North Dakota Nature Notes
It's a great time to see prairie flowers and some of the longest-traveling migratory shorebirds around.
August may feel like summer, but it is the cusp of fall for the shorebirds that arrive in the state in large numbers during this month. Shorebirds, the many kinds of sandpipers, plovers and related species that we associate with beaches and wetlands, include some of the longest-traveling migratory birds. Many nest much further north, as far away as Canada’s arctic tundra yet winter in South America – requiring a journey of thousands of miles every fall and spring. South-bound birds often arrive in North Dakota’s prairie potholes and river shorelines as early as July, and their numbers typically peak in August.
Not all these migrants pass through North Dakota on both their fall and spring travels. American golden plovers, for example, most often fly south via the east coast, turning from the Canadian Maritimes to fly directly over the open Atlantic all the way to Brazil, an incredible feat. These same birds return north in the spring by flying over the Great Plains on their way back to their arctic nesting grounds. But it is possible to see some in August that choose instead to fly south through North Dakota. Other long-distance travelers to look for include pectoral sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers and Baird’s sandpipers. These “peeps” can be hard to tell apart, especially in their drab, post-breeding, fall plumage. But regardless of species, they are mesmerizing to watch flying in tight flocks, their wings flashing as they wheel and turn in-unison. It’s possible to see thousands of birds resting in choice wetlands such as Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge (which has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area) or Audubon National Wildlife Refuge (the refuge includes a visitor center with exhibits).
Not far from Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in Central North Dakota is The Nature Conservancy’s John E. Williams Preserve, where huge numbers of shorebirds gather in August. Not all are migrants – this preserve protects essential nesting habitat for piping plovers, a threatened species. Nesting is over by August so it is possible at this time of year to visit the alkali lakes the plovers favor which are closed to visitors earlier in the season. Other shorebirds that nest in North Dakota and join migrants arriving from the north include avocets, willets and marbled godwits. These birds and the plovers travel less far for the winter, often only as far south as the Gulf coast.
Shorebirds aren’t the only attraction in August. This is good time to admire prairie plants that bloom during late-summer. Many of these are members of the composite or aster family of flowering plants, often called “daisies.” The flowers may be familiar, but a close look (using a hand lens) reveals them to be extraordinarily complex. A “single” flower is anything but – each ray of a daisy head is a flower in itself and the center of the “blossom” is in fact, composed of hundreds of tiny disk flowers. All these structures have their own pistils and stamens to produce seed, and collectively they produce hundreds and hundreds of seeds that are easily seen massed on large composites like sunflowers.
There are sunflowers on the prairie. Maximilian sunflower is an impressive one, growing up to several feet tall in North Dakota. Not all composites look like sunflowers or daisies. The many kinds of different blazing stars look like spikes of tiny purple flowers and attract numerous butterflies. Goldenrods are composites, too, and they can be hard to tell apart. Goldenrod is often blamed for hay fever, but it is not wind-pollinated; ragweed is often the culprit.