Writing from our lake home during a self-imposed two-week quarantine, I reflect back on bird observations Janet and I made during our drive through the prairie potholes of the Dakotas at the beginning of April.
Prairie potholes are relatively small wetlands that are widespread in the grasslands of northern Nebraska, central and eastern North and South Dakota, north-central Iowa, western Minnesota, northern Montana and the prairie provinces of Canada.
They were formed during the retreat of the Wisconsin ice sheet that covered the entire region until about 10,000 years ago. Prairie potholes support a rich ecosystem of plant and animal life that have been favored by birds for millennia.
In the segment of our voyage from Pierre to Watertown, SD, we passed pothole after pothole in this largely agricultural country. Nearly every stretch of open water was crammed with waterfowl of all kinds, especially northern shovelers, pintails, mallards, gadwalls, canvasbacks, redheads, scaup and coots. Many of these were in transit to more northern destinations, but others would surely remain to take advantage of the nutrient-rich waters to nest and raise their young.
It was all we could do not to stop and train our binoculars on every pothole, with birds that displayed their freshest and most colorful plumages of the year. But we were in a hurry to get home from an 1,800-mile trip!
At one point, our attention was distracted by an engaging display of many flocks of thousands and thousands of geese flying northwest toward arctic nesting grounds. The light was poor, but we identified some of these as snow geese (including their blue form) and white-fronted geese. We suspect these birds were taking advantage of a wind shift from the south to resume their long trek to the far north.
These observations brought back fond memories of my research days in the late ‘60s in the pothole region of central North Dakota, where I first became acquainted with prairie potholes and their prolific bird life. Not just ducks and coots, but herons, bitterns, grebes, and Wilson’s phalaropes, a small and beautiful swimming sandpiper, a favorite of mine that breeds there and in parts of western Minnesota. The potholes and their wildlife are unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere.
Apart from the diverse nesting waterbirds, shorebirds bound for the Arctic pass through on spring migration in vast numbers and afford wonderful opportunities for close observation. Sadly, from a bird standpoint, most of the original prairies have been converted to agriculture, and many potholes have been drained for irrigation.
But thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and organizations like Ducks Unlimited, many are being preserved through a variety of incentive programs targeting farmers that depend on the pothole country for their own survival.
I had a plan with a long-term biologist friend to re-visit the Dakota pothole country this May. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has waylaid this plan. I hope 2021 will be more favorable for this visit. If so, I encourage any of you with a serious birding interest to head to the Dakotas in mid-May to experience the birding bounty that awaits you there.
Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.