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Breeding Birds of North Dakota

Wetland Communities


Wetland habitats in North Dakota include natural ponds and lakes, man-made ponds, reservoirs, natural fluviatile wetlands, and road ditches and drainage channels. These wetlands in combination occupied about 9 percent of the state in 1967. Natural ponds and lakes accounted for 7 percent of the state area, with proportions ranging from less than 1 percent of the Little Missouri Slope and Missouri Slope to a high of 16 percent on the Missouri Coteau. Fairly high proportions also were found on other subregions of the Prairie Pothole Region: 13 percent on the Southern Drift Plain, 9 percent on the Northwestern Drift Plain, and 8 percent on the Northeastern Drift Plain.

Shallow ponds and lakes were especially numerous within the Prairie Pothole Region, where densities up to 160 per square mile have been recorded. The great majority of these are less than 15 acres in area, although larger ponds and lakes ranging up to 100 acres or more are by no means rare. The greater acreage of wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region accounts for the fact that it is generally regarded as being the principal waterfowl-producing area in the state.

On the basis of differences in wetland vegetation as related to variable environmental conditions, a considerable number of distinct classes of ponds and lakes in the glaciated prairie region have been recognized (Stewart and Kantrud 1971). The occurrence, abundance, and diversity of aquatic plant species may be correlated with such factors as water permanence, water depth, degree of salinity, and land use (Stewart and Kantrud 1972a).

Wet-meadow Swales

Wet-meadow vegetation may be considered to be a distinct biotic community when it occurs as temporary (Class 2) basin wetlands or as bands of varying widths along intermittent streams. Surface water in this habitat usually persists for only a few weeks following the early spring snowmelt and occasionally for several days following heavy rainstorms during the late spring, summer, and fall. This community occurs in valleys or in shallow basin depressions that have not been altered by the plow. It is especially common in the Prairie Pothole Region and also occurs locally elsewhere.

Wet-meadow vegetation consists principally of fine-textured grasses, rushes, and sedges in association with a considerable variety of forbs. Occasional trees of peachleaf willow occur as well as patches of shrub willows. Variation in species composition may be related to certain land-use factors and to slight variations in salt content of soil and surface water, ranging from fresh to slightly brackish. The primary plant species include fowl bluegrass, wild barley, northern reedgrass, prairie cordgrass, slender sedge, woolly sedge, Baltic rush, false aster, and lowland white aster. Common forbs are frequently represented also by narrowleaf dock, western dock, orach, marsh cress, silverweed, rough cinquefoil, lanceleaf loosestrife, claspingleaf dogbane, germander, marsh hedge-nettle, western waterhorehound, wild mint, western ironweed, and biennial wormwood. Many other plant species are of regular occurrence and occasionally are quite common.

Characteristics of Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species (including well-marked sub-species):

Seasonal Ponds And Lakes

Seasonal (Class 3) ponds and lakes represent one of the more prevalent natural basin wetland habitats throughout the Prairie Pothole Region. They also are fairly common in the Turtle Mountain Region and occur occasionally in the Agassiz Lake Plain and Southwestern Slope Regions. Surface water, ranging from fresh to moderately brackish, is usually maintained for an extended period in spring and early summer but often disappears during the late summer and fall.

In wetland communities of this type, two distinct vegetative zones normally occur, a peripheral wet-meadow zone and a central shallow-marsh zone. The wet-meadow zone is composed predominantly of fine-textured grasses, sedges, and rushes, while most of the predominant plant species in shallow-marsh zones are grasses, sedges, and other grass-like plant species that are coarser and of greater stature. Variation in species composition of both zones may be related to certain land-use factors and to variations in the salinity of surface water.

In the central shallow-marsh zone, which is the key indicator zone for this type of wetland community, the primary emergent species include giant burreed, narrowleaf waterplantain, western waterplantain, tall mannagrass, whitetop, sloughgrass, common spikerush, slough sedge, marsh smartweed, and water parsnip. An open-water phase often occurs in the deeper portions of the shallow-marsh zone and is frequently occupied by submerged aquatic plants, the more common of which include variableleaf pondweed and common waterstarwort.

JPG -- Picture of a seasonal pond.

Plate 6. Seasonal Pond. Stutsman County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Predominant plants in the central shallow-marsh zone of this pond include giant burreed, slough sedge, and variableleaf pondweed. Breeding birds of frequent occurrence are represented by the Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Sora, American Coot, Wilson's Phalarope, and Red-winged Blackbird.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species (including well-marked subspecies): Extraneous species:

Semipermanent Ponds and Lakes

Natural basin wetlands designated as semipermanent ponds and lakes (Class 4) are quite common throughout the Prairie Pothole and Turtle Mountain Regions and also occur locally in the Agassiz Lake Plain and Southwestern Slope Regions. Surface water, ranging from fresh to subsaline, is usually maintained throughout the spring and summer and frequently into fall and winter. During drought years, however, water in these basins may disappear as early as midsummer.

Three distinct vegetative zones are characteristic of these wetland communities: A peripheral wet-meadow zone, a central deep-marsh zone, and an intervening shallow-marsh zone. The wet-meadow zone is composed predominantly of fine-textured grasses, sedges and rushes; the deep-marsh zone is dominated by bulrushes and cattails which are generally coarser and taller than corresponding emergent species in other zones; and the shallow-marsh zone is dominated by grasses or grass-like plants that are intermediate in height and coarseness. Variation in species composition of vegetation in these zones often is closely related to differences in salinity of surface water and also is affected to some extent by variations in landuse.

In the central deep-marsh zone, which is the key indicator zone for this type of wetland community, the primary emergent species include common cattail, hybrid cattail, hardstem bulrush, river bulrush, slender bulrush, and alkali bulrush. An open-water phase often occurs in the deeper portions of the deep-marsh zone and is frequently occupied by submerged aquatic plants, the more common of which include muskgrass, horned pondweed, saltwater wigeongrass, claspingleaf pondweed, sago pondweed, grassleaf pondweed, coontail, white watercrowfoot, common watermilfoil and common bladderwort.

JPG -- Picture of a semi-permanent wetland.

Plate 7. Semipermanent Pond. Stutsman County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Predominant plants in the central deep-marsh zone of this pond include hardstem bulrush, common cattail, hybrid cattail, sago pondweed, common watermilfoil, and common bladderwort. Breeding birds of frequent occurrence are represented by the Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, Sora, American Coot, Wilson's Phalarope, Black Tern, Long-billed Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species (including well-marked subspecies): Extraneous species:

Permanent Prairie Ponds and Lakes

These natural basin wetlands (Class 5) are comparatively deep and usually are of large size. They appear to be restricted to the Prairie Pothole Region. Although definitely limited in numbers compared with other wetland communities, they are quite generally distributed throughout the Missouri Coteau and also are of local occurrence in the Northeastern, Southern, and Northwestern Drift Plains. The alkaline surface water ranges from slightly brackish to subsaline and is normally maintained throughout the year.

This type of habitat is composed of a large, centrally located, permanent, open-water zone that is usually bordered by narrow, concentric bands of deep-marsh, shallow-marsh, and wet-meadow zones. Within the deep-marsh and shallow-marsh zones, both emergent and open-water phases are often present. Variation in species composition of the vegetation of these zones may be correlated with differences in surface water salinity.

The central permanent open-water zone is the key indicator zone for this type of wetland community. Only two species of vascular plants, both pondweeds, normally occur in this zone. Western wigeongrass is quite regular in occurrence, and occasionally it is associated with big-sheath pondweed. In some lakes, the deeper portions of this zone are devoid of submerged vegetation. Toward shore the permanent open-water zone is frequently bordered by a band of open water representing the open-water phase of the deep-marsh zone. Although superficially similar in appearance, this shallower open-water band differs in species composition of submerged plants.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species (including well-marked subspecies): Extraneous species:

Permanent Wood-bordered Ponds and Lakes

These deep-water wetlands are restricted largely to the Turtle Mountain Region, but a few also occur in the Prairie Pothole Region, particularly in the Northeastern Drift Plain subregion. Surface water in these wetlands is usually circumneutral and fresh and is normally maintained throughout the year.

A permanent open-water zone that is usually devoid of submerged aquatic plants is characteristic of the central deeper portions of these natural basin wetlands. Narrow concentric bands of deep-marsh and shallow-marsh zones are normally present and these frequently contain emergent and submerged species of aquatic plants. In these wetland habitats, wet-meadow zones apparently are replaced by low woodland borders.

JPG -- Picture of a permanent pond.

Plate 8. Wood-bordered Permanent Lake. Bottineau County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). The woodland border of this lake is composed chiefly of quaking aspen. Hardstem bulrush and common cattail are the predominant emergent species in the peripheral deep-marsh zone. The principal breeding birds include the Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Mallard, and Ring-necked Duck.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species:

Alkali Ponds And Lakes

These large, shallow basin wetlands (Class 6) appear to be restricted to areas of glacial outwash deposits in the Prairie Pothole Region. They are most numerous on the Missouri Coteau, particularly in Kidder, McLean, Mountrail, and Divide Counties.

The centrally located intermittent alkali zone occupies the greater part of these communities. This zone is characterized by highly saline shallow water that frequently alternates with exposed, glistening white, alkali salt flats. Emergent plants do not develop in this zone, apparently because of the high salt content, but one submerged aquatic species, saltwater wigeongrass, is frequently abundant whenever surface water is maintained for a few weeks during the summer.

JPG -- Picture of an alkali lake.

Plate 9. Alkali Lake. Kidder County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Saltwater wigeongrass is a common submerged plant in this lake. The peripheral wet-meadow zone is composed chiefly of alkaligrass, saltgrass, and seablite. The principal breeding birds include the Piping Plover, Willet, Marbled Godwit, American Avocet, and Wilson's Phalarope.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species (including well-marked sub-species):

Fens

In these wetland communities, surface water is sometimes lacking although the bottom soils are normally saturated by alkaline ground-water seepage. Fens could be characterized as quagmires with floating or quaking mats of emergent vegetation. They are frequently located on gently sloping terrain with a perceptible flow of ground water on or near the surface. Scattered fens occur throughout the Prairie Pothole and Turtle Mountain Regions, and a few also may be found in the Agassiz Lake Plain and Southwestern Slope Regions.

The primary emergent species of plants include:

JPG -- Picture of a fen.

Plate 10. Fen. Kidder County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Predominant plants in this fen include common cattail, fowl mannagrass, water sedge, beaked sedge, narrowleaf cottongrass, hoary willow, common waterhemlock, clustered sunflower, and rush aster. Breeding birds of frequent occurrence are represented by the Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Snipe, Short-billed Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, Le Conte's Sparrow, Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and Swamp Sparrow.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Cropland Ponds

These wetland communities occur in basins with soils that are frequently cultivated, particularly during dry years. They are distributed throughout the Prairie Pothole Region but are especially common on the Southern and Northwestern Drift Plains. Small numbers also occur locally in the Agassiz Lake Plain and Southwestern Slope Regions.

Vegetation in these communities, sometimes sparse, is composed of cropland drawdown species in association with pioneering species that are representative of early stages of secondary succession in wet meadow and shallow marsh. A great variety of plants are found in these situations, the more common of which include the following: western waterplantain, quackgrass, shortawn foxtail, sloughgrass, wild millet, needle spikerush, Engelmann's spikerush, fox sedge, Sartwell's sedge, Dudley's rush, Torrey's rush, narrow-leaf dock, marsh smartweed, nodding smartweed, Macoun's buttercup, marsh cress, rough cinquefoil, hedge hyssop, purslane speedwell, and biennial wormwood.

Characteristic Breading Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species (including well-marked subspecies): Extraneous species:

Permanent Streams And Oxbows

Permanent, wood-bordered streams and their associated oxbows are represented by the Red River and its tributaries within the Agassiz Lake Plain Region; by the Sheyenne, James, Mouse, and Des Lacs rivers within the Prairie Pothole Region; and by the Missouri River and its larger tributaries within the Southwestern Slope Region. Slow-moving water and mud bottoms are characteristic of the permanent streams in the state and most of them contain fairly large populations of fish, crayfish, and clams.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Man-made Wetlands

A considerable variety of man-made wetlands are found in North Dakota. These include stock ponds, dugouts, large swallow river impoundments, reservoirs, road ditches, drainage channels, and sewage lagoons. All of these vary greatly in size, slope gradients of shorelines, depth of water, quality of water, and degree of vegetative cover. Because of these variations in habitat conditions, breeding bird populations often differ markedly from one wetland to another. Most of the species of birds that are characteristic of natural basin wetlands and permanent streams are represented in one or more of these artifical wetland communities.
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