Stories in North Dakota

July Nature Notes

It's a fine time to see wildflowers and birds in North Dakota.

Closeup of yellow flowers with a lake or pond out of focus in the background.
© ©2012 Richard Hamilton Smith

Summer is well-underway in July. This is a month when many birds have completed their spring nesting and are busy raising their young, although some late-nesters are still laying eggs. Shorebird young are fledged by mid-month so they can soon begin their long south-bound migration; other shorebirds from further north begin passing through North Dakota on migration in July. This month, showy prairie plants that begin blooming in June become more numerous as summer progresses. The new flowers attract insects seeking nectar and locations to lay their eggs on the host plants that provide food for hatching larvae—this is a good time to look for butterflies in North Dakota’s grasslands.

Perhaps the most spectacular of North Dakota’s grassland flowers bloom in July. The western prairie fringed orchid grows nearly three feet tall and is topped by an impressive cluster of white flowers, typically a dozen or more per plant, each an inch or larger with fan-shaped petals fringed with fine, teeth-like extensions. It is listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but one of its largest populations survives in the Sheyenne National Grassland and the Conservancy’s adjacent Brown Ranch in southeastern North Dakota.

Closeup of western prairie fringed orchid flowers.
Western Prairie Fringed orchid Western prairie fringed orchid. © Shan Cummingham
Maximilian sunflowers in bloom with a lake in the background.
© ©2012 Richard Hamilton Smith

A germinated seed can take six years to produce a plant large enough to flower, but once established, individual orchids are thought to live as long as 25 years. They are pollinated by a few species of night-flying sphinx moths, insects remarkable for their ability to hover in place like a hummingbird as they insert their long tongue down a flower’s spur to sip nectar.

Bison (often called buffalo) can provide a dramatic show for spectators fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time in late July. One of those places is Cross Ranch, where The Nature Conservancy has maintained a bison herd for 35 years—although even here these immense animals can be hard to find since they wander over some 3,000 acres of grassland. Late July is rutting season, when bull bison compete for cows and their contests can be impressive: animals weighing nearly a ton crashing their heads together in a test of strength that determines who gets to mate. Losers may butt trees or dig their horns into the ground to displace their aggression. Needless to say, bison can be dangerous and should be observed from a safe distance.

Two American bison in rutting season.
Rutting Season Late July is rutting season when bull bison compete for cows in a test of strength that determines who gets to mate. © Morgan Heim/TNC
Three piping plover chicks on the beach.
Piping Plovers Plover eggs hatch in June, and by July their young have fledged and will soon begin their migration south to the Gulf Coast for the winter. © Dottie Dowling

The shorelines of the alkali lakes at the TNC's John E. Williams Preserve provide ideal nesting habitat for piping plovers, which are federally listed as a threatened species. The preserve supports one of the largest concentrations of breeding populations of the bird in the world. The plovers nest in mid-May, the eggs hatch in June, and by July their young have fledged and will soon begin their migration south to the Gulf Coast for the winter. Band returns show plovers from all the gulf coast states have been located at Williams Preserve. Chicks that survive to migrate are considered a hallmark of success and the preserve is maintaining a relatively stable piping plover population.

The Nature Conservancy does allow visits of the piping plover nesting sites provided visitors first contact us at 701-794-8741 so that we can provide tips and guidelines. The prairie potholes at Davis Ranch are a good alternative destination for birders. These wetlands attract nesting ducks and numerous other water birds; they are among the best waterfowl habitat in the state. The surrounding grasslands at this large preserve (over 7,000 acres) also attract prairie species such as Baird’s sparrow and chestnut collared longspur and are at their most colorful in July when coneflowers, purple prairie clover and other forbs are in flower.