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Birding Escapes: Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

By Bobby Harrison
From the Spring 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.
Western Grebe with chicks. Photo by Beau Liddell via birdshaire
Western Grebe with chicks. Photo by Beau Liddeil via Birdshare.

Straddling the Des Lacs River, the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge has 19,500 acres of marshes, lakes, prairies, and wooded coulees, providing superb wildlife habitat and some of the best birding in North Dakota. It has been officially designated as one of America’s top 500 Globally Important Bird Areas.

More than 250 species of birds have been seen on the refuge, with more than 150 of them nesting. Early spring and fall are the best times to see migrating waterfowl. During fall migration, up to 300,000 Snow Geese descend on the refuge’s marshes and grain fields as they head southward. Spring has an abundance of waterbirds and shorebirds, many of which use the refuge as a stopover as they head north, but birds such as White Pelican, Marbled Godwit, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, and Wilson’s Snipe breed on the refuge. The open prairies and woodland edges are the habitat of Eastern Kingbird, Common Yellowthroat, Western Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow. Target species that draw birders from all over the country are Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s, LeConte’s, Henslow’s, and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed sparrows.

The best place to see wildlife and the various habitat zones in the refuge is the Scenic Backway—an 11-mile auto tour that traverses the diverse habitat of the refuge and provides exceptional opportunities to view and photograph wildlife. It is not uncommon on this drive to see five species of nesting grebes: Eared, Horned, Red-necked, Pied-billed, and Western; the last-mentioned puts on an amazing courtship display.

Only one hour from Minot, North Dakota, two hours from Williston, North Dakota, and five hours from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is a fabulous birding escape.

On the Web

Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge


From the intersection of US 83 and Western Avenue SW in downtown Minot, North Dakota, go west on Western Avenue SW for 2.1 miles to US 2. Turn right on US 2 and travel 9.3 miles to US 52 West. Veer right onto US 52 W and drive 49.9 miles. Turn right onto 65th Avenue NW and drive for 2 miles, then right onto 98th Street NW.  The refuge entrance is on the left.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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