1 September 2018
At the Canadian border the custom agent (this one actually had a sense of humor) asked us if we had any weed (marijuana). He was probably hoping if we did he could confiscate it and smoke it.
Mid-afternoon, we arrived at our destination – Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). I love this place. I was a little worried that it would be busy with hunters, but waterfowl hunting doesn’t start until later in September. Woohoo!!! There is an auto tour route around the lake. We decided to take it and got lost – look a wrong turn. However, that turn turned out to be very fortuitous as we stopped near a home with lots of tree and proceeded to stop in the middle of the road and bird (luckily there was no traffic on this country road). We saw lots of Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, American Robin, American Redstart (Jack only), Western Kingbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Great Horned Owl, Mourning Dove, and European Starling. The bird activity was fabulous. We probably spend at least 30-45 minutes in this one spot watching the birds.
We retraced our path and found the correct road. We drove the rest of the way around the WMA, finding 45 different species. It was truly a great birding, despite not finding the bird we had really hoped to see – a Short-eared Owl. We saw a Northern Harrier harass a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron and observed over 30 Killdeer roosting alongside the railroad tracks, some on the outside of the tracks, some on the inside. Crazy birds.
Of the 45 different species, 17 of those are First of Year species for me (first time this year I have seen them). It truly was a great day to bird and really our first day of focused birding. I can’t wait for more.
2 September 2018
Woke to mostly sunny skies and cool temperatures, but that didn’t last for long. So nice to have the sun out after all the Canadian rain. We decided to take the interior auto route through the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area. I’m glad we did. We saw lots and lots of Marsh Wrens (I so love wrens), and a couple of hatch year Common Yellowthroat – another favorite, and we had three American Bittern, one of which was right along side the road. As we got near, the bittern walked into the adjacent reeds, but luckily it was quite open and photo friendly. We watched the bittern for several minutes and then it started steadily moving. We tracked it for a short distance and then lost it. Amazing how they can conceal themselves so well.
After completing this auto route, we went to check out Ponds 1 and 2. These ponds are near the railroad tracks and sure enough, the Killdeer were still alongside and between the rails. I counted about 28 and I’m sure I missed those Killdeer that were roosting between the rails whose heads weren’t showing above the rails. And speaking of rails, I heard a Sora and we later spotted another one. In all, this area had three Soras.
The big surprise was the number of Bonaparte’s Gulls. I estimate there were AT LEAST 500, if not more. This is a migration route for them and there must be some good food here right now.
Around noon we headed to Helena where we will be staying for the next two nights with my brother Alan. I got a call from a friend (Lisa H.), who is biking with another friend. They are in Helena for the next two nights also. Small world. Will have dinner with them tonight. Now, I am just catching up with emails (and unsubscribing to many – I can never keep up while traveling), and going through my photos. Want to post my first blog (Alaska/Canada) before we leave Helena.
3 September 2018
Lazy day today at my brother’s house in Helena, Montana. I worked mainly on my blog – it does take a lot of time to write it up, go through my numerous photos and select the best representatives of our trip, and then edit them, if necessary (mainly cropping). We did go for a short hike at Spring Meadows State Park. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and despite the time of day (siesta time), we did observe 14 different species of birds, including a Gray Catbird (which I didn’t expect to see in Montana) and several Wood Ducks.
4 September 2018
We left Helena and since I wanted to go to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Great Falls, Montana and get there at a decent time, we decided to spend the night at Freezeout Lake again, and then take some back roads to the refuge.
We made it to Freezeout around noon, took a short nap, and woke to my phone ringing. My father was calling to let me know my brother Larry had died around 11:00 am Alaska time. I think I mentioned that he had brain cancer. He thinks he got it from working for Alyeska Pipeline Company. There have been two other guys who worked there that came down with brain cancer also. I don’t know if it was the same type of cancer or not. Larry lived almost two years after his diagnosis. So sad – he will be and is missed.
We did ride around the lake again – taking the interior route first, and then driving the exterior route. At first we thought many of the ducks had moved on, but upon further examination through binoculars and my spotting scope, they had just moved further away from our viewing pleasure.
The brochure for the Wildlife Management Area calls the period of time when the ducks are molting their feathers – Brown Duck Time. Well said. Many of the ducks are unidentifiable or as the brochure states, an ‘identification challenge’!
5 September 2018
We got up around 6:30 a.m. so we could get a head start on getting to Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge for the early birds. I used Google maps to identify the route to take to the refuge. Silly me. Sure it took us to the refuge, only it took us to a back entrance with a locked gate. We then had to spend another hour going around the refuge to the other side in order to access the refuge through the main gate. We had hoped to be there by 9:00 a.m. but instead didn’t make it until 10:00 a.m.. Best laid plans….
I had wanted to go to the refuge to check out the presence of shorebirds. The only shorebird we saw was a single Killdeer as the water levels were too high for shorebirds. We only drove the Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive, so maybe the other areas of the refuge held all the migrating shorebirds? There were a lot of American Coots (thousands), and we did get a good look at a Swainson’s Hawk, which was nice. We don’t see too many of them in our travels.
The roads on the tour route were teeth shattering washboard. I think the refuge maintenance staff actually learn how to create washboard roads as a way of keeping traffic from going too fast on the refuge roads. Not that it makes that much of a difference to some drivers – we never understand why many visitors drive the auto routes so fast.
We left the refuge and headed east. Our destination for the night was a Corp of Engineer’s campground (Nelson Creek – and it was free, which means a picnic table, no water, and only a vault toilet) along the Fort Peck Reservoir. We finally arrived there around 5:30 pm after a long drive through prairie land. It was quite windy there, but at least it was warm and no rain. The silence of the place was golden. Lots of stars at night, and great views of the Milky Way.
We did see a fair number of raptors enroute to the campground, mainly Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers, but also a Swainson’s Hawk and a Golden Eagle. The roads were quite narrow so we couldn’t really pull over to check out the raptors on a fence or pole. Birders do you notice that whenever you are driving and you see a great bird near the road there is no place to pull over and get better views? Frustrating.
At one place along the highway we did stop to check on a raptor. Turns out it was a Merlin. The bird was perched on a post and when we stopped it gave us a look and then flew right towards the van, barely missing hitting it. The bird flew across the road and landed on a hay bale. So we pulled onto an adjacent road to get some good photos. This time we weren’t quite as close to the bird, and it decided we weren’t the enemy; either that or it just decided to stand his ground.
6 September 2018
Our goal today is to make it to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Along the way, traffic was light, which was good because at one point we needed to pull over. Jack saw a something run across the road and in to a ditch. We pulled off the road and went back to check it out. What we found was a dog. The dog, a cattle dog, was lying in the grass. We didn’t know if it was hurt or not. I went and got it some water plus a left-over pancake and put some almond butter on it. I don’t know if the dog ate the food or drank the water. He growled at me when I got too close. Poor thing. I hope he survives and he wasn’t dumped off by some idiot. If you don’t want your dog, take it to an animal shelter or the humane society. A farm house was nearby so at least the animal has a chance of getting adopted and hopefully doesn’t starve to death or die getting hit by a vehicle.
We got to the campground by noon and found it half full already. We picked a spot in the outer loop with shade as it is warm today. We went for a hike on the Little Mo (Missouri) Nature Trail where we saw Spotted Towhee (adult and juvenile). This is one bird I miss by living in Alaska. We don’t have this species. We also observed a Warbling Vireo. Since I rarely see vireos it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing. No instant identification.
Do you notice that a lot of times the most birds are observed at or near campgrounds and parking lots? Well that rule is true for here. The campground has a lot of American Robins and the day-use area near dusk had at least six Northern Flickers and a Red-headed Woodpecker with two young. One didn’t seem to want to leave the tree it was on, instead it wanted the parent to feed it. The other chick had already fledged and was flying to other trees to forage for food. These young don’t have the red heads yet or the white backs and breasts. And I was surprised they were found this far west. They can even be found breeding in Eastern Montana. Guess you learn something new every day about the fascinating life of birds.
7 September 2018
Today we are exploring the park. I walked from the campground to the day-use area, where Jack met me. I was searching for the Red-headed Woodpeckers again. I didn’t have my camera yesterday when I saw the bird so I thought I would come back this morning to get some good photos. Naught. Jack saw the woodpeckers when he arrived, but I missed the adult. We did have a small flock of Wild Turkeys move through the campground.
We hiked 1.6 miles (round trip) to a Prairie Dog town. These guys are definitely getting ready for winter. They were fat! Surprisingly we’ve only seen two raptors while here – a Turkey Vulture (probably looking for a dead or dying hiker – its was hot out today) and what I believe was a Prairie Falcon.
We hiked the Coulee Loop Trail (4.1 miles), which takes you up and over and along some of the fascinating rock formations in the park. This park has beautiful “badlands”. So what goes up, must come down and our feet surely felt like they had been abused after the hike. We haven’t gone on a long hike in awhile. And when I took off my shoes, I had a hole in each sock where my big toe is. No the socks weren’t Smartwool or Darn Toughs.
After the hikes we drove the road to its end, and along the way saw a fair number of Plains Bison. Bison were reintroduced to the park in the 1950s by the National Park Service.
I did bird the campground and day use area after dinner.
I would like to spend more time in the park. Maybe next visit. It seems like we are always in a hurry to get somewhere.
8 September 2018
Windy day today – strong winds (15+ miles per hour). I walked through the large field between the campground and the day use area at the north campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This area has a lot of good birds. In walking I flushed eight (8) Northern Flickers and counted four more. I call the area “Flickerville”. The Red-headed Woodpecker and offspring were back on their favorite (dead) tree. The siblings were fighting each other – maybe for the best place on the tree with the most bugs? Fun to watch the hatch year birds chase each other around.
We stopped to check out the Cannonball concretions near the campground. Fascinating.
Today I wanted to bird the Ilo Lake National and Long Lake National Wildlife Refuges. Stopping first at Ilo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, we didn’t see a whole lot of bird activity. This is a small refuge, and most of the songbirds had already left (migrated south). We did stop so I could take a photo of Barn Swallows (surprised to still find them in this neck of the woods – though they would have migrated south by now), and the swallows started flying around our vehicle apparently hawking insects attracted to the van. One even tried landing on our radio antenna. Crazy birds. I had my window rolled down and Jack was surprised one didn’t fly in the window. Did they not like our vehicle or just all the bugs that had died and were stuck to the vehicle that they wanted. Easy pickings for the birds? Not sure?
We made it to Long Lake refuge around 2:00 pm. A long slog (drive) from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the refuge. We always try and take back roads. Lots of trucks associated with fracking were on the back roads in the morning. We spent about an hour or two at Long Lake NWR. At one point we saw an estimated 1000 Double Crested Cormorants. They kept flying over the dike we were parking on. Amazing site.
We stayed the night at Beaver Lake State Park, southeast of Long Lake NWR. This park is a small oasis in the middle of prairie/agricultural lands.
So besides the wind and rain, the only other downside to North Dakota are the flies. We hate them. They seem to get into the van and don’t want to leave and, the little monsters aren’t easy to kill, but our zapper finally catches up to them…
9 September 2018
This morning I really needed a walk so I decided to walk the campground loop and part of a trail along Beaver Lake. Wow!!! The bird activity was amazing. Earlier in the morning – around 5:30 a.m., I heard two owls hooting. One of the owls was nearby, while the other one I could hear as it made its way around in a large circle.
Near our campsite was a picnic area where they had a monument to the individuals responsible for establishing the park. This park is a small oasis in a sea of prairie. The area around the monument had a lot of bird activity going on – Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Flycatcher sp., Black-capped Chickadee, Swainson’s Thrush (lots of them), Orange-crowned Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and American Robin. Crazy with birds one moment and then silence the next. Some predator must have been nearby to silence the birds. It wasn’t us as we had been there for 20-30 minutes already. It was probably another 5 minutes before the birds started singing and moving around again.
This campsite is set up strange. There is an outerloop for driving. When you find a campsite you like you move into the inner road – driving on the grass between the Lilac bushes. The inner loop was a former horse race track.
First stop of the day – Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge near Carrington, North Dakota. I’ve enjoyed this refuge in the past, and today the Warbler Woodlands area was productive. We had Gray Catbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-crowned Warbler, Least Flycatcher, House Wren, and several sparrow species, including a Song Sparrow (new for the trip). There were ducks on the lake, but again they were still the “little brown ducks” (Jack calls them lbd’s), and thus hard to identify. Well the Ruddy Ducks are easy because they have stiff tails that stick up like a rudder. We also drove the auto tour route, but this route wasn’t very productive bird wise. We did see two Wood Duck families (always nice), and there were Monarch Butterflies flitting about.
We did have to drive a lot of prairie country to get to the refuge. And we saw a lot of “prairie potholes” North Dakota is famous for. I think most of these features are within the central part of the state.
Our destination for the night was Fort Ransom State Park, but we decided to go to a Corps of Engineer Campground instead. The only drawback was you have to go online to pay for the campsite and well our AT&T Service in this part of North Dakota is practically useless. The campground host was supposed to come by and help us but never did. Need to call in and pay for our accommodations.
Windy again today, although no rain yet. The sun did try to peak out from behind the clouds on occasion which always brightens the day – literally and figuratively.
Tomorrow we head to Minnesota. Sometimes these trips seem so rushed. We have to be in Lake Crystal by 9/12 so we can get a swivel seat installed in the van. We originally had the work scheduled for 9/14, but since we made good time coming down the Alaska Highway we moved it forward two days. Now I wish we hadn’t. Oh well. Such is life.