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North Dakota at its Best

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A marsh wren winds out his clattery wooden song. Could his tail be cocked any higher?

An American bittern hauls his neck and legs around the prairie.

Hi guys! I'm finally taking a little time to prep some posts from North Dakota. She showed very well this spring, exchanging bright sunshine and shirtsleeve weather for the horizontal blowing snow she hammered us with last June. Those of you who read this blog know to expect some NoDak posts every year, since Bill and I have been headlining the Potholes and Prairies festival for what? Seven years now? We speak, we sing, we lead trips, we show a lot of people a lot of cool life birds. It's (part of) a living, and loads of fun.

I didn't take many photos this year--we were just too busy getting festivalgoers on birds to do much photography. Just for nice, Bill set me up with the sweetest carbon-fiber tripod for my Swarovski compact scope, so I was totin' that and digging getting people killer looks at life birds. So my photos are kind of a grab-bag which I will more or less successfully attempt to weave into a narrative. Heh. Less successfully, for sure.

We really focused on bringing some North Dakota hospitality and food to the festival goers this spring, in addition to fabulous checkoffs for their life lists (Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit, American bittern, yellow rail, black tern, marbled godwit, gray partridge, ferruginous hawk and the like). After searching all day long--Bill's Big Day-- for gray partridge, we found a little covey walking around in a used equipment lot right in Carrington as we packed it in for the day! Gray partridge, like ring-necked pheasant, is a naturalized exotic species in North Dakota, but the birding powers that be hath decreed it a countable species.

Back to cultcha-- one of my trips was called Pipits and Pies. We hit the diners, boy, and I will never forget the rhubarb coffee cake lightly dusted with powdered sugar that we enjoyed in Woodworth. Oh my goodness. It was gone before I could get a picture.

Bill and I have been working on festival organizers for years to abandon the boxed lunches and treat the participants to real North Dakota hospitality. This year, it happened. We ate in the cafe's. No ham sandwiches, no apple, no Otis Spunkmeyer cookie. Real food. After a long morning of birding, there is nothing like a noontime Smorgasbord (referred to simply as a Smorg).

Knoephla soup, roast pork, masheds, salad, and a fluffy grandma-ey concoction of mandarin oranges, coconut, Miracle Whip and Cool Whip. At least that's how I sussed it out. It was more than delicious.
The thing I love about getting in the small-town cafes is that we get to talk to local people, and impress on them that we're all here gobbling up their smorg because they have such fantastic birds and wildlife. They are usually amazed that anyone would travel to their lonely part of the planet to see sparrows. I enjoy soaking in the stares as we troop in, and then announcing loudly, "Look out! The birdwatchers are here! Hide your knoephlas!" After an introduction like that, we wind up talking to them, and explaining what we're all about. Kind of a grassroots eco-tourism approach.

And the food is out of this world.

The Robinson cafe, groaning under the weight of happy birders.

Main Street, Robinson, North Dakota, looking north.

And Main Street, Robinson, looking south, a view that never fails to put a lump in my throat.
These little towns hang on on the wide and heedless prairie.


Why anyone thinks "Spunkmeyer" is a good name for a food product is beyond me. Knoephla soup looks and sounds remarkably like the buttersuppe (butter soup) that my Mennonite former co-worker used to make.

Clearly, this one needs to be on my festival list.

I had the knoephla soup that day and it was heaven. I loved my trip out there. The birding was amazing, the people welcoming and kind, and my roomie was the best evah. The vistas were glorious and humbling, so unlike anything I'd ever seen before. And the wind- I just really loved the wind.

Just finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "On the Banks of Plum Creek" again. I was in Walnut Grove and crossed Plum Creek several times last week on a visit to see kids in southwest MN. The photos of your small town ND looking out toward the prairie is unchanged from her descriptions of the small prairie towns in 19th century SD and MN.

What fun! My daughter in law from Bismarck make that soup too. I need to do the N.D. birding trip sometime soon.

Thanks for bringing back great memories of that trip. I have no problem understanding why you go back every year - it's a keeper!

You and Bill should get a medal for encouraging diners instead of box lunches. It made the trip a very different experience than it would have been otherwise. Those stops were a chance not only to share what we were doing, but to talk to the local folks, some of whom knew quite a lot about birds and wildlife.

Besides, missing that Rhubarb Coffeecake would have been heartbreaking, even if we wouldn't have known what we missed.

Posted by Anonymous August 7, 2010 at 8:32 AM

You got "noontime smorg?" As I recall the Pipits and Pie day, we walked into the diner for lunch at 1:55pm (they were supposed to close at 2) and we missed our pie. But oh, the birds were sweet.

thanks, as always, to the two of you and your great kids, for some very special days.

"fluffy grandma-ey concoction of mandarin oranges, coconut, Miracle Whip and Cool Whip" sounds like what we call "ambrosia"?

Yes! That's what my mom called it--but I couldn't remember. Oh, boy are you taking me back to Sunday afternoons around the old Formica table in Virginia.
Thanks so much, Emily.

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