Birding by RV, ch 12, Traversing the Great Plains

Traversing the Great Plains

Supposedly, the propensity to name landmarks as “Great” this and that has something to do with size and people’s attitude. The perception is not only are landmarks great, the country and the people are great. If one is so great, then a great thing to do is to protect the landscape, the planet, but I am getting off the subject. Back on track, one has to wonder if the plains or the lakes are great because of their immensity or does the word great infer superiority of the locations when comparing to similar landforms found outside of North America. Should the Sahara be the Great Sahara? Its size is much greater than our Mojave Desert. We traveled through part of the Great Basin in Oregon and Nevada, but a basin in Australia, the Australian Great Basin is larger than the Great Basin in North America. Within our Great Basin is the relatively tiny Great Basin National Park. In North Carolina, we motored miles to the east of the Great Smokey Mountains and drove west of the Great Dismal Swamp while having a great time enjoying the great outdoors during our great escape. Now, having been in Great Lakes country we look forward to traversing the Great Plains and mountains beyond. Are those mountains that form the North American continental divide the Great Rocky Mountains? Most mountains are rocky, but there are ranges greater than our Rocky Mountains. Perhaps names that are more imaginable might have been bestowed on notable landmarks in North America, but that ship has sailed. Regardless of etymology, all of these locations are great, and it probably is appropriate to provide some sort of modifier to the term lake or plains in order to differentiate those landforms from other sets of lakes and plains. People naming our lakes and plains today, might name our large lakes Awesome Lakes and the plains Awesome Plains. However, the use of modifiers such as big, really big, stupendous, mighty or awesome do not sound as great as great.

Before beginning the trek across the Great Plains, we began to wonder in more detail about the term Great Plains. What is a Great Plain? Where does the landform begin and end? People also call the region carrying the name Great Plains by the name prairie and grassland. All these terms conjure up vast panorama that is mostly flat, although sometimes rolling and under a sunny sky shinning over a sea of grass or maybe wheat and marked by an occasional windmill near a remote farmhouse. That picture is somewhat correct. It is true that the region is mostly flat, but the topography does become more rolling as one travels west into Montana. That is where to find big sky country. That is another place that could easily carry the name great. As for grass, most of the natural grasslands are gone burned, eaten by cattle, plowed up, paved over and lost to human intervention. More on that later. Occasional windmills are visible in the Great Plains, but they are not in the form of the small windmill of farms and ranches of the 20th Century that pumped water, they are the giant windmills, the wind turbines, that generate electricity. The surface of the landscape also shows markings of other human structures, more and more buildings, roads, cell phone towers and oil and gas rigs.

Getting back to the name of the landform, we wonder if Great Plains is really the best term for the region we are about to cross. Both of us have crossed the Great Plains many times, traversing the expanse through North Dakota and more southerly routes in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. By geographic definition, the Great Plains includes a far northern tip of Mexico, a huge chunk of the central United States and south-central Canada. Actually, the geographic scope of the Great Plains is not universal. For example, some authorities ignore including all but far western Minnesota with the Great Plains. Most generally agree that the Great Plains covers almost 502,000 square miles and runs from north to south for close to 2,000 miles.

The western part of the Great Plains is more rolling and higher in elevation than the flat expanse to the east where the terrain is mind numbing flat. Those rolling western Great Plains are places for high plains drifters. Some may think Matt Dillon’s Dodge City belongs in the high plains, but much of filming of Gunsmoke was in Utah instead of the actually smooth, tabletop Kansas terrain that lacks elevational relief. Perhaps a good definition of the Great Plains is obtainable from road maps. Starting in the middle of the country, roads run mostly east to west and north to south. These byways also are straight, with few if any curves. Now, moving hundreds of miles westward, roads gradually are less oriented to the east, west and north to south directions, thus reflecting a change from flat relief to one of rolling hills. Roads are more likely to run in almost any direction of the compass and turn according to hills and mountains. Road maps are not wonderful about illustrating streams, but a close look will reveal streams in the western part of the Great Plains are straighter than streams in the flatter eastern plains. In the eastern Great Plains, the flatness of the terrain causes streams to meander as the water seeks a slow flowing downward path. The Red River, the boundary between Minnesota and North Dakota is an extremely meandering river. I remind myself that that particular Red River flows north into Hudson Bay.


11 July 2015

Our night on the Walmart parking lot among six other RVers was quiet. Our crossing of the Mississippi River, which runs through Bemidji, Minnesota, is our last time bridging the yes, great, river. The headwaters of the Mississippi River are only a few miles to the south at Lake Itasca. The river meanders north from Lake Itasca to Bemidji turns eastward and then south as it carves its long way to Louisiana.

In just a few miles west of Bemidji, we begin noticing slight changes in vegetation. There are fewer trees, but have we entered the Great Plains or not. Cultivation is confusing what might have been. We motored west on US 2 past the small Minnesota towns of Solway, Shevlin and Bagley and notice that although our highway is oriented in a northwestern direction, most side roads are running more and more in straight lines either north to south or east to west. Our entry onto the Great Plains is somewhere west of Bemidji. According to surveys of natural vegetation from 1847 to 1908, our travel west of Bemidji might have taken us through oak openings and barrens prior to crossing the prairie grasslands. Today, in Minnesota and most other states, only remnants of the natural grasslands cover the expansive Great Plains. In Minnesota, native grasses dot the landscape with fragments of grassland habitat totaling 235,000 acres, a pittance compared to 18 million acres before the plow. The area of natural grasslands in Minnesota is tiny when compared to the estimated 740 million acres of grassland in the entire Great Plains. What remains, the visual left overs, are open stretches of farmland and trees. In the grasslands pristine state, natural fires prevented growth of trees except along waterways. Now, most grass fires are quickly extinguished. Brush and trees eventually dominate former grasslands. Non-native trees, introduced to create windbreaks, shade or for aesthetic reasons crowd grasslands, while native trees in original riparian zones are victims of removal or trampling by cattle.

Grasslands are the most threatened ecosystem in the country and survival of the system will depend on just how much we value it to help maintain clean water, provide habitat for a whole plethora of species dependent on the habitat, conservation efforts, farming bills and subsidies and climate change. The outcome is not predictable.

The grasslands, the ones that could not be reached by the plow or by some other manmade destructive force come into three styles. I hope it is part of the curriculum in high school as it was during our time. Our textbooks outlined a tall grass prairie, a medium or mixed grass and a short grass prairie. Grasses in the tall grass prairie are amazingly tall. Some species of grass reach up to eight feet. Tall grass prairie once covered 170 million acres, but only about 4% remains, mostly in Kansas and protected by the National Park Service. Former distribution of the tall grasslands occur outside the Great Plains, even as far east as Ohio, but the majority of it once grew in the wetter eastern part of the plains. Short grass prairie grew on the drier western rolling plains; mixed grasses grew further east and west of the long grass prairie. Our route through western Minnesota to far eastern North Dakota is through the former range of tall grasses. We will be lucky to witness medium grasses growing while we the cross the remainder of North Dakota, but may find vestiges of short grasses east of the Rocky Mountains in Montana.

In an hour we arrive at 3.3 square mile Rydell National Wildlife Refuge, now occupy abandoned homesteads. Like most refuges in the Great Plains, Rydell, established in 1992, is restoring and maintaining habitats, including tall grassland habitat. It is Saturday today. The visitor center is locked tight. There are a few birds around the deserted buildings, with singing Clay-colored Sparrows being our best find.

Studies of birds breeding in grassland habitat throughout the country indicate 27 species breed in the prairie grasslands of the Great Plains in North Dakota and Montana. To date, Linda and I have found only a few of the 27 species. Even Eastern Meadowlark seems scarce here in the prairie, just as the population of Western Meadowlark is dwindling in our home turf in the Rogue Valley of Oregon where remnant grasslands there are under pavement in the path of gross urbanization. Ring-necked Pheasant, another one of the 27 grassland species barely hangs on in Oregon, primarily from reintroduction. Horned Larks, once nesting in the Oregon’s Rogue Valley, rarely occur only as visitors. We hope to find Upland Sandpiper, the longspurs, several species of sparrows and maybe a Sprague’s Pipit? Our chances at an Upland Sandpiper seem poor since the species has declined by 84% since 1966.

Many grassland species of birds breed in introduced cropland vegetation, but populations of two species of meadowlarks, Horned Larks, pheasants, and most of the other grassland birds of the Great Plains are slowly diminishing. The degree of their success from using unnatural grasses depends on several factors including harvesting. A bird’s territory might be cut by a mower. The nest could be raked up and become part of a bale of hay. As a ranch hand in Oregon where I once worked, I witnessed hen pheasants having their legs cut by mowers. The severely injured bird became dinner and the nest she ran from became part of the harvest. Birds nesting in the prairie also succumb to cowbird parasitism and from pesticides used by farmers.

The importance of grasslands goes beyond birds. The National Forest Service administers twenty national grasslands. Protection and management of the national grasslands is similar to that of national forests. All twenty national grasslands occupy only 3,838,280 acres compared to the 154 national forests that occupy 188,336,179 acres, even though grasslands once covered 1.4 million square miles or about one-third of the country. Nonetheless, the importance of grasslands is receiving some attention. Grassland biodiversity of invertebrates and plants, its capabilities of enriching soil, protecting water tables not to mention beauty are a few of the reasons for appreciating grasslands. Driving west, we still have hope for an Upland Sandpiper and a Baird’s Sparrow.

12 July 2015

We wake on a Walmart lot in Devils Lake, North Dakota. The town of less than 10,000 takes its name from the Lakota “Ble Waka Sica,” which translates to Lake of Spirits, the name of the nearby lake. We wonder why the spirit had to be a bad one. Devils Lake is saline and part of a large basin of lakes including lakes in Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge, our birding destination today. We have entered the pothole region of the prairie, land of glacial formed small shallow ponds and lakes famous for providing nesting habitats to waterfowl.

Most of the water bodies fall under wetland protection laws that became supposedly effective beginning in the late Twentieth Century. Most of the official regulations, albeit sometimes weak and subject to attack, exist from a slow peace-meal evolution through efforts by numerous agencies. The laws, days and years are too late for many wetlands and millions of ducks. Those laws help prevent private landowners from draining potholes and wetlands or disturbing their shores. Today, only 2% of the prairie potholes are under protection by National Wildlife Refuges and easements. That meager 2% produces 23% of waterfowl. The 800,000 hunters, birders and others visiting waterfowl breeding grounds are grateful for the small and large ponds and lakes, the potholes dotting parts of the Great Plains.

Nonetheless, waterfowl are in constant jeopardy from human endeavors that have, they think, better uses for the potholes. There are other factors pushing back waterfowl populations. Drought in pothole country is blamed for population crashes in the 1980’s. Population estimates of 95 million dropped to 62 million by 1985. A count of 49 million in 2014 is a 8% increase from the previous year. Ducks and other birds face many obstacles just to stay alive, let alone successfully breed. Habitat loss such as loss of the potholes is the greatest contributor to population declines in waterfowl and other birds. Windmills and cats rank second and third, but that is another story. The story here, in the Great Plains, is the need to conserve suitable habitat, not plow or pave it, and protect the habitat from pollution by pesticides, fertilizers and other contaminants. Will 95 million waterfowl ever again fill the sky?

Our quest today is prairie waterfowl. We leave our trail, US highway 2 and head due north on nearly deserted US 281 toward Alice Lake National Refuge and are soon traveling alongside Lake Irvine. Slightly over 12,000 acres, the refuge, in 1935, began as easements of private land before becoming a full-fledged refuge. Use of the word fledged is not exactly a pun since the region provides habitat for waterfowl to breed, molt and migrate. Since years of low precipitation, water now continues to wash off the backs of ducks as annual precipitation has gradually increased the size of many water bodies in North Dakota, even to the point of causing people to abandon Church’s Ferry at the junction where we had turned north.

Our route brings us views of distant waterfowl and we spot a few birds with reddish heads. The backs of these birds are gray. The shape of the front their heads is round and their bills are pale with black tips. We clearly are able to add Redhead to our trip list. A couple of Lesser Scaup turn out to be Greater Scaup that apparently forgot to continue north to Alaska and northern Canada. I have plenty of practice teasing out individuals of scaups wintering in western Oregon, but today is a time for a long-range camera to back up a difficult identification. I could take a picture and it would have been ever bit as diagnostic as photos I have seen of the alleged Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas a few years ago.

Warming sun peaks around clouds crowding the sky. Most of the clouds are the high billowy type, but there are a few dark grayish ones hanging down like crooked drapery. Linda assures me the menacing dark clouds are nothing to cause worry. As time goes on, the worrisome clouds gradually fade away. We stop a few times as far north as Avenue 66, the road to headquarters and wonder why rural roads sometimes carry designations as avenues and numbers with fantastic digits as one might find in a city. Will residential housing and commercial buildings populate Avenue 66 someday? That may be a reasonable expectation if humans continue populating Earth at uncontrollable rates, but that is assuming humans exist long enough for urbanization of this remote outpost. Presently, we are happy for the remoteness.

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Le Conte’s Sparrows and other grassland species live here.

Today is Sunday. Headquarters, a few miles east on deserted Avenue 66, will be closed. We are on our own to find our target Le Conte’s Sparrow, which will be a new trip bird and a life species for Linda. A dirt road leading into the flat plains to the west looks promising. Open areas on both sides of the road are lush with an assortment of green grasses, most of which are about a foot tall. A few small islands of taller and darker green grasses dot the flat landscape. Some of the vegetation is not grass, but probably some invasive weeds. A soft breeze shakes the seed heads of some of the vegetation, but we cannot otherwise detect movement or sound of any birds. With little recourse, I play vocalizations of Le Conte’s Sparrow whereupon one answers almost immediately. The response is a perfect match. There must be something occupying the other side of the road and a playback of Nelson’s Sparrow brings us a familiar and diagnostic refrain. Not wanting to stress further our grassland birds, we depart without having the pleasure of actually seeing either species.

It is late, as we turn around at Avenue 66 and head south to reconnect to our US 2 trail heading west. On the way to our junction, we find Wilson’s Phalarope, Willets and dowtichers that must remain anonymous. There are other shorebirds, but their distance is too great for making identifications. Decorating a wetland before arriving at our night’s destination at Minot are many Western Grebes and three Canvasbacks, a new duck for the year.

Thirty-five miles of driving takes us to Rugby, a town of 2800 claiming to be at the geographic center of North America. We are the northern most point of US highway 2 in North Dakota, about 50 miles south of the border with Canada. We are also only minutes from the 100th Meridian. The measure of it does not directly relate to time, but to geographic position, a measure we call longitude. This invisible line runs from the North Pole through the Great Plains, forms the eastern border of the panhandle of Texas, slices through several states in Mexico and continues across the Pacific Ocean to the South Pole. Topography complicates ecological distributions south of the Great Plains. Ornithologists have long considered the 100th Meridian in the Great Plains as a dividing line between eastern and western species of birds. Authors of field guides frequently use the 100th Meridian for a boundary of an eastern or a western field guide. Of course, the longitudinal line really marks a point of transition between eastern and western distributions. Birds, unlike people, do not have hard and fast boundaries. Examples of an avifauna transitioning from west to east include Spotted and Eastern towhees, red and yellow-shafted subspecies of Northern Flickers, Bullock’s and Baltimore orioles, Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Western and Eastern meadowlarks.

Paul Johnsgard, in “The Ornithogeography of the Great Plains States” published in 1978, analyzed distributional data of birds occurring in the Great Plains and concluded the transition between eastern and western species occurs near the 102nd meridian. Johnsgard’s study might suggest to some a parallel to a more recent phrase, “the further north you go, the fewer southern birds you see.” However, the anecdotal idea that the 100th Meridian is the dividing line between eastern and western birds, according to Johnsgard, was off only by a couple of degrees. Although it is true, the further east you go, the fewer western birds you see, birders can at least know such an axiom has supporting data and careful analysis and limits itself to a relatively flat region, the Great Plains. Let’s see. Linda and I are at 48 degrees latitude. Two more degrees west is the magic line, the 102th Meridian and it is only about 93 miles away.

13 July 2015

Yesterday evening, we arrive in Minot, which is only a half of a degree from the dividing line between eastern and western birds. Minot, with an estimated population today of almost 50,000, is the fourth largest city in North Dakota. When we arrive, we are certain the correct pronunciation of the city is My-no, but locals correct us. It is My-not, with apparently no apologies to the French language. The name Minot comes from Henry D. Minot, classmate and friend of Teddy Roosevelt, a railroad man and touted as an ornithologist since he was the author of his only publication, the fairly scholarly at the time “The Land-Birds and Game-Birds of New England” published in 1877. I brushed against a copy while at Smithsonian, but never used it as a reference for any of my own research. No one in the Division of Birds mentioned his name and there seem a lack of information on how Henry might have pronounced his last name. Minot most likely was of French origin and may have been Americanized from Minot have a silent “t” to Minot with a not so silent “t.” Why not? Language is strange. We had already been in Montpelier, Vermont, which they pronounce as mont-PEEL-yer, Kissimmee, Florida, which they pronounce as Ka-SIM-mee, and earlier travel had taken us to such places as Sequim, Washington, which is pronounced Sqwim. Moreover, what about Kayro for Cairo and on and on? Language is also entertaining.

Regardless of the pronunciation of Minot, a truck stop for showers last night is welcoming. The truck stop is not busy, and the clerk asks if Linda and I mind sharing the shower. Of course, we do not mind. The word is that Minot is a friendly place and perhaps this is one way to keep things friendly.

While in town, we visit an urgent care. I had a rash that had been developing behind the left knee since three weeks ago. The rash’s redness is fading, but at the same time, it is spreading. A white blood count reveals no infection and a doctor advises the rash will most likely fade away. (It did).

Getting in and out of urgent care ate up most of our day. That evening, we join 10 RVs, eight commercial trucks and one person sleeping in his car for a night on the local Walmart parking lot. Most nights on parking lots have been relatively quiet, but tonight vehicles driving by are full of loud talkers playing loud radios with big thumping subwoofers and roaring engines with loud growling exhaust systems. Around 3 a.m., someone in a pickup arrives and shines their lights on the parked party of revelers. In minutes, the party revelers drive away. The local constable poops the party, most likely. The remaining morning is thankfully peaceful.

14-15 July 2015

Not far out of Minot, a stop for topping off our propane tank reveals trouble. Somewhere “back east,” during a previous fill, the o-rings of our tank must have stuck to the end of the nozzle of the filling hose. The o-rings were drug out and fell silently to the ground. Apparently, this is a problem that strikes the unweary. We had then gone on our merry way since the o-rings function only during filling the tank, not holding gas in the tank. The attendant west of Minot did his best, but could not properly fill our tank. We need o-rings, and the attendant tells us the nearest available ones will be in Williston. Luckily, we found a store with the proper o-rings, but they were pictures in a catalogue. I ordered extras in case of future trouble and will watch more carefully during refills of our propane tank. In the meantime, we know we can make do with the propane onboard.

Just east of Stanley near the turn to the settlement of Blaisdell we cross the 102nd Meridian. Okay, we should begin seeing western species of birds. However, we do not. My only other crossing of North Dakota was in 1962 (see ch. 8 in Birder Interrupted). I recall that I began finding eastern birds in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That site, on the Little Missouri River is 85 miles south of Williston and one-and-a-half degrees west of Johnsgard’s east/west longitude. Clearly, birds have not read the book.

Although we do not bump into any typically western birds, we do see acre upon acre of rolling green grass and among the tapestry are waves of bluish-purple. Whatever we are witnessing is beyond the road right-of-way on private property and there is no easy place to park near the highway. What is causing the colorful palate? Is it penstemon or clover? Perhaps it is purple coneflower, aka Echinacea. We will try to remember to ask someone in Williston.

What we witness and what will soon be gone

Large trucks carrying unknown cargo zip along while we strain to identify the cause of the purple colors. Some of the trucks are carrying sand from as far as the Great Lakes. Their cargo is for fracking. We are now in oil country. Williston sits on the 14,700 square mile Bakken Shale deposit. Williston joins other regions from northwestern Montana to southern Canada in what the industry call recovering crude, oil that is, black gold and gas. Unfortunately, for the environment, a large portion of the recovery is by fracking, a method almost everyone realizes is good for certain individual wallets, but bad for water, wildlife, people, and can cause earthquakes. Large areas at a drilling or fracking site, called pads, are scattered over the prairie and any water, subterranean or surface is subject to chemical change. Water in the prairie pothole region is very vulnerable to disastrous increases in salinity. Contamination to the wetlands is ongoing and so is drilling and fracking. Gas that cannot be “recovered” goes up in flame, which further contributes to pollution and global climate change. There is more earthshaking information concerning why fracking is not a great idea and that goes back to the proven fact that fracking causes earthquakes. During the fracking process, water is pumped into the earth. That water lubricates subterranean faults and plates and everyone should know what that means. Scientists have also proven that large reservoirs have caused earthquakes and the combined fracking activities in the Bakken fields and size of Lake Oache, the reservoir on the Missouri River, potentially present more problems than the worth of the crude being collected.

My mind strains as I think back to 1962 when I then unwittingly entered the Bakken region. There is a fuzzy recollection of oil drilling near Dickinson. Such a site would have been somewhat interesting since my previous observations of oil drilling were limited to southern California, Oklahoma and Texas. The few oil wells around Dickinson did not grab my attention and I did not realize that was the tip of the iceberg. The significance of the shale deposits grew and today Williston’s economy, some report, is solely dependent on the petroleum industry.

The prairie is giving from below, but above it is being taken away.

Not all things from the Bakken boom are bad. For example, the once homogeneous residency of Williston became populated by diversity because of attracting laborers from all over the world. Fracking and drilling possibly creates genetic diversity, which is a good thing. We and other travelers continue to guzzle the so-called harvest of the bubbling crude, but at the same time, many push for less destructive way to propel our vehicles and heat our homes.

Lowering oil prices, which we are experiencing on our trip this year, is causing the local establishments to realize that a boom can go bust. The economic peak today is on the downturn. That economic situation reminds most that it is not a good idea to count your chickens before they hatch and that it is not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket. Yes, there are lessons to learn from chickens and eggs.

Having solved most of the o-ring problem, we drive east of Williston to Lewis and Clark State Park. This is the one in North Dakota. There are at least five Lewis and Clark state parks, including a familiar one on the north coast of Oregon. The Lewis and Clark State Park in North Dakota is on the shore of Lake Sakakawea. We wonder what Sakakawea would think of a lake in her name, a lake damming the Missouri River, the river where she guided Lewis and Clark. Linda and I also wonder what she would think about the spelling of her name, which, in most translations means bird woman. We know we would have liked her. North Dakotans spell her name as Sakakawea whereas Federal maps and agencies spell the name as Sacagawea. A “j” sometimes replaces the “g.” Linda and I grew up enunciating the name as Sacagawea. There are seven iterations of the name in the journals of Lewis and Clark. Part of the confusion may have been from the lack of the original chroniclers paying close attention to detail, perhaps not realizing the importance of getting it correct. Part of the confusion may also relate to uncertainty of what tribe this crucially important Indian woman originated.

Lake Sakakawea (middle right) and state park

Lake Sakakawea, by any name, is a long lake of 479 square miles of water and 1,340 miles of shoreline. The lake is one of the three largest reservoirs in the United States, being smaller than Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado River. The Lake Oahe, in North and South Dakota is the fourth largest reservoir. The dam creating it is one of 15 slowing the flow of the Missouri River.

Our 15-mile drive to the park is on a narrow paved road, route 1804, the year Lewis and Clark traveled along the Missouri River. Numerous large trucks hurdle dangerously toward Williston while one behind us appears to be chomping at the bits, wishing we would drive faster or anxious to pass. We pull over when possible, but there is always another vehicle ready to plow us off into the weeds. The vehicles are part of the oil industrial complex. The weeds are what grow in the prairie, what has replaced the grasslands after failed agricultural endeavors. Even the final approach to the turnoff to the park is barren compared to the verdant rolling hills seen east of Williston from US 2.

While a park ranger checks us in, I comment that Lewis and Clark would turn over in their graves if they could see the region today. He agrees and laments that the highway, 1804, was once a scenic byway, but that it has turned into a road choking with trucks and other vehicles related to gas and oil exploitations. He said driving the road is a “little scary.” I agree.

Thankfully, the campground is far enough from the highway that the noise of the petroleum brigades is muted. The Corps of Discovery, the official name of the Lewis and Clark expedition made camp not far from the park on 17 April 1805. Of course, the expedition traveled up and along the Missouri River, it main flow now under the reservoir. The 490-acre park came into being almost 20 years after formation of the reservoir. We are luckily back from the north shore of the reservoir and do not notice the throb of outboard motors propelling people on the water some 30 feet below our 1,869 foot elevation. Natural vegetation that might thrive here would be mixed grassland species, but that habitat is not apparent. Perhaps the only situation that is similar to what Lewis, Clark and Sakakawea saw is the so-called badlands of North Dakota. The eroded hills, steep ravines and terrain difficult to traverse remind me of those witnessed in 1962 on the Little Missouri River. The scene is a relief from the views of flat horizons seen from the east side of the Great Plains and even attractive compared to the rolling grasslands since Minot. Linda and I like mountains, which some of the steep relief suggests and we like deserts, which the parched land evokes.

Not long after parking at our campground, we hear our first of the year Ring-necked Pheasant. A nearby camper relates coming to this park on many consecutive years and for the first time this year she observed both Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles. We are west of the normal range of Baltimore Oriole according to the geographic guide, but the park checklist lists Baltimore Oriole as a species occurring in the park. I look for both orioles today, but find neither. An exploratory trek near the campground reveals species that might be expected east or west of the dividing line, the 102nd Meridian. There is a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, a smattering of House Wrens and Chipping Sparrows, a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird, an unidentified Empidonax flycatcher and a Black-billed Cuckoo flying overhead. The cuckoo is a new bird for the year.

During the night, our little home shook twice from two stiff gusts blasting across the campground. Thunderstorms brought more wind and heavy rain, but pauses long enough for clouds to scatter and reveal stars shinning down. We listen for owls and hear only rain drops dripping from nearby foliage.

After breakfast, I walk a trail leading to a small woodland. The trees, of various kinds, are maybe 50 feet in maximum height and look like a good place to support the cuckoo seen yesterday. If it is there, I cannot relocate it. While walking, I wonder how we missed Yellow-breasted Chat in the east and since we did, we must be entering the breeding range of the species in North Dakota. A minute after that thought, I hear a chat. At the location of the jumbo warbler, a Yellow-breasted Chat jumps in plain view and sings. At least that is what it thinks it is doing, which by most warbler standards is not singing. Curious Black Angus stare dumbfounded at me as I leave the harsh sounds of the chat, and identify a female Indigo Bunting. Returning to camp, I find a male Bullock’s Oriole and, as we leave the campground, we see a Mountain Bluebird. Maybe we are entering western bird country after all.

16 July 2015

Last night is on the tarmac of a Walmart parking lot in Williston. Rain falling during most of the night produces a hot and muggy sleep. July is great for birding in SE Arizona and one expects to be hot. At least it is a dry hot, but July in North Dakota may not be the best plan. My lower back is bothering me—to much prone time and too little hiking, that usually keeps the pain at bay.

The morning is busy. A telephone call reveals that my INR taken in Minot and tested in Bismarck is a healthy 2.1. I also picked up a prescription for the unidentified rash behind my knee and the ordered o-rings arrived. We are ready for more fun on the road, but with all the positive excitement, I left a set of the keys attached to a key for the gas cap on top of the gas pump. However, and as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.

Departing Williston, we drive into Montana and turn north of state highway 16 to Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the northeastern corner of Montana. Linda spots our first Montana bird, a Black-billed Magpie on the way to headquarters where we meet Mike Borgreen, refuge biologist. He suggests a 14-mile driving route for tomorrow when we will tour more of the refuge. Both longspurs and California Gulls, three new species for our year, excite us for the pending tour of a small portion of the 31,533-acre refuge. Medicine Lake refuge, established in 1935, is one of 500 Globally Important Bird Areas. A colony of 31,000 White Pelicans nest here and there is habitat hosting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Of course, we are too late to see a Sharp-tailed Grouse this time of year, but there is always a possibility and there are other inviting species among the 283 on the refuge checklist.

Our camp tonight is 30 miles north of the Missouri River in the little town of Medicine Lake. The population was about 450 in 1950, but an estimated 244 people live there now. Declining numbers may relate to the difficulty of living in such remoteness. Besides hunting, Medicine Lake is famous for striking a temperature of 117 degrees in 1937. A $25 campground on the northwest side of town provides us with electricity. The campground is otherwise deserted. A gravel road invites a one-half mile stroll. A railroad parallels the virtually untraveled road. Maybe a dozen steps put me in close proximity to Killdeer, Redwinged Blackbird, Northern Yellowthroat and Savannah Sparrow. Also, are several Upland Sandpipers that prefer watching me from the slightly elevated rail bed. Others momentarily land on the gravel road before disappearing toward croplands on both sides of the road. The sandpipers and several Lark Buntings are new for our year as is a Western Wood Pewee we hear from the campground. Our year count now stands and 404 species of birds.

17 July 2015

With the refuge map given to us yesterday, we drive eastward from Medicine Lake, the town to bird Medicine Lake, the refuge. Our tour will take us along the shore of Medicine Lake, the lake, which is designated as Medicine Lake Wilderness that occupies about one-third of the refuge. The refuge sits in a former bed of the Missouri River. That wass so long ago it was before there was a was, and even more fantastic is that was when the Missouri River flowed north into Hudson Bay. Millions of years and glaciers give us the present river. We were told yesterday that Medicine Lake is favored for good fishing and that we should to expect to see cattle on the refuge. It is Friday, but so far, no fishing people are in sight. About 600 cattle from four ranches graze on the refuge and from our route; we see some distantly swishing their tails at swarms of July flies. The bovines are, unbeknownst to them, prescribed grazers, which, owing to the lack of bison replaces natural grazing to help regulate refuge habitat.

Map of tall (green), mixed and short grass (tan) regions of the Great Plains.  Road we traveled in Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Birding Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, according to a finding guide, is best in May to early June. Lewis and Clark were along the nearby Missouri River in late April and early May in 1805 and they may have seen more birds at that time than we will today. However, we are hopeful that our mid-July will be good medicine as it was for Native Indians. Information on the early history of Medicine Lake is not on the tip of the tongue of much literature and websites of the general white population. Apparently, the Assiniboine, occupying northeastern Montana, northwestern North Dakota and part of adjacent Canada called the lake Bda wauka, which means medicine water. From the shore of Medicine Lake, Assiniboine also gathered roots and other parts of plants for food and medicine.

Our route is east of headquarters to the junction of County Road where we will turn south into the heart of the refuge. Sparrows are everywhere between headquarters and Sayer Bay. There are several Savannah and Clay-colored sparrows and a few Grasshopper Sparrows and closer to Sayer Bay are many Baird’s Sparrows. Among the sparrows are a couple of Sprague’s Pipits. All these birds are definitely good medicine, especially so because Baird’s Sparrow is a life bird for Linda.

The drive toward Medicine Lake takes us past the gravel pit where we see white caps lapping the gravelly shore. An abundance of Killdeer keeps us on our toes for other shorebirds. We spy an Upland Sandpiper, another first for Linda, and find a pair of Marbled Godwits tending a fully-grown first-year offspring. A walk on the shore, but not in the restricted Piping Plover habitat is good for a Sanderling and a rare Buff-bellied Sandpiper, most likely a migrant. While we sit in the front of the RV enjoying the lake and then birdless nearby shore, a Piping Plover brings the scene to life, appearing as if from nowhere, it walks now in plain view. Sometimes it is best to wait for good things to occur.


Piping Plover

Willows sprouting from the shore are loaded with Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The first group we discover are presumably immatures and females, the second consists of adult males. There are hundreds of Yellow-headed Blackbirds loitering in the bushes, more than either of us have ever witnessed in one locality, even in nesting colonies. It is mesmerizing. We take several photos, knowing that our snapshots cannot capture the fantastic scene we see and feel. Reluctantly, we must drive on. Other birds taking advantage of the woody vegetation include Mourning Doves and American Robins. Rounding out the blackbird family are Redwinged Blackbirds, Bobolinks and Western Meadowlarks. Chipping Sparrow, Horned Lark and a distant Ring-necked Pheasant direct our eyes to the ground and Ring-necked Duck, Mallard, Norther Shoveller are on the open water. The only raptor in the neighborhood is a Northern Harrier.

Although our route continues southward, we turn back to County Road and west to Medicine Lake, the town. Because I had left a set of keys at our last gas station, we hurry down state highway 16 to Culbertson and head east, back to Williston, North Dakota. What should take an hour of driving turns into a change of plans.

Five miles east of Culbertson is a major train derailment of 22 oil tanker cars full of westbound Bakken oil. Four cars spilled an estimated 35,000 gallons of the black stuff. The derailment is adjacent to our highway. Traffic on the highway crawls in both directions as we inch our way past various vehicles from cars to pickups and larger rigs belonging to oil and first responder entities parked along both shoulders of the pavement. Huge cranes appear in the process of up righting some of the cars that are not marked with white-painted scrawls with white letters on the black tank cars “Do not upright.” There is no hazmat team. The closest one is 300 miles away. Bulldozed soil near some toppled car looks as if someone simply “buried” the spillage. That does not cover up what is more than a hint of odor from the black rotten petroleum goo. At the edge of the pavement, a man clutching a clipboard appears annoyed at us as we slowly inch forward, but he answers our question. No, they are trying to soak up the spillage with dirt and that thousands of yards of contaminated soil will eventually be hauled away. Hauled where? Power lines once paralleling the train track are down from wayward tank cars snapping utility poles. Thankfully, there are no explosions or fires. Luckily, there is no immediate danger to people, but long-term danger is another matter.

Sample views of the derailment.

Finally, breaking from the snarl of highway traffic, we continue heading for North Dakota. Taking a short cut puts us even more off our plans for the day. We had hopes of retrieving the keys at the Williston gas station and traveling back into Montana.

Thankfully, our keys and locking gas cap are waiting at the gas station in Williston. We now have a choice to either stay overnight in Williston or head west, again, into the Great Plains of Montana. Because of the late hour and knowing we would need to slow to a crawl at the site of the train derailment, we opt for a night at Williston’s Walmart.

18-19 July 2015

The train derailment and misplacing important keys manages to detour our schedule and at the same time, we realize our freshwater supply is too low to head across Montana. I asked three different people at various places where we might fill our RV water tank. All said they did not know, but at a fourth location, a customer, hears me ask the clerk about water. The clerk cannot help; the customer and I leave minutes apart. Less than a block away, the customer, whom I recognize pulls up and directs us to follow him to his house where we can fill our tank. His accompanying young preteen daughter helps us decide that it is okay to follow him to a nearby residential area on the west side of Williston. The resident, from Yakima, Washington, refuses our offer to pay for the water. He works in the local oil boom, says his water bill is about $20 per month. His wife volunteers that last winter was horribly cold and windy, with gales of 25 mph, but keeping warm, at least inside, during last winter was cozy and also inexpensive.

With the sun at our backs, we once more drive into Montana. Soon, we are creeping along US highway 2 next to the scarred ground torn by oil filled tanker cars pilling off the tracks parallel to our highway. There are piles of wheels and axles of several cars. Looking like giant weights from a gym, they are stacked, ready for transport on one of the many flatbed trucks waiting to carry them from the accident site. The still lingering odor of petroleum smells like old blackened diatoms ready, with the least provocation, to burst into flame. Men in suits look on a workforce trying to organize chaos. Individuals are taking notes, talking, framing photographs while others look on, amazed, distraught, perplexed and hoping this does not happen again.

Train derailments will most likely happen again. Much to our surprise, a derailment did happen on 14 July, but west of Culbertson, Montana. Perhaps we should stay tuned to local news more closely or find an app for train derailments. Really, knowing about derailments might save our lives. Many derailments go beyond oil spills and gas leaks. Deadly fire is a possibility. Linda and I wonder about the safety of trains after hearing of two derailments within days of one another. It seems that the regulatory actions for rail safety in Montana could be better. BNSF, which stands for Burlington Northern Santé Fe, is one of the largest freight rail companies in North America, and considers the cause of the two July derailments of their trains was by what rail people call thermal misalignment or sun kinks, which is the result of heat expanding and buckling the tracks. Maybe, but if that is the case, climate change is going to produce many kinks.

We crawl to a stop. A couple of men standing at the road’s shoulder lament loud enough for us to hear that cleaning up whole mess and restoring the railroad to normalcy will cost over $2 million dollars. Restoration is imperative since shipment of Bakken oil will require around 40 trains per week. Every day, 5.7 trains will rattle across Montana. At least 2,080 trains will travel west, carrying fracked and drilled ooze, some of which is toxic, flammable, explosive or all three, to help people be more comfortable in ways we are accustomed despite the global harm. Possibly more of Bakken’s exploitations will travel east, some through cities, traversing Chicago and neighborhoods expecting those black trains will cruise by without incident. Probably a lot of fingers are crossed. In May, a BNSF derailment of crude caused the evacuation of Heimdal, North Dakota, a town of only 30 people about 60 miles south of US 2. Improved safety, including use of better tank cars will avert some of the danger.

Leaving the scene of the accident, Linda and I enjoy the gasoline that propels us westward to new adventure and old guilt. As the thousands of tanker cars trundle away from the Bakken deposits and from other petroleum rich locations, construction of wind turbines and solar panels compete in the race that may have only one outcome. Naturally, we hope for the best and wonder if railroads and pipe lines will keep a safer pace as we continue depending on petroleum.

The part of highway 2 across Montana possesses the nickname the Hi-Line. Surrounded by continuing human population loss and economic issues, the Hi-Line is, nonetheless, the window to Big Sky Country, with it Great Plains, rolling grasslands and sky too high to see beyond. Experiencing Big Sky is not new for us and we look forward to old haunts from earlier travel on the western part of the Hi-Line.

Near Saco, a town of around 200 souls, we leave the Hi-Line for an earlier version of US highway 2. We are grateful that some highway engineer in 1960 moved the main route to the north and that we now have a road less traveled to the next refuge. Our route since leaving the pavement is quiet and peaceful. Fenced in farmland or ranchland, we are not sure, skirts the empty road toward the eastern boundary of the refuge. Knowing we cannot park overnight in the refuge helps us decide what to do for the evening since, just yards from the boundary, a wide place along the road seems a perfect fit for the RV. A confused looking Sharp-tailed Grouse tells we are home for the night.

20 July 2015

Our camp is adjacent to an opening in the fence where someone long ago entered a home site, perhaps by a horse-drawn wagon or later by a pickup. A thick wooden corner post, the post that usually anchors fence wire that turns 90 degrees, is holding three strands of barbed wire that run parallel to the road before turning at a right angle toward an abandoned building. On top of the corner post is a rod-iron sign. White cursive lettering on the lower rectangle spells the words “Possums Place.” Birds had left white traces of old meals that obscure what may have been an apostrophe. Above the triangle are the silhouettes of a man on horseback herding what appears to be two steers, one larger than the other. Linda’s propensity to wonder about residents in old cemetaries and historical sites wells up into delight and intrigue about the abandoned homestead. What happened here? It is 200 yards beyond the corner post to the two buildings and Linda is excitedly leading the way. Both buildings are abandoned and in need of repair. Apparently, one of the buildings was for humans while the other larger building was for livestock. Linda imagines probable inhabitants and activity. A line of a dozen stunted trees grow west of the house. Based on nearby electricity poles, the place was once on the grid. Beyond the broken stucco of the house is prairie and tiny dots of vehicles traversing the new US 2.

IMG_4606 (2)

Yellow-headed and Redwinged blackbirds we saw yesterday are still near our parking spot. Before breakfast, a stroll on old highway 2, which is dirt and gravel, points me to the refuge boundary 160 yards to the west. North of the road and near the boundary is a small lake. To the south, marsh vegetation is growing from water draining from the lake. There are a few ducks of the dabbling variety and a handful of silly coots on the water. Blackbirds scold from the marsh vegetation. From my slightly elevated perch at 2,259 feet, I view a Sharp-tailed Grouse and four Gray Partridge busy collecting something from the road. It is probably grit to replace the teeth birds left behind so long ago. Vesper Sparrows and Eastern and Western kingbirds are everywhere, but not as abundant as are Mourning Doves. Grain fields across the road from Possums Place probably attract doves and blackbirds.

We had earlier washed a couple of hand towels, which we wrung out and then draped on the top of the large green seed heads of grass next to the RV. Low humidity under a cloudless sky and slight breeze dries our laundry. Had we not been able to top off our fresh water, we would not have clean towels or for that matter, been able to camp in the remote beauty. The moral to the story is always to have plenty of water onboard.

Reluctantly, we leave our camp, but eagerly enter Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge established in 1936. The refuge includes 15,551 acres of short and mixed prairie and saline and freshwater wetlands habitats. In addition to the refuge acres, conservation easements, beginning in 1977, protect 60,000 acres of adjacent grassland and wetlands for nesting and migrating birds. Knowing this eases the angst from the derailments a few days ago, but worries us that the tanker cars travel the rail through southern parts of the refuge.

Not far into the refuge is something on the road. We stop to see a large gopher snake that must have been victim of one of the three vehicles we saw traveling the old highway in the last 15 hours. Vesper and Baird’s sparrows are in abundance and there are more Sprague’s Pipits than either of us has seen. A lone Grasshopper Sparrow hops into sight. Bumping along, we flush two Gray Partridge not far from refuge headquarters. Yesterday and today, much to our surprise, are hawkless. Staff at the refuge remark concern about lack of Swainson’s Hawks and advise us to look for Ferruginous Hawks nesting on old tires anchored to the tops of silage towers. We also hear dire concern about potential tanker car derailments within the refuge.

It is very hot, with the thermometer hovering in the low 90’s. A short distance west is Malta, a town of about 2,000 known for its historical western outlaws and even more historical preserved dinosaurs. Trafton Park, a city establishment, offers water, restrooms, fire pit, with only a scattering of cottonwood trees for only $3 a night.

21 July 2015

Mid-May through June is the best birding time in Bowdoin National Wildlife, but today, we try to include mid-July as at least a good birding time. It is not. Our tour around Lake Bowdoin does show us that a temperature in the high 90’s is a good time for us to close the windows and turn on the air conditioner.

Back at Trafton Park, we recall the birds there during the cool of the morning, the numerous Yellow Warblers, a singing Warbling Vireo, Eurasian Collard-Doves and Mourning Doves, a catbird or two, Common Grackles and a pair of Northern Flickers.

22-23 July 2015

After leaving Malta, the next 90 miles takes us past Wagner, Harlem and Zurich. Those names do not fit the rolling prairie of the Great Plains. At Havre, which has oddly has the local pronunciation as hav-er, we locate a laundromat and, after a grocery shop, head 10 miles south to Beaver Creek County Park. At 10,000 acres, the park is one of the largest county parks in the country. Campsites are up and down Beaver Creek. Each one has a name and in the twilight, we find our site which is Hagner. Although we are low on fresh water and high on black and gray water, we enjoy the coolness from the 4100 feet elevation.

A Spotted Towhee wakes us the next morning. Its song is noticeably different from the West Coast birds. Two Cordilleran and one Dusky flycatcher are apparently unnoticed by a Swainson’s Hawk circling overhead. After considerable spishing, a MacGillivray’s Warbler calls and then pops to the top of a bush. A pale-morph Ferruginous Hawk soars over the mile-wide park and disappears beyond a dry hill.

24-25 July 2015

Before leaving the riparian habitat around our campground on Beaver Creek, a Brown Thrasher reminds us that we are east of the Rockies. The flycatchers are gone and judging from the behavior of the thrasher today, migration is on their minds.

Migration is also on our minds as we stop at the dumping station at the lower end of the park. Fresh water is also available as is our highway west.

In a few hours, we pull into Shelby, Montana, at the junction of the Hi-Line, US 2 and Interstate 15. The Amtrak stops here. We are about 75 miles north of the Missouri River. Now, dependent on farming, ranching and oil, Shelby began as a railroad town in the late 1800’s, and by 1943 claims to be the Gateway to Alaska. Shelby’s population and elevation almost share the same number, about 3,200. For its size, Shelby is impressive; having 48% of it acreage publically owned, with 17.2% of land encompassing several, not just one, city park. Those are atypical figures for cities in the U.S.

Our destination for the day is Shel-oole Lake Campground in the western part of Shelby. The park, with its 42 campsites, sets on gently rolling hills under a cover of short mowed grass and a few small cottonwoods. A ridge shields us from any distant noise from I-15 and another hill separates us from a motel. For $25, we have fresh water, showers, with hot water, and sewer and electricity. We have the park to ourselves the first night, but the next day at least three RVs roll in for the night.

Birding in the campground is not productive. The habitat is much too sterile, with lawns only a robin might love. A trail at the upper end of the campground climbs steeply to an earthen dam and a reasonable overlook of the impounded water, the namesake of the campground. Three surprised Gray Partridge forage on the slope. On the water are a dozen Canada Geese, a handful of Mallards and the ubiquitous silly coot. Of interest is an Eastern Kingbird that repeatedly flies between two overhanging branches and on each foray deftly sweeps its breast in the water. Between flights, the daring bird sat on a limb preening, but in seconds makes another pass into the water. The kingbird passes into the water 10 times before I move back down the hill.

26 July 2015

Today, we leave the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains of Montana. However, we have one last birding site in the western prairie, the high plains and short grasslands. Our destination is in the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation, home to the Blackfeet Nation. US Highway 2 traverses the reservation from about 25 miles west of Shelby to the border of Glacier National Park. Linda and I visited Mission and Kipp lakes and stayed in Browning, the principle town in the reservation. (There is no connection between the name of the town and our last name; see Milestone, ch 4).

We recall the condition of the road to Mission Lake traveled by our old birdmobile nine years. Our RV would not make it to the lake. We opt to drive on to Kipp Lake where the road appears much improved since visiting here in 2006 and is an easy, although dusty drive. Our target species is Red-necked Grebe and we are with luck even though a wind close to 20 mph is roweling the water to a choppy surface. We spot a lone Red-necked Grebe among numerous Eared Grebes, a raft of snowy White Pelicans and a Northern Harrier tacking low over the marsh vegetation. There likely are shorebirds, but the wind and distance is not on our side.

Also, not on our side, is a young dog, maybe two feet tall at its shoulders, which is coming our way. Judging from its ears, it is some mixed breed of hound. It is overly enthusiastic as it bounds towards us. Linda and I quickly realize the dog is not in an attack mode, but a mode of I am lonely and won’t you to please pay attention to me. Regrettably, we did. Once getting our attention, it will not leave our side. We hope the healthy looking canine is with a couple parked at the edge of the lake. However, they believe it belongs to the people in the house located on the way to the lake. We drive to the long driveway and try to direct the dog to the house. It will not leave us. Finally, we rapidly drive back toward US 2 at speeds barely safe for the gravel road, but the dog follows. We turn around and drive back to the driveway. Of course, the eager dog follows. Parking, I exit the RV and begin talking gruffly at the hapless hound, but the dog is starving for human compassion. However, we cannot take the dog with us and we do not want it following us to the highway where it might be ran over. Exasperated, I try to work up to a meaner voice and chuck small rocks towards the dog, which, finally, it gets the idea and walks a few yards down the driveway toward the distant house. We speed away. The dog does not follow us this time and cannot know our sadness.

Nine miles to the west is Browning near the end of crossing the Great Plains. Beyond is the coolness of trees and the Rocky Mountains.

The western edge of the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains

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