The Not So Silent Prairie

When we think of prairies we usually think in terms of open vistas of rolling plains and grasslands. We don’t often dwell on the sounds of the prairie.

We took a springtime trip across Montana to Minot, North Dakota this past week to see our son, Kevin, and his family. While there, we went fishing, of course. It’s a good reason to go there in the spring.

Fishing, of course, doesn’t come with guarantees. All you can do is wet a line and hope for the best. Sometimes, spring trips produce a lot of fishing action but this wasn’t one of them. The end of April and beginning of May seemed unseasonably cold here in western Montana, and that was also the case in North Dakota. One of the things TV weathermen keep tabs on in North Dakota is soil temperature, and while we were there soil temperatures were dropping—which is bad news for farmers putting in their crops.

While fishing was slow, there was lots of activity going on all around us.

We spent one day fishing at Devils Lake, the massive eastern North Dakota lake complex that has, in the last 20 years, tripled in size. Kevin pointed out that a few years back he’d go there and marvel at fishing spots we went to back in the 1970s and 1980s that were no longer accessible, as they’re all under water. Now it seems to be a yearly thing. You look for a spot where you fished the year before, and now it’s gone. Farms are continually going under water—and it has nothing to do with the mortgage bust.

But birds are everywhere. There are incredible populations of waterfowl, with ducks of all kinds, giant Canada geese, and shorebirds everywhere. The Devils Lake area is a magnet for birdwatchers that come there just for the myriad shorebirds.

On another day I went to Lake Sakakawea, the big Missouri impoundment downstream from Montana. I fished along a shallow bay, hoping the sheltered waters would be warming a bit. It was a good plan, even if the fish didn’t go along with it. In recent years I’ve spent a lot more time hunting pheasants along the lakeshore than fishing, and it was hard not to think of pheasants on this pleasant spring day.

As the saying goes, in springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that’s certainly the case with pheasants. Cock pheasants in springtime are a vocal group, presumably advertising to hen pheasants their availability for a good time, as well as letting other roosters know that the territory is already staked out.

A discordant note comes from an oil-drilling tower at the head of the bay I was fishing. Western North Dakota is a beehive of oil drilling, exploration and pumping, along with heavy truck traffic. In fact, it’s downright mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did a feature story on the difficulties oil patch workers have finding housing in Williston, the informal capitol of the western North Dakota oil fields. There are lots of jobs, but finding a place to live after work is tricky.

On another outing, this time to a small lake away from oil country, at the public access point I was greeted by a chorus of birds, including the usual ducks, geese and shorebirds, but also song birds of various kinds concentrated in a patch of trees and shrubs. There were dozens of bird songs happening all at once, with birds trying to out-do each other in making themselves heard above the crowds. And, again, pheasants were calling from their hangouts on the prairie hillsides.

While the prairie was full of sounds, tiny prairie wildflowers were in bloom, adding bits of color to the green shoots of grass and last year’s dried grasses.

At the end of the day, birds settle down, but there are new sounds. Stepping outside Kevin’s house one evening, frogs were talking from a nearby wetland and open field. “Those are western chorus frogs,” Kevin explained, as we enjoyed the sounds of the chilly evening.

The photo above is Kevin and our Labs in the Devils Lake area. A year ago, farmers were driving tractors and farm trucks down this road.