Open Mic: Kylie's North Dakota
by Nate Swick
At the Mic: Kirby Adams
Kirby is a recent convert to birding living in Lansing, Michigan with his wife Sarah. He is the birding columnist for the travel blog National Parks Traveler. Kirby hopes to be a great (or even good) birder someday, but in the meantime enjoys the fact that lifers are still relatively easy to come by.
A sunny and perfect Friday afternoon in early June found my wife Sarah and me at an Olive Garden restaurant in Minot, North Dakota. I was getting used to the fact that the locals call their town something that sounds more like “MINE-it” than the “my-NOT” that I had been using, and we were both basking in the glow of a birding jaunt around North Dakota that had been nothing short of exceptional. Following a morning at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge that produced our life Baird’s Sparrow, we decided to celebrate. The Olive Garden is about as fancy as we get - it seems disposable income is better spent on travel, optics, and field guides than expensive meals - but after a week of snacks, fast-food, and bar fare when we birded until past sundown, it was time to live it up.
Our server’s name was Kylie, and being a native North Dakotan, she was inherently and genuinely friendly. Our snippets of conversation as breadsticks and salad were brought (and brought again) revealed us to be travelers from Michigan that happened to be sitting at her table mostly because there was a little brown bird in a grassy field an hour northwest of this restaurant. Kylie admitted she had no idea people came to North Dakota from all over the country just to see birds. We rattled off a list of states that were home to birders we’d met that week – Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, California.
This wasn’t the first time that week that our birding habit had become a topic of conversation with others during a meal. While exploring the badlands of western North Dakota a few days earlier, we spent our lunches at a small diner in Medora, North Dakota and used the down-time to tally field notes for our eBird checklists. It wasn’t long before the owner, who doubled as the cook, asked us, using the friendly yet charmingly blunt manner of a true North Dakotan, what the hell we were doing. Folks in Medora are no strangers to tourists as the town is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but we were sure to point out that we were birding everywhere, including some fields down the road that weren’t part of any federal land but were rich with Long-billed Curlews.
We drove our Prius into a hyper-conservative town and talked about birds with a guy that wore a cowboy hat and smoked cigarettes in his apron on the front porch of his diner. As it turns out, people who drive Priuses and people who wear cowboy hats have a lot more in common than you’d think when it comes to wanting to conserve wildlife. When I mentioned the plethora of oil wells lining every road and influx of people showing no respect for the land, we both just shook our heads in sadness. His North Dakota wasn’t about birds at all, but it was being threatened and trampled just like the bird-watching paradise we’d come to see.
Later, at the Olive Garden, I was thinking about the opportunity birders have to be ambassadors for conservation. We travel all over the world and we often end up in obscure places. It’s not always the National Parks and wildlife refuges, but small local parks, abandoned fields, and unclaimed swamps. Those places cry out for protection, and we can amplify their plea.
Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in northwest Ohio, first got me thinking about this. The BSBO hosts a festival every May to celebrate the epicenter of Great Lakes songbird migration. Attendees get a small pack of business cards to distribute at local businesses they patronize. The cards identify the bearer as a birder that’s in town and spending money simply because someone had the foresight to protect local areas like Magee Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and Metzger Marsh. I thought these cards were a bit quirky and weird on my first trip to the Biggest Week in American Birding. A couple years later I notice businesses advertising on their front doors that they are part of the Black Swamp Birds & Business Alliance, and it seems everyone from Toledo to Port Clinton wants to make birders happy. Birders, of course, are happy when prime birding habitat is preserved. Seems like Kim Kaufman knew exactly what she was doing!
I put another trick to work last year in West Virginia. I’d read a blog post from Bill Thompson III, editor of Birdwatcher's Digest and ambassador par excellence for birding, about how he wears his binoculars into shops and restaurants when traveling for birding. Bill doesn’t give off any creepy vibes like some people wearing binoculars in public might, so inevitably a conversation about birding ensues wherever he goes. Every time Bill says, “I’m here to see birds”, shop owners associate that phrase with the ding of their cash register as he hands over money for a pie or a souvenir. With this in mind, I stumbled into a Subway just outside the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia wearing my binoculars. Within thirty seconds, the sandwich artist behind the counter was asking me all about why someone from Michigan came to rural West Virginia in June. Cerulean Warbler? Never heard of it! Mission accomplished.
Our hunger finally sated at the Olive Garden in Minot, Kylie brought our check and I found a card in the folder bidding us to enjoy some more bird watching before we left. Now, I’m not naïve and I understand these cards very well. The personal connection with a server, more-often perceived than real, makes patrons happy, who then tip heavier, spend more money, and come back to dine again. Everyone wins. But I wonder how many times Kylie, who likely wouldn’t know a Baird’s Sparrow from a Bobolink, has wished someone the traditional farewell of our hobby: “Good birding!”
Maybe the next time she sees a developer on TV bemoaning the fact that a bunch of environmentalists won’t let him destroy a prairie, she’ll give notice to the member of the local Audubon chapter or birding club that speaks in response. She might also remember some weary but joyful travelers from Michigan that left her a 40% tip and gushed about how thrilled they were to have spent the morning exploring “her” prairie. I hope she does. The future of North Dakota’s birds is in her hands.