.......and Reflections

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Into the West Via Plan "B"

This was a great day for a travel day. I saw North Dakota as never before and about every bit of the day's original plan evaporated, only to emerge as an even better day than I planned. Some of the day was disturbing. North Dakota is inundated with water. The flooding in some places is incredible. I saw thousands of flooded acres with farms, farm houses, barns, businesses and entire landscapes under water. Prairie potholes were lakes and every feature of the area I know is like a place I have never been.

I intended to go to J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge but getting to it, and what I would likely find was clearly not an option. I decided to continue on through North Dakota to Eastern Montana strategically planned for tomorrow's itinerary. So the day was consumed by travel with stops along the many prairie potholes along U.S. Route 2.

The flooding wasn't the only thing disturbing. I could not find a hotel room in North Dakota. There is no vacancy in any hotel or motel from Bismarck, to Minot, to Williston. Can you imagine? It's been that way for all 2010, all of this year and who knows how far in the future. All the rooms are filled with oil workers. There is an "oil rush" going on not unlike the California Gold Rush. I stopped in Tioga for gas and it was like an old west town....dirty trucks, oil workers in every imaginable vehicle and construction and drilling evident everywhere, mile after mile after mile. Throw in a massive wind farm to spice up the natural landscape and it was enough to make me ill.

If our legislators and public officials have their way with exploiting natural resources such as State Parks and National Parks, Refuges and Wilderness areas, I can only prey that it could never be as horrific as what is going on in North Dakota. I am, by nature, not an environmental advocate but as a reasonable and informed citizen I an really concerned for my Grandchildren.

Okay, I felt compelled to speak my peice. Now for the good stuff.

The changes in the days schedule worked out great. The trip across North Dakota reveals changes in the potholes. For example the potholes in the east have more cattails and are generally surrounded by lush vegetation. The potholes farther west are surrounded by drier habitats and lack the stands of cattails. I saw a lot of new birds and some anticipated new ones. I was greeted at the North Dakota border by my first Western Kingbird. Kingbirds are happy birds. I don't mean to imply they are happy, but they sure make me so. The weather improved all day and got to be very nice. The prairie potholes were a bit slow, but the whole cast of characters were present. Some species were scarce and others pretty common in comparison with previous trips. Dry years are truely different than years with abundant water.

I saw Pied-billed, Horned, Eared, and Red-necked Grebes, 13 species of waterfowl, and other prairie birds associated with them. There were many Northern Harriers, and I saw 3 Swinson's Hawks. The breeding shorebirds are beginning to appear in significant numbers including Marbled Godwits, American Avocets, a single Lesser Yellowlegs, and Wilson's Phalaropes.  Wilson's snipes can be heard making their weird whinny sounds made in flight with their wings, and they often flush and fly across cattails and wetland grasses.

In all I had 59 species but the small numbers was greatly overshadowed by the quality of experiencing the prairie potholes in the middle of nowhere. I stopped and spent about a half hour at a complex of western North Dakota potholes on a virtually deserted county road. Let me see if I can describe the experience.

In the middle of nowhere there are no distractions: no traffic, no planes, no horns. There is glorious nothing. With the distractions non-existant there is nothing to disturb the sights and sounds of the potholes. I watched American Avocets probing along the water near a pothole shore and one that stayed motionless on its nest. The feeding Avocets were joined by several Wilson's Phalaropes. American Coots were swimming around clucking as if it was necessary. Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup, Canvasbacks, Redheads and Ruddy Ducks were swimming around the potholes while their peers sat on shore sleeping or preening.

All the while, Red-winged Blackbirds called and wheeled around their territories in grand display, showing their red wing patches. A hidden Pied-billed Grebe called competing with Western Meadowlarks also singing and clucking around the potholes. The Phalaropes diappeared and if by magic were replaced by a single breeding-plumage Willet.

In the distance I heard Ring-necked Pheasants. I scanned the upland areas around the potholes and watched a Horned Lark feeding on the ground. A pair of Killdeers came into focus and in the edge of my field of view I saw movement. Not far from the Killdeers were a pair of Upland Sandpipers patrolling a poorly grassed area. I could hear ever so faintly here their rolling call.

Then the defining "in the middle of nowhere" moment unfolded before my very eyes. Two male Wilson's Phalaropes flew a few yards in front of me. Flying against the ever-present prairie breeze they seemed almost suspended there in front of me. As I watched them I heard one of them call softly as if making conversation with the other. It is a moment I don't fully understand, nor do I need to. When all the distractions are gone, you are no longer a witness but a participant in a world you may never get to know unless you seek "the middle of nowhere."

 Tomorrow I have the privelage to explore the jewels of eastern Montana.


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