In Fargo we filled up with gas then headed across the Red River into Minnesota and our next campsite.
After checking in at the campground and taking a break, we drove to the trailhead for the prairie chicken blinds.
With the disappointment of the prairie chicken viewing in Nebraska, Alan had been researching other national wildlife refuges along our route and found that a bunch in Minnesota provided viewing blinds for these birds. The trick was contacting them with only a week to go before we arrived in the area. We lucked out with our first choice (because it was so close to our campground), which was actually through The Nature Conservancy, not the nearby NWR. After a series of emails with Sonja, we had secured a blind for our first morning in the area.
The hike was ¾ of a mile, and the blinds were a much more comfortable in size than the blinds at Valentine NWR. There were two and we were told it was first come, first choice. I could see that there were more feathers in front of the second blind, so we opted for that, provided we got there ahead of the other person(s) the next morning.
We were up at 3:40AM, but we took our time because we simply woke up extra early. The hike in the dark out to the prairie chickens blinds was easy, but the blind we had selected yesterday was already taken, so we set up in the first blind.
Not fifteen minutes after setting up we heard them – finally, the point of this whole five-week trip was here – seeing the greater prairie chickens on a lek during courtship.
The sun was not close to rising at this point, so we waited and strained our eyes to see them. We could make out about three just in front of our blind, and then a couple more beyond that group. Their booming, clucking and cooing became a constant sound, and eventual ear worm, for the rest of the morning.
As the light grew we could see more and more birds, eventually counting 18 in all – and to our delight they were all in front of our blind! We only saw two females the whole morning – the rest were males strutting their stuff. The boys would rapidly stamp their feet, which we could actually hear, then fill their air sacks and blow out making the “booming” sound they are known for. This action was tirelessly repeated over, and over, and over. Just like the sharp tail grouse, the females simply hung around and preened.
One of the funniest sights we witnessed was one particular male who would fly to the top of the first blind and stomp and boom from there. Eventually he entertained us by doing the same on top of our blind – we could hear his little feet stomping for all they were worth on the tin roof. What a hoot!
After getting hundreds of pictures of the birds booming, I began concentrating on photos of the males fighting each other. These were mostly mild skirmishes, but a few got more violent, with one resulting in some tail feathers being lost.
Three hours after getting to the lek we were able to leave, having had to wait until the last of the greater prairie chickens had flown away.
On a high from having finally seen our quarry, we celebrated with a hearty breakfast in Fargo at Deaner’s Diner. We followed that up with a pleasant nap at our campsite.
Once we woke up I worked on photos, and we had a picnic lunch before heading out to Hamden Slough NWR. We walked a ¼ mile path out to an observation platform, but, being the middle of the day, there wasn’t much to see.
Next we drove the lovely wildlife drive at Tamarac NWR. We saw a small variety of ducks, swans, Canada geese, a belted kingfisher, a yellow warbler, an Osprey, and a Bald Eagle.
We ended the day with a spicy pizza at Zorbaz Restaurant in Detroit Lakes for dinner.
Campground: Buffalo River State Park, Minnesota – just east of Fargo, North Dakota. Spacious, level sites with good fire rings and picnic tables. Bathrooms seemed brand new. Showers were separate from the bathrooms and had timed water which was just warm enough for bathing.
On our way to Father Hennepin State Park we stopped at Crane Meadows NWR. Upon entering the parking area we spotted a bald eagle swooping low over the water just ahead. By the time we’d parked though it was long gone. We hiked one mile of the Crane Creek trail. It was a pretty hike, and we saw a few rose breasted grossbeak, plenty of purple martin’s and a Baltimore oriole.
Checking in at our next campground I bought some firewood for cooking our dinner tonight. The salad, ribeye steak cooked over the fire, and baked potatoes were a good way to wrap the day. While we enjoyed our meal we heard a ruckus of a couple of barred owls, and in the distance I saw one flying through the trees.
Later we went on a pleasant two-mile hike around the park and spotted an American redstart, hairy woodpeckers, and deer.
Once again we arose long before the sun was up to go see nature. Rice Lake NWR boasts lots of opportunities to see a variety of birds and mammals, black bears and wolves among them. Unfortunately we saw neither of these apex creatures. We did see a few muskrats and plenty of their lodges, along with swans, Canada geese with chicks, Martin’s, northern flickers, sparrows, teal, mallards, swallows, and white tail deer. On the way back to camp we stopped for a few grocery items at the local Teal’s Grocery store and noticed a civic group out front preparing bbq ribs to sell later in the day – a good idea for dinner.
After a good nap and lunch we dropped by the grocery store again and ordered two racks and chucked them in the refrigerator for later.
Sherburne NWR had been on our list to visit but we’d skipped it initially because we were running out of daylight. At a loss for anything else to do for the day we made the one-hour trek there and saw much more wildlife than the other two NWRs in the area. On the menu were red tail hawks, sandhill cranes in their summer plumage, lots of yellow warblers, a common yellowthroat, swans, teal, ring necked duck, black tern (a new one for our list), several Canada geese with goslings, and an as yet-to-be-identified sandpiper.
We ended up spending so much time at the refuge, and it was getting so late, that we decided to grab a bite to eat on the way back – the ribs would have to wait until tomorrow. We had dinner at Madre Loca in Princeton. The service was good but the food was surprisingly bland. I had a cheese and mushroom quesadilla which I didn’t expect to have much flavor, and Alan had a burrito. He said his refried beans tasted like the canned version and the burrito was beyond bland – and that’s something coming from a guy who isn’t too much into spices.
We got back to camp by 7:30, took showers, read, planned for the next day and then called it a night.
Campground: Father Hennepin State Park Campground was a clean, quiet campground with (mostly) level sites and some beautiful trails. The bathrooms were a bit dated, but clean and functional. It is a popular park with locals on the weekends.