Across the Plains
Details of the sprint across Montana in 1962 are lost in some unknown fold in my brain. Technically, my arrival on the Great Plains was somewhere east of Big Timber. I do not recall exactly since white settlers, their cattle and railroads helped change the face of the land, in many places forever. It was barely possible, among the settlements and rangelands, to think grasslands were part of eastern Montana. Textbooks divide the plains grasslands into three types, including short, medium and tall. This general classification of grasslands begs to be paraphrased from the premise of a former ornithologist who spent years wasting time to arrive at the conclusion that the further south one travels, the fewer northern birds you see. So, the further east one goes, the less one finds short grass, or something like that. It is hard to tell after what we have done to the natural environment but I did find some grassland in eastern North Dakota that was tall. The only short grass I saw in the eastern plains had either not reached its potential height, happened to be one of the more diminutive species native to the area or was a nonnative interloper. For someone other than a botanist, it is difficult to discern the differences between a native grassland and one that has been restored, which is what people who know these things usually call a derived grassland. Moreover, of course there is a chance that such derived grasslands, and even native ones, may have been invaded by Leafy Spurge and Spotted Knapweed. These two aggressive plants can rapidly choke out native grassland species not unlike crabgrass and dandelions in a lawn.
In Montana and western North Dakota, the natural grass consists of western wheatgrass, green needlegrass, blue grama, needle and thread, and others. Of course, there are bushes (e.g., chokecherry, snowberry and sagebrush) and trees (Ponderosa pine, juniper, and aspen) here and there, as well as barren, overgrazed and over paved habitat fit only for humans and their domestic pets. The grassland is an endangered ecosystem. In 100 years (1850 to 1950) grasslands west of the Mississippi River declined by 260 million acres. Cultivation destroyed most of that. From 1940 to 1990 another 27.5 million acres of natural grassland was forever lost. Besides agriculture, a little over one-third or almost 10 million acres disappeared to the exploding population demanding more and more land for housing, shopping malls and highway right ways. Part of the acreage used for cultivation continues by what one report called the perverse incentives of paying landowners to convert grasslands for crops they would have not otherwise grown.
My route in 1962, on a U.S. highway to the border of North Dakota had taken me across what was potential habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse, Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur, three species that would not make it on the trip list. Eastern Montana also offered the possibility of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Chestnut-collared Longspur. The offer did not come to fruition, but I still had a chance at them in North Dakota. It was not until the late 1970s in the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado when I would see Mountain Plovers. Walter Graul was working on the social systems of breeding plovers.
Many miles of the 1962 route are under the pavement of the present 4 lane interstate that traverses same short grass plains and rolling hills of eastern Montana. I revisited the Montana plains in 1994 with my friend and mentor, Dick Banks, with his wife, Chuck, when speeding our way to Missoula, in western Montana. Our destination was to the University of Montana to attend a meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Besides some inspiring papers at the meeting, the highlight of my time there was bivouacking n what then was the Montana’s tallest building, a 10-story dorm. We met the Yellowstone River at Glendive. On a wide ribbon of Interstate 94, we tried to stay under the speed limit; Dick Banks and I spent many hours on the road to meetings and museums over the years, and we had experienced speed and the consequence of radar detection. Our crossing of the Montana grassland revealed a region of barren rolling hills similar to my earlier memory, albeit somewhat barren, and not many birds, at least not many seen in the zone of 70 to 80 mph.
Onward we sped until we reached Pompey’s Pillar east of Billings. It was a welcome stop to stretch or legs and a little casual birding. The significance of Pompey’s Pillar is the physical on-site evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is here that William Clark carved his name in the stony pillar. Linda was not with me then, but she would have enjoyed seeing the signature left behind by her great, great, times ex-uncle.
Got up early. The smell of the sunrise mingled with the wonderful aroma of brewing coffee. I got the eggs frying in my little aluminum skillet, which was not really for frying or anything else, sipped the steaming coffee and looked out over the steep hillsides and barren rocks of Makoshika. In less than an hour, I would leave the west and cross into North Dakota. I regretted missing Mountain Plover and McCown’s Longspur. My route would be a bee-line from west to east, a straight as an arrow track connecting Fargo on the east, and Jamestown and Bismarck to Medora. Medora was important because it is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, my next destination.
Roosevelt Park, actually three discontinuous units adding up to just less than 77,000 acres, is located on the Little Missouri River in the North Dakota Badlands. The south unit, where I planned to camp is about 10,500 acres. The formation of the badlands here, and those at Makoshika State Park in Montana began over thousands of years ago, first by sediments deposited from the eroding Rocky Mountains. The lowland sediments later became vegetated swamps, and new layers of sediment formed. Eventually streams cut through the soft layers of clay, carving a multitude of various sandstone buttes, tablelands, and valleys. Anyone first seeing such a landscape probably thought the inhospitable scene looked pretty bad.
The flavor of the badlands is one of disbelief that erosion could be so devastating. There also is a flavor of fantasy, with people in an old western movie waiting to ambush whoever comes within shooting distance. This is the flavor of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour stories and Hollywood. This was a land of cowboys and cattle. Before Roosevelt visited the badlands of North Dakota, a French nobleman attempted to establish a cattle empire and – plant not far out of Medora, a town the Marquis de Mores named in honor of his wife. Roosevelt first came to the badlands during the fall of 1883 on a hunting trip, and during that time, he became interested in the cattle business. He was fresh from college and, looking for adventure, shot his first buffalo. He returned the next year and established the Elkhorn Ranch. Later he, as others before him, would make and lose thousands of dollars raising longhorn cattle. During visits to the badlands, Roosevelt became aware of the damage done to the land and its wildlife, including some big game species, such as bison and bighorn sheep. Overgrazing was destroying the grasslands habitats used by large and small mammals and birds. Conservation increasingly became a concern to Roosevelt, who once said, “I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” I am glad he did. While President, Roosevelt established the US Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act under which he proclaimed 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 51 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests.
The year 1962 was a green year for the badlands. After years of drought, the prairie rose bloomed in profusion and dog-bane daisies, the state flower of North Dakota everywhere. Birds were abundant in the park, especially at Cottonwood Campground. Common Grackles seemed especially common, and there were Brown Thrashers and Catbirds to tally. I had entered the land of eastern birds. This was the beginning of what I was so anxious to experience. Now, almost every day, I thought I would find a new species to add the slowly growing trip list. I could hardly believe my eyes. Both Red and Yellow-shafted Flickers were in the cottonwoods only 20 feet away. I hardly slept that night.
The morning was quiet except for peaceful rustles from people waking in the half empty campground that perched near the bank of the Little Missouri River, a shallow meandering stream. The water is cloudy with sediment; the carving of the badlands in an ongoing phenomenon. The park brochure mentioned it was safe to wade across the river when the water is not high from rain, during spring or early summer during the aftermath of flooding from melting snow. There was not a cloud in the sky and there no birds on the other side that would entice me to wade into the slow moving river. There was too much bird activity at my campsite. I could keep my feet dry and watch Common Grackles scouring the campground for dropped morsels of human food that some individuals incorporated into their diet. The two species of flickers were busy looking for ants that were possibly there because of campers and, of course, leftovers from a picnic. A pair of Mourning Doves was sitting very still in the trees and a House Wren was singing most voraciously near the rest room. In the early morning, I heard a Common Nighthawk penting over the badlands, and the gentle sweetness of American Goldfinches.
A male Red-headed Woodpecker called from a nearby tree, then, with a flash of black and white wings, sailed out of site. A couple of Hairy Woodpeckers pecked almost in a whisper on a trunk of a cottonwood, and its diminutive twin foraged on a small branch. When these two woodpeckers together, it is readily apparent how they differ from one another. The difference in overall body size between Downy and Hairy woodpeckers becomes obvious. The character of overall size works best when comparing resident birds, which would be the usual case during the breeding season. However, should a northern Downy fly south and it observed with a resident Hairy, the two might appear similar in size. That is because Downy Woodpeckers from northern populations are larger than those from southern populations. Besides the fact that the two woodpeckers were different in overall size, the bills shape and size are quite different; the bill of the Downy is small and comes more to a point compared to the larger chisel and almost blunt ended bill of Hairy Woodpeckers. Of course, the bill is not always easy to see but these birds like to vocalize and the pik sound of the Downy and the pek call note of the Hairy are also telling.
From the campground I drove northeast on the park road that followed the Little Missouri River. Not far downstream from the campground I came to Peaceful Valley. Across the river, the land rose about 200 feet. This abrupt change in elevation revealed layers of color rising from the valley up to Big Plateau. Beyond was the still higher Petrified Forest Plateau, reached only by trail. Although it was great that there were some roads into areas such as the park, not to mention other national parks, refuges, and forests, but too many roads spoil the habitat. There was construction of new roads, more campgrounds, and buildings in national parks. It was, in part, a grand plan to make protected lands accessible to construct buildings for visitors, including visitor centers and museums to preserve and interpret the regions. It was Mission 66, a federally funded plan implemented in 1956 that was to run to 1966, the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. Originally, Mission 66 was supposed to improve deteriorated and dangerous conditions in the national parks that were the result from time and neglect, and the pressure from of a massive boost in visitation following World War II. Thanks to some forward minded people, the program went beyond mere repairs, and prepared for the onslaught of an ever-increasing visitor population to our parks and monuments.
Not far before the Little Missouri bends sharply to the north is the Beef Corral Bottom, a pastoral flat on the south side of the river. Prairie dogs have dug burrow throughout much of Beef Corral Bottom. I wondered about the name of this place. Maybe a corral was located here. If there was, prairie dogs must have experienced considerable difficulty digging in soil compacted by once occupying cattle. However they did it, I enjoyed seeing prairie dogs much more than cattle, even if they were long horns. A Sparrow Hawk [=Kestrel] hovered not far from the prairie dog colony. The little falcon did not seem to bother the prairie dogs, although some of them watched from near the entrance as the hawk and a couple of Black-billed Magpies announced their presence. The prairie dogs were more concerned about my two-legged intrusion and disappeared underground at my approach.
By late afternoon I had observed several species usually considered eastern birds. Between Cottonwood Campground and Beef Corral Bottom I tallied Red-head Woodpeckers, Catbirds and Brown Thrashers skulking usually just out of sight, Common Grackles cleaning the campsites, and several species that could be either western or eastern species such as Belted Kingfishers rattling over the river, American Goldfinch and Black-capped Chickadees in the trees. The taste of western birds was also present in the park, with Lazuli Buntings and Western Meadowlarks.
It was a peaceful night near the bank of the Little Missouri River. After breakfast, I drove into Medora for the car’s first oil and lube costing $3.80. Medora was also where I bought breakfast, a snack for later in the day, a few groceries, and more ice that cost a grand total of $2.96; the 22 June was beginning to be an expensive day.
The wait for my turn to get the car serviced pretty well shot the morning. I was starved by the time I returned to Cottonwood Campground, where my pale green pup tent stood to mark my spot. A quick baloney sandwich and a couple of crackers coated with crunchy style peanut butter put my growling stomach to peace. I decided to hike about a mile down the river. There were no other hikers, just the occasional car touring down the road. I managed to get my feet wet when I shed my hot boots and socks. Black-capped Chickadees and a Killdeer called their names with their characteristic notes. I saw more woodpeckers, including flickers, but nothing new for the trip list. Back at the campground I decided this was a good time to clean out any food crumbs and whatever else didn’t belong in the car. I also spent some time getting these notes up to date, including compiling what I had observed in the park. Then it was time to organize the car for tomorrow’s destination.
Reclassification of the monument as Theodore Roosevelt National Park occurred in 1978. Reclassification of flickers took away one species. By 1965, published results on interbreeding flickers shed light on what would eventually lead the American Ornithologist Union to conclude that the yellow and red-shafted flickers are conspecific, and now call them Northern Flickers.
Other woodpeckers caught my attention. By 1962 I had read somewhere about the size of different populations of Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, and that it was something birders needed to be aware of to avoid making a wrongful identification. A large northern Downy Woodpecker could be about the same size as a small southern Hairy Woodpecker. Later, I would learn that most individuals of birds, not just woodpeckers, from northern populations are larger in overall size than those from southern populations. The phenomenon known as the Bergemann’s Rule, is one of the so-called biogeographic tenets, which relate body size of animals with latitude and/or elevation. Animals in colder more northern or higher elevations, most biologist agree, are thermo regulated because of their larger size. That is generally how it works. Someone once wrote in a quite popular work on woodpeckers that Downy Woodpeckers migrate. If so, the situation of overlapping size in different populations of woodpeckers would be a definite problem in identifying nonbreeding Hairy and Downy woodpeckers. However, as I later proved Downy Woodpeckers do not migrate, although individuals do disperse, usually not far and not necessarily from north to south.
Enjoying the park and woodpeckers, reclassified or not, was partially possible because of roads. However, there is a fine line between public access and protection of a region. The danger of loving something to death is a reality. Mission 66, completed in 1966, built and improved roads, campgrounds and erected over 100 visitor centers. My last viewpoint of the park, once a quite remote place is now the site of a visitor center built in 1978.
A lube, in the 1960s really meant just that; cars had zerk fittings where a service station person squirted heavy grease to lubricate joints and moving parts of a vehicle. Although the term lube is still sometimes misapplied to certain facilities that change oil, most cars are now factory sealed thus not requiring additional lubing. These facilities today have lube in their name usually associated with some adjective having to do with how fast they can service a car. An oil change is now about eight times more than what it cost in North Dakota. Most service stations have become gas stations. Forms of service hardly ever extend to cleaning a windshield but there is someone, usually, there to take your money. Drivers even pump their own gas.
I drove east, and had my last look at Theodore Roosevelt Park at Painted Canyon, a vast panorama stretching for miles to the north. Layers of soft red banded and scared hills and hummocks far and near. Roundish dark green bushes dotted some of the nearer summits and mixed with short grasses on the lower slopes. Whitish and gray mounds and scars contrasted with the greens, red, and clear blue of the sky. I was alone, the highway empty, while I shared the powerful scene with only the open sky and a magpie that scolded from some unseen perch. What birds, what peace and beauty. This was not a bad land.
Hurrying east, as if a 1955 VW beetle could hurry, for about 120 miles demonstrated, even at that short distance, that the further east you go, the more tall grass you see. Besides watching the grass growth, Yellow-headed and Redwinged blackbirds flitted, gurgled and rasped from occasional marshy areas. Just west of Bismarck I crossed the mighty Missouri River, the route of the Lewis and Clarke expedition. A few more miles on U.S. 10 (Interstate 94 was under construction) in the afternoon, and I turned south to head for Moffitt. Almost all roads east of the badlands in North Dakota have only 90 degree turns followed by extremely flat and extremely straight miles of miles. Moffitt is a small town just outside Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge of 22,310 acres, one of many refuges in North Dakota and in the Central Flyway. The refuge is on the mixed-grass prairie, and contains a few ravines, cultivated fields, planted small tree and shrub, marsh and, of course Long Lake. The lake is a natural lake, although regulation of its water levels are maintain the lake at about 16,000 acres, and to maintain water level to control botulism, a deadly disease that paralyzes of the inner eyelid and neck muscles of waterfowl, especially ducks and geese. That’s what the checklist stated.
I had already gone over the checklist to scan it for birds I especially wanted to see. I knew I was too late for displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse, but maybe I would get lucky. I was running out of time and range for the species. I had checked a few species of shorebirds; the manager had written me earlier that I might see several species of shorebirds but that was before the end of the drought. The grasses had responded to the spring rains, and most of the ponds were full beyond leaving much space for shorebirds. I did find that Lesser Yellowlegs, a new species, which were common, and Wilson’s Phalaropes and Willets were fairly easy to find. Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeers and Avocets, familiar species, rounded out the small list of shorebirds. A pair of Upland Plovers had nested in the middle of one of the dike roads. The pair had not been seen in a few days, and as luck would have it, I missed seeing any of these plovers. There were several species of ducks, white Common and charcoal Black terns, and Eastern and Western kingbirds. The white-breasted Eastern Kingbird reaches far into the west, all the way to Oregon (the first one on the trip was seen at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge), although I had not started seeing many of them until the badlands. The yellow-breasted Western Kingbirds is truly a western species, and does not extend eastward much beyond Minnesota.
Chestnut-collared Longspurs bounded from the roadside in an upland part of the refuge. Many of the longspurs were singing while they wheeled through the air and a dizzying circle. At least it was dizzy for me. The males jet black breast contrasting with the mottled back and chestnut collar was spectacular. The displaying males shared the air with Horned Larks, flying even higher than the longspurs, and Cliff and Bank swallows. The longspurs dominated my attention. Lark Buntings perched along the fence. The males’ white wing patches flashed in contrast to their jet black bodies and lush green prairie. I saw fewer of the brown striped females; they were probably incubating.
I birded until dark, and spent the night on the floor of the manager’s office at refuge headquarters. There I was, surrounded by tired grays, greens and browns, metal desks and a prominently displayed picture of President Kennedy, U.S. and state flags, books and manuals, and a pair of muddy boots.
Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspur became familiar birds in the late 1970s. During a month on the Pawnee Grasslands in Colorado I helped Marshall Howe study the reproductive behavior of longspurs. Birds were marked with plastic leg bands of festive reds, yellows and blues, which allowed us to recognize individual birds. For example, we might have a longspur recorded as right leg red over blue, with a mate having left leg blue over white. If a bird did not have a color band, we set up mist nets so that we could bejewel its bare leg. Watching and recording the marked birds’ every move required hours and hours. Enhancing the field work, was Marshall’s ability to make the best meatloaf known to man. The time on the Pawnee Grassland was a pleasure birdwise and meatloaf wise. Marshall’s facility extended far beyond great meatloaf and he later became a head honcho at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
By noon, following a couple hours of birding at Long Lake, I had covered the short distance to Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge located on the James River and north of Jamestown, a major city in North Dakota. The refuge contains three natural lakes and regulated water levels for migrant and breeding birds and for control botulism.
As with Long Lake, my visit to Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge was to find certain species of shorebirds and so-called songbirds. Once again, because of the nearly steady rainfall that lasted five weeks, the water and the grasses were too high to promote good shore birding. The only staff member at the refuge office was a clerk. Unfortunately I lost his name, but he was an excellent guide. We started birding about 1 p.m. from the west side of Mud Lake, one of the four water bodies backed up by a series of dams on the James River. We purposefully ignored waterfowl, and soon left the gravel road and turned left onto a dirt track marked with two long and obscure spots bare from vehicular traffic. An expanse of tall grass that grew on both sides and middle of the track surrounded us. The pickup we were riding in parted the sea of grass until we at last lurched to a stop at a grove of isolated trees. We got out and waded through the prairie grass. At first all was quiet but in seconds a strange new sound dominated the silence. It was definitely a flycatcher. By now, we had found three species of flycatchers. Eastern and Western kingbirds were to most common and most visible and Traill’s [=Willow] Flycatchers were the least visible species. Somewhere in-between abundance and visibility was the new sounding bird, a new life bird, the Least Flycatcher, an Empidonax that had eluded me for several hundred miles. A singing bird burst forth a che-bek, che-bek from a cottonwood. It finally perched in full sight while continuing to sing. Two others were singing in the distance. Another sound was just feet away from the Least Flycather.
Walking in the tall prairie grass is difficult. It is impossible to see much anything in any direction but the nearby trees offered perches for birds to see over the grass. The trees offered perfect places for territorial birds to sing. After just a few feet of wading through the grass, I heard four buzzes. The sound was so near and so loud as to be almost ear-piercing. The source was a Clay-colored Sparrow, clean-cut as any sparrow could be. It is a neat bird, with its unmarked undersides, brownish cheeks, white line above the eye capped off with a streaked crown. This was a nice bird to see. Perched inches away from my first sighting of a Clay-colored Sparrow was a Baird’s Sparrow. It reminded me a little of a Savannah Sparrow. Later in the day, more Clay-colored and Baird’s sparrows became available for my viewing pleasure. Both are common species to the refuge. The Baird’s Sparrow was especially good to find; another few miles and I would be out of their breeding range.
Back at headquarters, I cooled down in the shade with a tall glass of water or the equivalent that a handy garden hose could deliver. On the other side of the lake are people swimming and I soon joined them to cool away the sultry afternoon and the day’s accumulated grime. Refreshed, I drove south to Jamestown and in the dimming light found a field to pitch my tent. I had no idea who owned it the field and took a chance that it would be ok to camp there. Before the light was gone completely I got out the type writer and pounded out a note to my folks.
The burning questions from my folks are are you safe and was I eating well. I wrote: “I am ok and I am eating well. Probably too well for my budget, but I believe that I’m doing better than a German fellow that toured the U.S. eating black walnuts and anything else he could find that would not dip into his money. (I heard this at Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park a few days ago.)”
I paused to cook my dinner. After the meal I finished the note, checking for spelling errors by flashlight. I sent them the following list of items I had for my evening meal:
1#303 can, Mount Maurice sweet peas 16 cents
1 #303 can, Franco-American spaghetti 20 cents
2 vanilla cream-filled cookies about 10 cents
Some of the grasses in Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge were some of the tallest gasses I had ever experienced in 1962. The nature of the grasslands and other habitats in the refuge are now more under human control. “Controlled” burning has been used in refuges since 1968 “to restore, change, and maintain a diversity of plant communities in order to restore and perpetuate native wildlife species,” according to the refuge‘s website in 2004. Some of the goals of controlled burns include restoration of native grass species and concurrent reduction and control of non-native species. The refuge also uses grazing as a mechanism to improve the natural state of the habitat. The website even stated that “Sometimes grazing is used in conjunction with prescribed fire to achieve a desired effect.” Just how much in conjunction no one said, but I cannot help but wonder about the natural state of BBQ.
In 1962 I was unaware that building a dam on the James River began in 1955. The dam was completed and the new Jamestown Reservoir filled in 1964. Unfortunately, the reservoir severely handicapped the ability of the Refuge to manage water, which ironically the refuge was founded to do just that. Following years of pontificating and hard work, Congress, in 1986, reversed the negative impact of the reservoir by directing the construction of a bypass channel and better means of controlling water levels. New higher capacity water control structures were initiated in 1987 and are expected to be completed by 2006 or only after 42 years of adverse impact on habitats in Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge. I wonder what Theodore Roosevelt would have thought about this.
Camping was possible just off the road just east of Jamestown. As promised, I stopped at Valley View, a farm town, to visit the father of an Oregon neighbor. There seemed to be some consternation and bewilderment about me traveling alone just to see birds. Late in the afternoon, I discovered that Fargo did not have a YMCA, and I was getting desperate for a shower. Perhaps my Valley View farm host’s consternation wasn’t so much about what I was doing but how I might have smelled. I hope not. I had been taking sponge baths daily and changed clothes regularly, but camping is camping. My apologies are to anyone who crossed my path and encumbered a hygienic insult. Fortunately, there was a YMCA at Moorhead, which was just across the Red River in Minnesota. It felt great to have the hot water and soap wash over me. It felt great to be clean. A shave and change of clothes at least made me somewhat presentable. Still following U.S. 10, I passed Buffalo River State Park where I could have camped, and I could have driven north to Tamarac NWR where Pettingill offered strong assurances of a Red-necked Grebe. I did neither, and drove on to Perham, a baseball area.
It was getting late again. I had tarried much too long today, and had little to show for it. A road leading north out of Perham looked promising for a place to camp. Occasional signs along the way advertised lake resorts. After several turns and forays down side roads I began to realize that I was lost, or at least I had misplaced myself. Finally I saw a congenially worded sign to Little Pine Lake. It is actually on the roadmap. At the end of a driveway off the road was the lake, several neat little cabins and boat dock. This was not a place I could camp, and as I was turning around in the driveway a tall man bearing a smiling face peered at me. I told him that I was looking for a campground. He said there wasn’t any close by but that I was welcome to pitch my tent between his resort and the road. “Sure, sure. And what about breakfast? Is 5:30 too early?” What luck. The sky was beginning to darken and the air was beginning to cool. What luck, just right for hungry mosquitoes.