Lost chances at Lostwood


Lostwood NWR held the promise of a prairie bird bonanza with life birds included but I found it to be disappointing in terms of the numbers and diversity of birds.

On Wednesday, May 20 I woke up from my only stay in a hotel during my north prairie tour. I drove from Minot (pronounced Mie-not) north to Lostwood NWR, arriving just at first dim light, about 30 minutes before sunrise. I had read that birders found Baird's Sparrow at the south end of the autotour, so I drove until I reached the last two interpretive signs. It was a beautiful clear morning--great weather for finding secretive birds with weak voices. I then spent three hours driving, hiking, and just standing and listening in vain pursuit of my three target birds: Baird's Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Sprague's Pipit. During this search I did manage find two singing LeConte's Sparrows.

As the mid-morning sun began to get warm, a breeze picked up and bird activity tailed off, so I drove up to the refuge headquarters to try to get some help finding my birds. The naturalist at the headquarters had bad news. No Baird's Sparrows had been reliably reported through all of 2014, and there had been no reports this year either. She also had not seen Chestnut-collared Longspurs on the refuge in more than a year and had no good locations to send me to for longspurs. She did say that Sprague's Pipits were around, most reliably on the highway south of the refuge, so I decided to head that way. After searching for about an hour and a half, I stopped along the highway at the base of a hill that had a giant "84" written in stones. I heard a Sprague's Pipit giving a flight call very high overhead. At least I got one of my three targets, but the pipit did not even register as a speck on my retina so there was no hope of photographs.

I found Sprague's pipits displaying at the base of this hiill with "84" written in stones.

For anyone reading this blog in preparation for a birding trip to the area, don't expect either Baird's Sparrow or Chestnut-collared Longspur to be easy. I knew that Baird's Sparrow would be tough, but somehow I had gotten the idea that Chestnut-collared Longspurs were relatively common. They are not. I saw zero Chestnut-collared Longspurs through three days of driving around North Dakota within their range. In 2015, Lostwood was not a good place to look for either species. However, there is a focused effort to improve the grasslands at Lostwood NWR. They are permitting more grazing in some sections of the refuge, and light grazing potentially benefits both Baird's Sparrow and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Maybe more importantly, the refuge staff is increasing the frequency of fire. There was huge, recent burn on the north part of the refuge. So, maybe by 2016 or 2017 Lostwood will again be a prime place to see Baird's Sparrow and Chestnut-collared Longspur.

A burned section of prairie contrasts dramatically with the adjacent unburned plot. Burning is an essential for management of prairie ecosystems and such controlled burns may help bring back Baird's Sparrows and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.

At this point I made an executive decision--I would bail on Lostwood and go back south to the Schoolhouse Grassland near Tuttle. I calculated that I would reach Tuttle around 6pm with just enough time to scope out the area before I would need to find a place to camp. I didn't expect to get much birding in that evening but I would be in position to be on the Schoolhouse Grassland in the morning.

The drive from Lostwood to Tuttle was fantastic, with lots of birds in prairie potholes and along the roads. It was also cloudless with harsh midday light so I didn't take many photos and just enjoyed looking at the birds. I arrived at the Schoolhouse Prairie property around 6pm and as I drove around looking for the best access, I heard a bird singing that was reminiscent of a Western Meadowlark, but distinctlly different--Chestnut Collared Longspur. I got out my camera and got some nice photos of the singing male in the evening light. Much as I wanted to see a Baird's Sparrow, I knew they would be hard to find and even harder to photograph. So even more than Baird's Sparrow, I went into the trip wanting to see a male Chestnut-collared Longspur. My life Chestnut-collared Longspur and my only interaction with the species ever was in 1983 at a sod farm in western New Mexico when Bill Howe identified flying birds by voice. I wanted to see the striking breeding plumage of a male and hear their beautiful song.

After two days of searching for Chestnut-collared Longspurs I finally found singing males at the Schoolhouse Prairie near Tuttle.

The grasslands looked inviting, and with several male Chestnut-collared Longspurs singing, it seemed like this prairie was my best bet to get Baird's Sparrow. I would return in the morning, but I needed a place to sleep. The only nearby public land on my maps was Chase Lake NWR, about 30 miles away. I decided to drive of there and see if there was an out-of-the-way place at the refuge where I could put my tent down. It ended up being a great decision.

For the next hour or so I picked my way across the prairie on backroads, some that were pretty good and some that weren't. I got through a few muddy patches that were riskier than I would have liked and finally I saw a sign for the refuge. The best bird I found on this drive was a really light Krider's Red-tailed Hawk. This Krider's Red-tail was being harrassed by a dark Red-tailed Hawk. They clearly didn't like each other. I would really like to see the divergence in COX1 genotype for these two subspecies of redtails.

A Krider's subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk near Chase Lake in Kidder County ND. At top, a photo of the bird landing shows the nearly white tail. Perched next to a typical redtail, it is apparant how light overall the Krider's Hawk was.

As I approached the Chase Lake NWR sign, the gravel road I was following passed through a beautiful marsh full of marsh birds including displaying Ruddy Ducks. The evening light was perfect and I spent almost an hour photographing birds. I also made a rather poor attemp to film a displaying male Ruddy Duck.

It turns out that Chase Lake NWR is no more than a preserve with an overlook. It is a completely undeveloped National Wildlife Refuge. Chase Lake hosts the largest colony of American White Pelicans in North America and the overlook lets you see the colony about a mile away on an island in the big lake. On this evening, the overlook was utterly disserted. I could see for miles in every direction and there was not a car or house in sight. It ended up being the best camping site I have ever experienced.

As I cooked my dinner, the sun set, leaving a brilliant orange sky. Birds were streaming off the lake. Many Franklin's Gulls flew over but also Ring-billed Gulls and to my surprise, two Herring Gulls. Pelicans, of course, were moving but so were big flocks of cormorants. Black-crowned Night-herons flew past in a steady stream. There was a beautiful cattail marsh at the base of the hill and all evening I could hear Sora, Virginia Rail, and American Bitterns. I fell asleep listening to Coyotes howling and Virginia Rails grunting.

All there was to Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an overlook on top of a hill at the end of long gravel road.

Since nobody was around for many miles, I just put my tent down and slept at the overlook. It was the greatest campsite I've ever enjoyed. I wouldn't recommend it on a windy night, though.

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© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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