PINGREE, N.D. -- What to do? It's a question many have been asking since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and Paul Halko has an answer: birding.
"There are many aspects of birding that folks can do and I think it kind of fits well in our current environment and situation," said Halko, Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge's project leader. "Birding kind of plays well into this because you are out typically in remote areas either alone or a small group. I think it also does well for the day trip where a family wants to get out and go enjoy some fresh air, sunshine and observe some birds and wildlife."
Birding is defined as "the observation of birds in their natural habitats as a hobby." For some that hobby takes them across state lines.
"They like the travel associated with it," Halko said. "Most of the time birders have species that they are trying to target or see and they basically research the area where they are located then that area kind of becomes a destination."
Halko said the variety of birds nesting inside state lines is one reason North Dakota is often deemed as a destination location for birders. Halko said North Dakota is home to 140 different species of birds -- some migratory and others are residents. Central North Dakota, located in the Prairie Pothole Region, is home to many waterfowl, grassland and shorebirds.
"There are several unique species of birds," Halko said. "As far as specific species, Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, Yellow Rail, LeConte's Sparrow, Gray Partridge and Sharp-tailed Grouse are the common ones asked for as far as the grassland species. The other thing that attracts people is we have many species of breeding waterbirds and waterfowl here in North Dakota."
While visitors may have to navigate more restrictions to see the birds due to the pandemic, Jamestown birder Dan Buchanan said it is an activity almost perfect for the cultural reality.
"It gets you out of the house for one thing in a safe environment," Buchanan said. "It's very easy to do social distancing when you are birding because people are kind of spread out here and there and you don't have to get close together. It's a nice change of pace, it's a year-round thing to kind of get your mind off all of the other troubles that come up in our lives."
About a 40-minute drive north of Jamestown, Arrowwood is one place primed for just that purpose. The refuge is home to waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland birds, making it a premier destination for many local and traveling birders. Due to the pandemic, Arrowwood has closed its visitor center but has kept much of its nearly 75,000 acres open to the public.
"It actually puts you in a whole other dimension to see nature up close and personal," Buchanan said. "(Birds) are around but we're largely unaware of them and it just kind of creates an awareness. It is quite interesting to try and figure out what they are and what they are doing and it's difficult because there are so many species of birds."
Arrowwood, Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge and White Horse Hill National Game Reserve, formerly named Sully Hill until about a year ago, are available to explore. Halko said that Sheyenne National Grasslands and the National Audubon Sanctuary are also common North Dakota destinations for birders.
"One of the benefits of (birding) is you have people being outside, observing wildlife, the birds, they're gaining an appreciation for those birds and the habitats they live in," Halko said. "Then I think that benefits the conservation of that habitat for those birds just by people gaining an appreciation for them."
Buchanan started to gain an appreciation for the birds nearly 50 years ago.
"I've been watching birds since the early '70s," Buchanan said. "I remember I was recently out of law school and I began noticing birds outside the window of my apartment and I kind of got intrigued. Then when we moved to Jamestown in 1972 I got involved with a pretty active birding group in town. It was just kind of right place, right time and I kind of got hooked."
If one would like to try birding, Halko said it is good practice to carry a good pair of optics like binoculars or a spotting scope. The project leader also suggested researching key places to find the different types of birds prior to the expedition. Halko said Arrowwood is available to help birders try and narrow the scope of their search.
"It gets you outside in the fresh air a little bit (and) it's kind of fun to see what they do," Buchanan said. "I don't know -- I just kind of like looking at them."