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North Dakota Bird Life:

Tracking Changes Over a Quarter Century

The Field Work Begins

The survey began in late April and ended in mid-July each year. We counted breeding birds on 128 of the 130 original quarter-sections visited by Stewart and Kantrud. We started in the southwest corner of the state and worked our way to the northeast corner. We walked 10 to 20 miles per day, during one of the driest (1992) and one of the wettest (1993) years of this century. We drove More than 16,000 miles each summer, trying diligently to match Stewart and Kantrud's 1967 schedule.

We censused birds in a variety of habitats, including wetlands, grasslands, croplands, woodlands, and farmsteads. We crossed bare fields, barbed-wire fences, and flooded streams. We climbed slippery clay buttes and dodged rattlesnakes in the badlands. We fell in badger holes and tripped over pocket gopher mounds.

Foxes yelped, coyotes howled, and dogs barked at us; a three-legged dog even bit one of us. A female coyote charged and a male wild turkey attacked us. Curious neighbors asked questions and inquisitive passersby stared. We weaved and zigzagged between rodeo bulls and had rifles aimed at us as we approached a missile site.

And we recorded birds--a lot of birds. Waterfowl and finches. Shorebirds and thrushes. Chickadees and turkey vultures. In 1967, Stewart and Kantrud found 129 different species on the 128 quarter sections. On these same areas, we recorded 144 species in 1992 and 153 species in 1993. Over all years, 161 different species were observed, 69 of which are common North Dakota breeding birds. The remaining 92 species were either rare, uncommon, irregular, or localized breeders.

We missed only one species, the northern waterthrush, that Stewart and Kantrud saw. The northern waterthrush is uncommon in the state, occurring primarily in the Turtle Mountain and Pembina Gorge regions.

On the other hand, we observed 32 species in 1992 or 1993 that Stewart and Kantrud did not see in 1967. Some of these, such as the hooded merganser, wild turkey and giant Canada goose, have increased in number since 1967. Many, however, are not common, such as cinnamon teal and pileated woodpecker, and chance may have played a part in our finding them.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the blue grosbeak. Stewart observed a male blue grosbeak at a quarter-section in Emmons County in 1967. The blue grosbeak is very rare in North Dakota, with only 20 breeding records scattered across the state. When we revisited the same site in 1992, we also found a blue grosbeak, in virtually the same patch of shrubs. In 1993, however, we did not see one.

Species that were abundant in 1967 were by and large common in 1992 and 1993. The horned lark, which breeds in cropland and short grassland habitats, was most abundant in all years; more than 1,000 breeding pairs were observed each year. The chestnut-collared longspur, common in grassland and stubble fields, was the second most abundant breeding bird.

The red-winged blackbird, a wetland and upland nesting species whose numbers have declined in recent years, ranked third. North Dakota's state bird, the western meadowlark, a grassland-breeding species, was the fourth most abundant. Finally, the brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in other songbirds' nests, was fifth most abundant.

GIF-Western meadowlark

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