Prairie and river meet at North Dakota’s largest and most diverse National Wildlife Refuge
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge
UPHAM – A large covey of sharptailed grouse glide to a chosen landing spot in tall grass and disappear from view. A colorful ruddy duck, almost comical in appearance, swims in and out of tall cattails at the edge of a marsh. A muskrat, likely from a nearby lodge, emerges from the water and slips onto a thin ice flow that will soon succumb to warm sunshine of spring. A few yards away several bald eagles, national symbols of the United States, rest on the edge of the ice, watching intently for what may become their next meal.
Every year life returns to J. Clark Salyer as North Dakota transitions from winter to spring. While native wildlife takes advantage of Salyer’s diverse and protective habitat to cope with winter, the return of migrating birds and waterfowl brings the sprawling refuge to life for even the casual observer to see. It is an almost magical transformation.
Early arrivals are geese, mostly Canada geese, but white-fronted geese and snow geese too. Not far behind come migrating ducks sporting bright coloration, mallards, pintails, widgeon, and wood ducks among them, all bringing new life to the refuge’s marshes and meandering Souris River.
In time a wide variety of shorebirds arrive too, all helping solidify J. Clark Salyer’s reputation as a “must visit” for birdwatchers and confirm its designation as a Globally Important Bird Area. The refuge has also earned the honor of being a regional site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. In all, more than 250 birds species can be found at J. Clark Salyer NWR.
The 45-mile-long refuge, the largest in North Dakota, covers nearly 60,000 acres of varying habitat. Visitors, often with binoculars in hand, can’t help but marvel at the natural beauty and come away with an appreciation for the preservation of wildlife and habitat. J. Clark Salyer is a living heritage, a necessary reminder of the sometimes overlooked value that nature contributes to our busy world.
Kyle Flannery recently made the move from the pavement and politics of Washington, D.C., to the remoteness of J. Clark Salyer, taking the position as project leader. He arrived in January and has witnessed the changing of the season.
“It is a stark difference from D.C.” said Flannery. “It’s been pretty amazing to come out in the mornings and see geese and ducks, pretty neat to see in the spring. The eagles kind of blew my mind.”
This spring has been a special one for migrating eagles at J. Clark Salyer, especially bald eagles. They have arrived in much greater numbers than usual. Gary Williams, deputy project leader, said he recently county 50 bald eagles along the Upham/Willow City road that winds through the refuge.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” remarked Williams, who was stationed at J. Clark Salyer in 1992. “They are eating dead fish from low water conditions and tracking the waterfowl heading north. The numbers are certainly out of the ordinary. A few will stick around.”
One reason why so many eagles have arrived at the refuge this spring could be drought conditions that are prevalent throughout the area. Water impoundments at J. Clark Salyer are an attraction and the tall trees along the Souris River that curls through the refuge provide many choices for nesting bald eagles and others birds, such as great blue herons, too.
“It is pretty cool, actually,” said Flannery. “I wonder if the smaller bodies of water drying up is bringing more birds here and the eagles that come with it.”
Viewing of the bald eagles utilizing the refuge is easy to do, even from the comfort of a vehicle. In addition to the Upham/Willow City road, the refuge boasts what many consider to be one of the most, if not thee most, under-rated scenic drives in the state. The J. Clark Salyer Scenic Trail is a 22-mile long route through the southern portion of the refuge that provides the visitor with an opportunity to see a variety of habitat and wildlife.
The Scenic Trail borders marshes, the Souris River, woodland, prairie, and the sandhills formed by retreating Lake Souris at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. There’s different species of plants and trees that flourish in the variety of soils, each with their own special appeal to birds and other wildlife.
Along the route is a short turn-off to Thompson well, a popular place for canoeists paddling the Souris River Canoe Trail and others.
“Thompson well is an old farm site,” explained Williams. “There’s still a lot of people that use that well for drinking water.”
Visitor’s can pump water from the well and enjoy its refreshing taste. A picnic table and comfort station is also located at the site. Unfortunately, due to very low water conditions in the Souris River this year, using a kayak or canoe on the river is all but impossible.
“I would say not now. The water is so low,” said Flannery. “And there’s a lot of log jams.”
Williams said he was “keeping his fingers crossed for spring rain” that would help alleviate dry conditions. He also advised anyone considering launching a canoe at a designated point on the canoe trail to check on river conditions before doing so.
For those who want to explore the refuge on foot they are welcome to do so on the native prairie of the sandhills near J. Clark Salyer’s southern border. However, as a sign at the trailhead advises, hikers should remain well aware of their direction of travel to prevent them from getting lost.
“There isn’t actually a trail. There is a parking area and people can wander around wherever they wish, but no established trail,” said Flannery.
“It’s a nice place for people to walk and bird watch,” added Williams.
There’s a variety of wildlife, large and small, that can be encountered in the sandhills too. It is all part of the vast diversity offered at J. Clark Salyer.
“What I like the most about the refuge is its uniqueness, from the dirt prairie in the north to the open ground glassland trail along the scenic river valley,” said Williams. “Coming south to the headquarters there are open flats and larger marshes. Then, further south, is the sandhills.”
The Grassland Trail referenced by Williams, unlike the auto tour route, is not open year round. It is a 5-mile, two-track trail for vehicles and hikers that offers up-close views of wildlife.
“It’s a nice little spot on the refuge,” remarked Flannery.
The Grassland Trail is currently closed due to the spring turkey season but is expected to be open once again when the turkey season comes to a close on May 16. Further information on J. Clark Salyer NWR can be found on the web and from information brochures available at kiosks at the refuge headquarters or various points along designated trails.