As we approach the end of July, the drought worsens as weeks go by without enough rain.
For birding, this spring was lackluster. There were no big days where birds were hiding in every tree. This was probably both good and bad. Good for the birders, because the birds had no severe weather to fight through to get to their breeding grounds up north. Day after day, the clear skies and south winds pushed the little migrants along their merry way. It was bad for birders because many of their favorite species did not make an appearance for them to check off their lists.
We are in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record. Some precipitation totals are a third of normal for this time of year. Bismarck received 60 inches of snow in five weeks, only to go the remaining four months with almost nothing.
Some crops are struggling to materialize. Haying began at a feverish pace a week ago as the regulations were lifted early, thus possibly destroying some nesting of the upland birds and waterfowl. From what I have seen, there are still duck broods out and about, however.
This drought also helps for some birding. July is the season for shorebirds. These birds flew north to the Arctic Circle to breed. After raising the young rather quickly and gorging themselves on an abundance of food, the young are left to fend for themselves and adults are already heading south by July.
The dry conditions create an abundance of receding waterlines in the semi-permanent wetlands. These receding wetlands pool up an abundance of insect larvae in the shallow water, and hundreds of birds flock to the shallow pools.
This past weekend, I paid a visit to J. Clark Salyer in northeast of Minot. With a friend, we scoped acres of flats that teemed with feathered friends. Seventy species were tallied in a couple hours work. Hundreds of waterfowl of many species were relaxing on peninsulas and islands that were available. They are now in their summer molt. The vibrant colors of spring have faded away to shades of brown, and the feathers are rejuvenating before fall. This makes identifying waterfowl quick difficult. At first glance, it is simply a sea of brown.
We fortunately had an American black duck flush and fly by us at one point, an unusual bird for North Dakota, which is on the west edge of their occurrence.
As we focus on the smaller birds, 17 species of shorebirds were present. Many of the common North Dakota breeders are scattered about, the American avocet, marbled godwits and, of course, the killdeer. Most people hate shorebirds because of the difficulty in identifying them, but, with experience, one by one they can be ticked off the day list.
In the coming days, a few more species will make their appearances, such as the buff-breasted sandpiper, which normally is seen here only in fall. These shorebirds are a soft golden color with black eye, black bill and bright orange legs, very reminiscent of a mourning dove in size and shape. These birds prefer to forage on short vegetation flats of wet mud adjacent to waterways. With some careful searching, some can be found but it takes work. I for one will be looking throughout these dog days of summer.