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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.
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.
Most birders, will be interested in breeding populations of marsh and prairie species. For these it would be best to come in June, preferably during the first three weeks.
With few exceptions, the birds of the eastern half (especially along the Red, James, and Sheyenne Rivers) are the same species found in similar habitats throughout eastern North America.
Turn on your sound ♬ You may have to walk south into the field where the grass gets a little taller to find the Baird’s Sparrow. It likes to sing from the patches of wolfberry and silverberry. During the early stages of the nesting season, it is quite conspicuous. Later in summer singing diminishes, and the bird becomes a little harder to find.
One of the better places is a large alkaline lake near Westby on the Montana-North Dakota line. To find it, start in the center of town (by the large grain elevator), and drive east on State Highway 5 for 2.3 miles before turning left (north) on a gravel road.
Many local birders and others who bird the area frequently were consulted in determining the status of each bird. Since these people are familiar with the birds, their songs, habits, and habitats, they are good at finding the more elusive species. On your first trip to the area, you may think that some birds are harder to find than is indicated here.
The shallow marsh can be productive in migration and late summer for shorebirds. In the drier fields watch for Bobolink and Grasshopper Sparrow. The wetter edges are good for Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Common Yellowthroat, and Savannah, Le Conte’s, and sometimes Sharp-tailed Sparrows. The lake attracts migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and terns.
This large lake has little vegetation around the perimeter, so few ducks or marsh species actually nest, but some use the area from spring through fall. You may expect lots of grebes (especially Western), American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and Ring-billed and Franklin’s Gulls.
At times the wind never seems to quit blowing (especially in the winter), and summer storms can come up fast. Remember, North Dakota is one of the states occupying the tornado belt. If violent weather hits, head for shelter immediately. Do not let all of this scare you off; most Dakotans have been easily surviving such weather for years.