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As bird migration begins, so does the love for watching the skies

I have been lucky to take advantage of this migration and have spent many hours bellied out on the shoreline targeting the numerous species of shorebirds that have taken a recess and a lunch break on the many potholes and sloughs of North Dakota.

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American avocet have a long curled bill.
Contributed / Seth Owens
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Where July was stagnant, August saw a torrent of returning migrants coming through the area on their long trip south. I have been lucky to take advantage of this migration and have spent many hours bellied out on the shoreline targeting the numerous species of shorebirds that have taken a recess and a lunch break on the many potholes and sloughs of North Dakota. Some of these birds may be repeats, but they are the first prospectors of a bustling birding busy season!

American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) - Kelly’s Slough NWR, N.D. - Wild

In the late summer, cinnamon turns to snow in the American avocet as they begin to molt their breeding plumage. The stunning rusty plumage that is so characteristic of American avocets is lost after a hopefully successful breeding season. From a distance or at a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that these were two completely different species, but their long curved needle of a bill remains.

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Sora grow and learn how to fly quickly.
Contributed / Seth Owens

Sora (Porzana carolina) - Kelly’s Slough NWR, N.D. - Wild

Where the adult avocet was losing its luster, this juvenile sora is just filling into its immature plumage.

About three weeks ago, this young bird was still in an egg, but a rich diet of seeds and invertebrates has allowed it to rapidly grow and learn to fly. I was granted a rare look into this little dude’s life before he decided enough was enough and dashed into the nearby cattails.

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The least sandpiper is a smaller bird with a wingspan of nearly a foot.
Contributed / Seth Owens

Least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) - Kelly’s Slough NWR, N.D. - Wild

With a whopping wingspan of 10 to 11 inches, this Least Sandpiper is quite the ambitious adventurer. They breed in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska and winter in the southern edges of the United States, Mexico, and further south. These transcontinental travelers rely on areas like Kelly’s Slough NWR on their treks. Without these “rest stops,” their migration would likely be cut short as they literally run out of fuel.

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Even with a large wingspan of about 6 feet, great blue herons are relatively slow at a top speed of about 35 mph.
Contributed / Seth Owens

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) - Grand Forks County, N.D. - Wild

Where the avocet lost their rusty hues, the heron may have found it, and the herons are probably hogging the wingspan as well! An adult blue heron has a wingspan of about 6 feet, meaning that it would take more than six least sandpipers to match the wing width of one adult blue heron. Those large wings, however, are pretty slow and can only reach top speeds of around 35 mph.

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The common loon has been recorded swimming at 20 mph and diving to depths of around 200 feet.
Contributed / Seth Owens

Common loon (Gavia immer) - Becker County, Minn. - Wild

Common loons are living missiles, both in the air and underwater. In the air, this approximately 12-pound bird can reach speeds of around 70 mph. We’re talking interstate speeds from a bird designed to swim! In the water, the common loon has been recorded swimming at 20 mph and diving to depths of around 200 feet. It could seem that loons have conquered the air, the water, and the land, but they can hardly move around on solid ground. If they could run like a roadrunner, humans probably wouldn’t be on the top of the food chain!

As August wraps up and Labor Day approaches, take advantage of the cool mornings and evenings and go visit your local wetland, prairie, or woodland. If you can’t, just spend some time outside. There is a wealth of wildlife beginning to return and pick up activity because fall is just around the corner. For September, migration will continue to ramp up as the waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds begin to travel from their summer homes to their winter vacations.

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Seth Owens is a regional birdwatcher and photographer and a frequent contributor to Northland Outdoors.

What to read next
The weather has turned a lot of focus onto the ice conditions on Upper Red Lake. The ice is not safe yet and caution should be taken prior to venturing onto any ice.
The DNR is taking public comments until Dec. 9. The new rules will likely take effect sometime in the spring.