Northern Great Plains2021-02-19T18:23:22-05:00

Northern Great Plains

Ron Martin, Chris Andersen, John Carlson, Corey Ellingson, and Dan Svingen, Regional Report Compilers

The Northern Great Plains region comprises the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and much of Montana (west to the Rocky Mountain Front). It is an area of vast plains and big skies, most of which sees very little coverage from birders. Much of the eastern half of the Dakotas has been converted to farmland, but large tracts of grassland still dominate in portions of the western Dakotas and Montana. Due to the region’s location in the middle of the continent, temperature and precipitation extremes are common in all seasons.

Along the rivers and escarpments of the eastern edge of the Dakotas are some of the westernmost examples of eastern deciduous forest, which provides breeding habitat for birds such as Northern Cardinal, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Towhee, and even Cerulean Warbler. The tallgrass prairie in this area is mostly gone, but a few remnants remain to provide nesting habitat for Dickcissels. Traveling west, mixed-grass prairie and the Missouri River appear. This is an active hybrid zone for many eastern and western sibling species, such as Indigo and Lazuli buntings and Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles. Continuing west, elevation slowly rises as annual precipitation decreases. Here one finds found shortgrass prairie and, eventually, the isolated mountain ranges of central Montana and western South Dakota. These ranges, which include the Black Hills, add a Rocky Mountain flavor to the region, and are home to such species as American Dipper, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Pacific Wren, Virginia’s Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, and Pinyon Jay. On the Canadian border in North Dakota, the Turtle Mountains offer a small taste of the avifauna of the north; for example, White-throated Sparrow breeds here.

Large numbers of waterfowl, cranes, and shorebirds congregate in prairie potholes and on rivers along the Central Flyway, and the eastern edge of the region regularly hosts 25 species of warbler in migration. The western Dakotas and eastern Montana still retain good populations of birds characteristic of the Great Plains: Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, LeConte’s Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs are just a few. Winter birds are sparse, but Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon, Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, Snow Bunting, and winter finches brighten the cold days—including rosy-finches in the western portion of the region.


The ABA gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Northern Great Plains Regional Report Compilers Ron Martin, Chris Andersen, John Carlson, Corey Ellingson, and Dan Svingen to promoting knowledge and understanding about the birdlife of the continent.

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