Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Milk Run

The Yellowstone Trail, ND/SD/ MT

Big Year Days 62-3

Big Year Total:  470
Coded birds:  31
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine, sea otters, Island gray fox, 

Miles driven.  14,400
Flight Miles 38,200
flight segments: 42   Airports: 23
Hours at sea: 25
Miles walked 64
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:17

  In an attempt to continue to share useless but hopefully mildly entertaining information describing my avian big year adventures...this time in the northern prairie....

All J.W. Parmley of Ipswich, SD really wanted was a better road between Ipswich and Aberdeen, South Dakota.  He bought his first car in 1905 and by 1910 he had enough of the muddy stage trails and organized a movement.  When he had to go to Mobridge, SD the other direction, the residents that direction also wanted a better road and soon it snowballed.  By 1912, Parmley was galvanizing a movement to build the first good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound and the Yellowstone Trail later known as US Highway 12 was born.  It was the first transcontinental highway in America and it all started because a guy was pissed that he had four flats in only a 20 mile drive.

I live a mile and a half from US-12 and every year in June for a crazy day, I decide to bird what I call the "Milk Run," a hectic crazy day of birding the Yellowstone Trail to the Montana border and then I swing down into the Slim Buttes of NW South Dakota and cruise home.  It is usually a 900 mile day of birding and depending on what I need I catch the easternmost breeding location of McCown's Longspurs, Sprague's pipits, short-eared owls, Baird's sparrows, western hawks of all sorts, and then I get some  of the western species in the small portion of the Custer National Forest I clip.  One of the spots I featured in a novel, and it is an area with much history, beautiful scenery, odd things, and birds.  It is a haul, with a 2am departure, but it usually is a haul of birds I never otherwise see in a given year.

Still on the lookout for northern saw-whet owls, South Dakota birding guru, Ricky Olson had been seeing some and allowed me to invite myself over to Pierre to look for them.  I had two days off between California and Newfoundland, so what the heck.  I arrived in Pierre, the diminutive capital of South Dakota just before 8pm, it is a 290 mile drive for me.  South Dakota is so cheap, when they probably should have moved the capital to a population center, it would have cost money to do it, so it stayed put, here in Pierre.  The state is also so cheap they even reused the plans for the Montana State Capital in Helena for our own, since it would save money.  If it was good enough for Montana, it would be good enough for us, well that and they didn't want another referendum to move it.  If they broke ground, the attempts to move the capital would cease.  At 12,210 people, Pierre is almost the smallest state capital being passed by Carson City, NV in the last couple of decades in population but itself, passing Montpelier VT.  So it is still 49th.  It isn't a bad place, but it isn't on a major interstate and it isn't really on the way to anywhere.  I don't think any elected politician really wants to move here, but few Governors have been Pierre area businessmen.  Mike Rounds, two term Governor and now senator, was in insurance locally.

He picked me up and we went around calling.  We stirred up great horned owls, shared birding stories, and I learned that my lifer yellow-rail in South Dakota had been rejected for no other reason than I didn't have a picture....Ricky is on the State records committee and is President of the SD OU.  At one stop, right after we stopped calling, I heard an odd bard in a nearby cedar, unfortunately Ricky hadn't heard it and then he heard something but I didn't.  I couldn't call a tick for an owl sound he hadn't heard, but I'm sure I heard it,  so in the end the score rose to Saw whet owls 4 Olaf 0, 4 tried this year no NSWO....thanks anyways Ricky

I left Pierre at 10, immediately it switched to 9 crossing the Missouri River and the Mountain time line and I decided, heck, I'm already west, heck, I might as well go do the Milk Run in reverse.  I had a lead of a good bird on near the route--greater sage grouse.

I drove for 160 miles without even passing a gas station and then near a boat ramp in the Shadehill Recreation area I pulled off the road at nearing midnight for a couple hours of sleep in the back of my car.  The problem with grouse is they get up early and I still had many hours to get to the spot south of the Yellowstone Trail about 15 miles from  the prairie dog town that harbored McCown's in the summer.  I I woke up with a hangover at 0230 and climbed into the front seat and took off.  great horned owls came off the ditch in the prairie as I drove into Lemmon and reconnected with Hwy 12 and headed west.  Luckily, in Hettinger ND, the convenience store is open 24 hours and had foul tasting but caffeine laden java.

I arrived at the last city in North Dakota on Hwy 12, Marmarth, population 143 and shockingly the largest city in Slope County, but what this county lacks in people it has in oil, which was first discovered locally in 1936, as this is still clearly in the oil fields.  The town was a favorite settler destination as the climate in the early 1900s up until 1930 was wetter and the population approached 5000.  At one time the jail housed the Jesse James gang and Teddy Roosevelt shot his first grizzly bear just outside of town.  It was too early for history so I drove south on Camp Crook Road and then an eerie glow caught my attention, WTF?

Gas they just do it in pits as there is no pipelines for all the gas and because of this, anywhere near oil wells it never gets dark and worse, all the flaring makes this terrible smog.  I have not been in the oil patch in the last few years since the Bakken boom and not experienced smog, well except when it was a blizzard outside or heavy rain.  Luckily, I had a favorable weather forecast otherwise I would never have attempted this.

North Dakota biding guru Corey Ellingson of Bismarck had given me a location of the lek of greater sage grouse, A bird, I fear, isn't long for this world.  I used to see them on my Milk Run down in the first county in South Dakota about 40 miles from here, but unfortunately West Nile Virus destroyed all the birds of that lek and with a continual plowing of the sage out here in the prairie, a fragmented population, the poor grouse numbers are dropping and dropping.  

These directions were not for city people.  I wound past oil pads in the dark, more fires, farm machinery, until nearing the Montana border, I parked the car and still an hour before first light, I crawled in back for a nap.  I was expecting the bubbling and dancing outside of grouse but I awoke to silence. Not even a coyote was howling.  Crap, I wondered, had I misread the directions?  I reposititioned the car as the fog steadily worsened.  I started to scour the surrounding sage brush for birds and then I looked on a hillside about 150 yards off.  I could see a male grouse just laying there.  It wasn't displaying or anything.  It moved it's head or I might of thought it was dead.  I know it is early but usually they will display this time of year.  It's lack of anything confused me.  I looked at the disinterested grouse for a while and then I decided I should try to get a photo, only digiscoping would do, so I grabbed the scope, got my phone attached and then attached that to my window mount and then I had to start the car to roll up the window.  By the time I was ready and prepared, the grouse was gone.  I need to get more streamline for this.  Eventually, since I was not near a lek I got out and listened.  I could hear them a long ways away, maybe 3/4 of a mile?  But with the heavy air I couldn't really tell.  The smog was getting worse so any more time here was futile and there was no need to walk the prairie to flush this bird...I had it and this was about them, not me.  This bird has enough problems without being scared to death by a large 6-3 230 pound Oaf, I meaning Olaf coming crashing its way.

I drove across the border hoping to stumble upon something, but I saw nothing in the endless prairie and smog except this old sign marking the border...

This is looking east with North Dakota state line on it, the other side had Montana state line on it.  I wonder which decade that sign got placed?  Here is a look at a herd of antelope to get the mental picture of the smog I stumbled upon.

It was just like I was in a glass of milk...I guess this IS the milk run.  .I drove east out of the oil patch and upon leaving, the smog cleared.  Hum, the flaring isn't causing this...yeah...right...
bird #469 greater sage grouse, first bird in North Dakota for this big year, well I think it was in North Dakota, it was close to the line.  Thanks Corey.

Nobody thinks of the Dakotas as a birding destination, but we have some great spots and hopefully, if nothing else, I will be sharing this to you as the year goes along.  The one bird everyone asks me about wanting to see is the gray partridge.  Which locally we call grays or in Wisconsin as a kid we called them Hungarian partridge.  These are backyard birds near my cabin and along with that area, Lemmon, South Dakota is the other really good spot for these birds ...but...there is no really easy way to get them.  I have actually seen as many times bass fishing on my lake from the boat as they stand on shore as I have flushing them in a field. although my springer does a good job getting them up, she is no pointer, that dog.  I spent an entire month riding ATVs near my cabin au naturel searching for the elusive birds, with an entire chapter of the futility of it all in my BPT book.

Grays like open rangeland but will also be out in fields and they also like to look at you from rock piles but they are flighty...really REALLY flighty birds.  More so than any grouse-like birds I see.  I've only been able to put a camera on one twice.  Unlike pheasants which will fly 50 yards if flushed, these birds will fly over a mile sometimes if spooked, especially if they don't have chicks.  So you don't get a second chance at them  My technique....endless mindless driving to get them.  It is just work.  Eventually, one will flush or will stand and look at you and you hope you have your camera ready.  I have probably already driven 50 miles in prime areas this year looking and have seen exactly none of this bird.

The best area, I think is around a couple of hills on Reidy Road just off 12 east of Lemmon, SD.  There is native range and farm fields.  In a couple miles of this road, in June, I can really pile up the birds, once I saw 32 upland sandpipers on 32 consecutive fence posts and then when they ended Dickcissals began, when they ended, Lark buntings....oh I yearn for June, as today except for a couple of horned larks, the fences were barren.  I drove the loop and in a prime area I looked out to the north of the car, the passenger side....partridge!  8 of them and I sped up over the hill to hopefully catch where they were going below the crest.  I hopped out, camera in hand, ran up the field and looked and every time....they just kept flying.  It was bird #470 anyways, gray partridge.

I still had well over 300 miles until I got home and I was shortly on the road home.  I drove a while and then I saw something white in the only tree I could see for miles.

Another snowy owl....I didn't need it but heck...OWLS ARE COOL!

There is a reason, I guess, that I have trouble finding owls, although I hate to mention it.  There was this nurse in Two Harbors MN, who had a spiritual animal--the beaver.  Apparently beavers have special insight or something.  I don't remember her name and always refer to her as the "beaver woman."  She determined my spiritual animal is the eagle, which makes sense but I don't want to elaborate.  She told me owls don't like eagles, so I would always have trouble with owls there is the reason for my many saw-whet owl misses, I guess...beaver woman speaks....or something like that.

I got home by 5 not stopping at any other place, not even the Arch over old Hwy 12 in Ipswich as I had to drive to Minneapolis in the morning for a flight to the ROCK...Newfoundland.  The rock is a place that makes the weather out here look good.
Two more off the grouse section of the checklist, but still too many to go.  Hum....I'm thinking, I need a glass of milk...I wonder why?

got milk?



  1. Great entertaining blog as usual. Really glad that you got Greater Sage Grouse and Gra(e)y, (Canadian spelling! ) Partridge as well; sometimes tough birds to get. If you get desperate for Saw-whet Owl, we band them here in the South Okanagan of B.C. in late Sept/early Oct.

  2. Go get 'um Olaf...
    And good to hear from Thor too!

  3. Good luck! Incredible pace. Looks like you may need a Florida detour. Grassquit seen again and the Great White Pelican may be one to bank just in case it's accepted. Was surprised to see that on ABA alert and not NARBA. -Mark Korducki

    1. Yes, the grassquit calleth, Im actually on two flightd from Toronto to Detroit Monday, bailing off the three hopper from St John's home and flying to ft myers.....hs anyone seen that pelican lately?

  4. Negative reports since the 29th.

  5. Unless I am missing something, it looks like the capital of Vermont, Montpelier, has only 7855 people (and 0 McDonald's!)

    1. A winner, I guess, if that is wining, Pierre was always 49th to Carson City but it has grown, forgot about number 48 when I was in school passing it up, sorry to all those Vermontites out there...will correct

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. How about a Fieldfare or Yellow-legged Gull spell, or even a charm against the headache after drinking too much Screech?

    1. I agree Nick, zapped her from my universe. Sometimes I ponder the purpose fo such things.....she is the reason the YLGU operation went downhill

    2. Looks like the Fieldfare spell worked!


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