A Birder’s Guide to North Dakota

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A Birder’s Guide
North Dakota

Kevin J. Zimmer


Distributed by
L & P Press
Box 21604
Denver, CO 80221

This book is dedicated to my parents, Bernard and Mary Zimmer, who presented me with all the opportunities that made this book possible.


The area covered by this guide is so large that I could not possibly have written it up without the help of many people.

I particularly wish to thank Bob Randall and Frank Kelley, who provided much of the information used for the Bismarck-Mandan and Grand Forks areas, respectively; my brother and almost constant field companion Barry Zimmer, who helped with many suggestions; Kelly Stonecypher, who provided inspiration and the best kind of moral support; and most importantly, Jim Lane, whose advice, help, and encouragement made this book possible.

Many others helped in some way, either with advice and information, or as field companions. I want to thank the following, and after this has gone to press I will probably think of others: Milan Alby, Steve Allen, Beth Anderson, David L. Bartling, William Buresh, Gary A. Eslinger, Palmer Forness, Ralph Fries, Ann and Bob Gammell, David Goeke, Harold Holt, Harold Kantrud, Art Lies, Donald E. Lindberg, Jon M. Malcolm, Rebecca Quanrud, Robert Rollings, Alan K. Trout, Robert Walkin, Dr. Nathaniel Whitney, Hugh Willoughby, Jim Zimmer, and Bernard and Mary Zimmer.

I would appreciate any suggestions or information for future editions of this book. All such correspondence should be addressed to: Kevin J. Zimmer, L & P Press, Box 21604, Denver, Colorado 80221.


Preface 3
Introduction 7
Southeastern North Dakota 15
Cass, Richland, Sargent, Ransom, Barnes, Stutsman, Kidder, and Logan Counties
Southwestern North Dakota 33
Burleigh, Morton, Dunn, Bowman, Slope, and Billings Counties
Northwestern North Dakota 50
Dunn, McKenzie, McLean, Burke, Mountrail, Ward, and Divide Counties
Northeastern North Dakota 62
McHenry, Bottineau, Rolette, Cavalier, Pembina, Walsh, Grand Forks, Nelson, Benson, and Ramsey Counties
Specialties of North Dakota 80
Birds of North Dakota 100
Index 111

NORTH DAKOTA (Quarters are shown bounded by County Lines, Highways, or Rivers)


North Dakota is a fairly large state (17th among the states in total land area) but a sparsely populated one (45th). Most of the people live in rural areas, because there are few cities of any size; even these are, for the most part, widely scattered. The largest urban area (the tri-city area of Fargo, West Fargo, and Moorhead, Minnesota) has a combined population of under 120,000.

Most people visit North Dakota on their way to someplace else. They rush through because of the lack of big cities and scenic areas. Although it is true that much of the state is anything but scenic, there is great beauty awaiting those who explore the prairie, the rolling, wooded hills of the Turtle Mountains, or the rugged badlands along the Little Missouri River.

Over the years some of the greatest names in ornithology have visited North Dakota on birding expeditions. At the head of the list is John James Audubon, who made one of his last painting-and-collecting expeditions here in 1843. The most celebrated birder ever to visit the state, though, has to be our twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt established a large cattle-ranching enterprise in the Little Missouri badlands in 1883. In doing so he established two ranches: the Maltese Cross Ranch (about seven miles south of Medora) and the Elkhorn Ranch (about thirty-five miles north of Medora). Although not an ornithologist in the strictest sense of the word, Roosevelt kept written records of his bird sightings in the badlands. These records represent some of his most colorful and interesting writings.


Much of the topography of North Dakota can be traced to the effects of Wisconsin-age glaciation, particularly in the north and east. Large portions of these glaciated areas are peppered by countless ponds and lakes. A frightening number have been drained; nevertheless, these wetlands constitute one of the most important waterfowl production areas in the country.

Although North Dakota cannot boast of large mountain ranges like the states farther west, it is anything but a flat, monotonous state. Much of the state is characterized by gently rolling prairie. More noticeable hills and escarpments may be found in the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, on the south side of Devils Lake, and along stretches of several rivers (notably the Missouri). Further, beach lines and sandhills left over from the last ice age provide a somewhat local variation to the level topography of some areas. The most rugged terrain occurs in the Little Missouri badlands, which are characterized by numerous steep slopes, severely eroded buttes, and arroyos.

A large percentage of the state is occupied by agricultural land. This category includes not only actively farmed land, but also retired croplands, domestic hayfields, fence rows, wood lots (referred to as tree claims), shelterbelts, orchards, and farmyards. While many of these areas are almost devoid of wildlife, others provide suitable habitat for a number of species.

Mixed-grass prairie is the predominant natural habitat, and it supports the largest numbers of many of the prairie specialties which nest in the state. Both tall-grass prairie and short-grass prairie also exist locally.

A prairie habitat which is quite limited in the state is the sage-prairie found in the southwest corner (primarily in the western portions of Bowman and Slope Counties). Xeric in character, it is composed mostly of buffalo and blue grama grasses peppered with sage flats and clumps of prickly pear cactus.

Many prairie areas are punctuated by woody thickets, which host a number of species that are characteristic of woodland-edge habitats. These thickets are composed mostly of large shrubs (wolfberry and silverberry are commonly found) in combination with a few small trees.

Wetlands occupy a major position on the list of habitats. Several types, ranging from seasonal ponds and prairie marshes to permanent wood-bordered lakes, are found here. Prairie wetlands are scattered throughout the state, but are concentrated most densely in a broad belt through the central and east-central portions. Permanent wood-bordered ponds and lakes are mostly restricted to the Turtle Mountains.

Often associated with prairie wetlands are extensive wet meadows. These are of primary interest to the birder because they support large numbers of desired species such as Yellow Rail, Willow Flycatcher, Sedge Wren, and Le Conte’s and Sharp-tailed Sparrows.

There are also several large alkaline lakes. Because of the high salinity of the water and the adjacent salt flats, no emergent plants are found, so they are not characterized by large numbers of breeding birds. They do serve as excellent attractions to migrant shorebirds.

Very little of North Dakota is occupied by forest habitat, although it is locally well-represented. Much of it is found in the form of floodplain forests along the Red, James, Sheyenne, Souris, Missouri, and Little Missouri Rivers and their tributaries. In the west the floodplain forests are dominated, for the most part, by cottonwoods (as is true along large portions of the Missouri and Little Missouri Rivers) and have a more open canopy and understory than those of the eastern streams.

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