[Tweeters] Short-grass prairie trip: part 1

Constance Sidles constancesidles at gmail.com
Sun Jul 14 15:50:16 PDT 2019

Hey tweets, to many people, our recent adventure to northeastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan might appear to be a collection of cramped days in a sleeper car; sketchy, repurposed motel rooms, ranging from assisted living quarters (where John said he could happily stay forever) to a former convent and mental institution; interminable drives on dusty, gravel roads; indifferent food; and untold hours staring at bushes and grass while fending off clouds of voracious mosquitoes.

To us, it was paradise.

We began this, our third adventure in my Year of Adventure, by booking a roomette on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Havre, Montana. Roomettes, in case you don't know, are closet-sized apartments on the train, with two seats facing each other that fold together to form one twin-sized bed. The other bed is a cot that lowers down from the ceiling, with buckled harness to hold in the sleeper, who has all of 27 inches or so of head room. It was commodious compared to sleeping in our car, which we used to do when we were younger and more flexible, joint-wise. Once we packed ourselves in, it was great fun to watch the world roll by. Our average speed was around 80 mph, so trying to identify birds as we zipped by was a real challenge, especially because the tracks go through spectacular scenery that is most distracting. Passing through Edmonds and Everett along Puget Sound, we were able to add Caspian Tern and Marbled Murrelet to our trip list. I had compiled a list of birds that I thought we might see in the short-grass prairie, and Marbled Murrelts were not on it! But I always start counting my bird species from the moment a trip begins, so now you know that a short-grass prairie list can definitely include alcids.

The train ride was 19 hours, which sounds long but we slept a good part of the way. I haven't asked John yet about his upper bunk experience, but for me, watching the moonlight dance among the treetops while the train gently rocked me to sleep was an exercise in peacefulness rarely encountered.

In Havre the next morning, we picked up our rental Jeep in the station parking lot - "The keys are in the visor," said the Budget rental agent. "Just drive it away and put the keys back in the visor when you return." A small-town amenity, the first of many we found on our adventure into nowhere (as in, "We're driving through the middle of nowhere."). We drove a ways to a tiny town called Malta, where we spent the night in a repurposed assisted living facility. it was very restful! We had had the forethought to buy enough food for breakfast and lunch the next day, a practice we implemented on each of our 6 days. This allowed us to get an early start each morning, when all the little towns we visited were still shut up tight.

Our first major birding stop the next morning was Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. This is a 15,500-acre refuge near Malta. It consists of a big lake surrounded by mixed-grass prairie, with an auto route that circles the lake. The area has received a fair amount of rain over the past few weeks, which turned all the grasses green and brought out wildflowers of surpassing beauty. If you have a flexible-enough schedule, I would strongly urge you to plan a similar trip about 2 weeks after a good rain. You will see greens unlike anything in our part of the world, and the mosquitoes will be memorable. Of course, where there are good bugs, there are good birds.

In and around the lake, and along the auto route we found: American Avocets with babies (looking like miniature adults); a Willet family; 11 species of ducks, including nesting Ruddies; numerous nesting Eared Grebes and Wilson's Pharalopes; Soras, Virginia Rails, White-faced Ibises, nesting Marbled Godwits, Double-crested Cormorants (who knew they would fly so far inland?), enormous numbers of Franklin's Gulls, American White Pelicans, and two of our most-wanted target birds: Sprague's Pipit and Baird's Sparrow.

Sprague's Pipit is supposed to be hard to see, as it is declining in numbers and likes to skulk in low grasses. But at Bowdoin, they come out onto the road, where low plants grow down the center, and there they forage in plain sight, walking in and out of the center strip with aplomb, showing off their squatty pink legs, black eyes, and palely elegant faces. Baird's Sparrow was for me much harder to find and ID. All the prairie sparrows looked alike to my unpracticed eye! As we drove along and a sparrow would dart up onto a grass stem, John would ask me, "What sparrow is that?" Some were Vespers, I could tell, and many were Savannahs, but the Grasshopper Sparrows looked different from ours, with variable plumage around the lores and eyes, and Baird's was just plain plain. They were all singing, though, so I asked John to take out his computer, upon which we have downloaded the Macaulay Library of bird songs. I wanted to listen to the Baird's songs and calls so I could tune my ear to them, but before we knew it, a Baird's heard our quiet (I swear we were quiet!) playback and came zooming up to see who was daring to challenge him. We turned off the computer immediately and sat there, feeling guilty. Well, truth be told, guiltily happy about seeing a new bird in our lives, but that is not how you want to do it! I have to say, as time passed and we saw hundreds of prairie sparrows, I did get better about pcking out the subtle field marks of these cryptic birds. Baird's were present in fairly good numbers, though National Audubon's recent "North American Grasslands and Birds Report" lists them already in decline and susceptible to coming global climate change. Ditto for Horned Larks, which at least in this part of the prairie were abundant - probably our most abundant bird.

The drive around the lake took us about 4 hours, but that was mostly because we couldn't go more than a few feet before we had to stop and look. Mostly we car-birded because the mosquitoes were so amazing - and I've experienced the famous mosquitoes of Alaska and Texas. We got out from time to time when the clouds of bugs abated, which allowed us to feel the prairie breezes on our faces and smell the perfume of the grassland. It was love at first sight for both John and me. And we had this eden all to ourselves - not another soul on the whole refuge. It was just us, the birds, a long-tailed ferret, and some prairie dogs.

We were finally able to tear ourselves away and drive off to our next motel, a cowboy bar (The Royal Hotel) in the tiny town of Glentworth, Saskatchewan, where Marge the proprietor kept the home fires burning for us until we arrived shortly before 9 p.m. Though it was so late, she graciously cooked full dinners for John and me, which we ate in the little cafeteria beside the bar. Things were pretty lively in the bar, we could hear, but the patrons all have cattle and farms to care for in the morning, so everything grew quiet by by 10:30 or so. Glentworth is one of the gateways to Grasslands National Park's East Unit.

In my next post, I'll tell you about our Grasslands NP adventures. - Connie, Seattle

constancesidles at gmail.com
csidles at constancypress.com

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