, but they were bouncing around on the waves kicked up by the high wind and I didn’t work through them very carefully. I did see both Clark’s and Western Grebes. At the visitor center I learned that I was the first visitor they had seen in four days. I also learned that there had been 50 Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying at the blind I had reserved for the next morning. I was looking forward to making up for the disappointment of no displays at the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek in MN.

Driving around Arrowwood was like driving in a watercolor painting. This is an unedited photo I took with my iPhone from the Autotour through the rolling hills of Arrowwood.

I drove around the auto tour in the early afternoon, flushing my life Sharp-tailed Grouse near the blind, but the wind made it hard to bird very effectively. Finally around 4pm I started looking for a more sheltered place to cook lunch. I turned down a side road toward “Warbler Woods” and was pleased to see that the road dropped down into a gully between hills that broke the wind a bit. A little grove of trees grew in the sheltered gully. I got out and while I was cooking my lunch I notice a couple of birds in the trees over the road. I got out my binoculars and in a matter of seconds saw Blue-headed Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Ovenbird. There we warblers and other migrants everywhere, but it was absolutely silent except for the rush of wind. No bird was making a peep. They were just eating.

Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Olive-sided Flycatcher were part of the big flock of hungry migrants packed into a little woodlot at Arrowwood NWR.

I quickly finished lunch, got my camera out, and over the next hour and a half had a fantastic array of migrants in front of me. Warblers included lots of Yellow-rumped (Myrtle), Orange-crowned, Black-and White, Magnolia, Yellow, Palm, and Nashville. Nashville was a trip target and a life photo bird, and I got a nice picture of a colorful male. I saw a Mourning Warbler, but it moved and then I couldn’t relocate it for a photo. I had an Olive-sided Flycatcher pose for me. Harris’s Sparrows were also in the warbler woods and I managed some better pictures of that target bird. It was challenging photography because the light was not very good and the birds were crawling around in the grass, sometime right at my feet. It was hard to get them to perch up for a picture.

After the warbler bonanza I started to wind down for the day. A day of battling prairie wind had left me pooped out. I found a little out-of-the-way pulloff in the refuge and figured that since they had not had a visitor in 4 days, no one would mind (or even know) if I put my tent down for the night. The wind started dropping as the sun set and I was serenaded to sleep by howling coyotes and hooting Great Horned Owls. Much better than 30 mile per hour winds slamming my tent around.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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