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Hricik: Birders impress with keen eyes, ears during annual Bird Watch

Press Photo by Mike Hricik Macie Tiedemann, right, of Marmarth points out a bird to her grandmother, Laurie Smith of Bowman, at the 60th annual Bird Walk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit on Sunday.

MEDORA — A little more than a month into my move to North Dakota to work for The Dickinson Press, I had still never been deep inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.

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It’s the behemoth of conservation more than 35 miles to the west that everyone was talking about in a lilting, lyrical poetry when I got here.

“You must go,” they said.

“I know,” I replied.

At first, I was simply more interested in getting myself situated at my new place and exploring Dickinson.

But, the perfect opportunity presented itself to go to the park on Sunday. My trip ended up being a more satisfying trip than my first-experience at Pizza Ranch, because I saw a bald eagle, among other amazing life forms a normal city slicker doesn’t see anywhere else. (I was told when I first arrived in Dickinson the official tree is the utility pole and the official flying organism is the mosquito. That wasn’t far off.)

I would be accompanied by people who knew a lot more than I did about the wildlife during the South Unit’s 60th annual Bird Walk. Expert birders led groups of amateurs and novices, like myself, through the prairie and the Little Missouri River to listen to and watch an abundance of birds.

I learned a couple things during a hike into the prairie with the uber-gregarious backcountry ranger John Heiser as my guide.

First, birders have more keen ears and eyes than you do. Nancy Drilling, a biologist with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Brighton, Colo., accompanied our group and described bird-watching as “a bug that bites you.”

A love of bird-watching ignites an innate desire to train the senses, she said, with the help of books like the Sibley Guide or American Birding Association.

“There’s so much more going on, and that motivates you to look more,” Drilling said.

Birders were sensing things I wasn’t, sniping birds in trees with their binoculars while I looked around in that near-perpetual daze. Heiser and others would catcall bird chirps from memory alone.

“I hear the chat (bird) waaaaaaaay back. Do you?” Heiser said. “It goes chih-chih-chih-chih-chih.”

Even a third-grader from Bowman, Macie Tidemann, would point out birds with an amazing accuracy of detail. I seldom saw the birds she was talking about, but others in the group said, “She’s on her way.”

Second, I learned that birding isn’t something taken lightly. Either you’re deeply passionate or you’re an outsider to the inner world of birds and birders.

“Some people do a life list, but I don’t do a life list. I just love birds,” Heiser said during our hike.

Birders live in the here and now. At the point when someone caught sight of a bald eagle in the far-off trees, the “oohs” and “ahs” nearly mimicked the birds we were watching. It was the first bald eagle sighted in many Bird Walks, I was told, and these folks admired it not from a sense of blind patriotism, but because of its rareness in the wild. I was similarly awestruck, but not to the same degree of tenured birders.

Third, birding is a gateway hobby into other, exciting activities. During our hike, birders also took joy in identifying a variety of flora and fauna. One woman picked up snakes to show the group just for the heck of it.

The most devoted are clearly more physically fit, again led down the path of an insatiable, unexplainable urge.

That the Bird Walk has persisted for 60 years is a testament to the power of birding. National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said turnout continues to impress her every year.

“It’s an amazing event that’s getting bigger and bigger,” Naylor said.

Hricik is reporter for The Dickinson Press. He can be reached at