My 11 Best Bird Watching Spots in North Dakota You Should Try

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North Dakota is a state that is rich in bird species. A total of 420 species have been recorded in North Dakota. It is on the Central flyway, meaning numerous waterfowl and migrating songbirds can be seen during migration. I have described the best spots to bird watch in the state.

The best bird watching spots in North Dakota are in the prairie at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge and Sheyenne National Grassland. Areas with wetlands, such as Long Lake and Garrison Dam, are also suitable for waterfowl, and Icelandic State Park is recommended for northern species.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 11 birding spots in North Dakota:

Theodore Roosevelt National ParkOvenbird and Rock Wren
Sully’s Hill National Game PreserveHooded Merganser and Clay-colored Sparrow
Lostwood National Wildlife RefugeShort-eared Owls and Sharp-tailed Grouse
J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife RefugeChestnut-collared Longspur and Sprague’s Pipit
Sheyenne National Grassland Greater Prairie-Chicken and LeConte’s Sparrow
Long Lake National Wildlife RefugeSandhill Crane and Piping Plover
Garrison DamThayer’s Gull and Glaucous Gull
Arrowwood National Wildlife RefugeTundra Swan and Warbling Vireo
Kellys Slough National Wildlife RefugeCanvasback and Redhead
White Horse Hill National Game PreservePileated Woodpecker and American White Pelican
Icelandic State ParkRuffed Grouse and Veery
Best Places to Bird Watch in North Dakota

Read further to gain insight into the best bird watching places in North Dakota and also which species of birds you are most likely to observe in each location.

Best Bird Watching Spots in North Dakota
Best Bird Watching Spots in North Dakota

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in North Dakota

North Dakota has many areas where you can find birds because some parks and refuges host many birds throughout the year. Many of the refugees have wetlands that also attract shorebirds and waterfowl.

1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This park is found in the western part of the state. There are walking trails and an auto loop from which you can bird watch. The park is comprised of prairie, woodlands, and rivers. 

The riparian vegetation lining watercourses is where you can find bird species, such as Ovenbirds and Black-billed Magpies.

Other bird species in the park include Yellow-breasted Chats, Rock Wrens, Eastern Towhees, Red-headed Woodpeckers, and Black-billed Cuckoos.

2. Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve

This preserve has many prairie potholes and woodlands. There is a drive you can take and trails you can walk on. At least 260 species of birds have been noted in reserve.

You can find the following bird species in or close to the wetlands in the preserve: Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Other birds to watch in the preserve include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Clay-colored Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, and Yellow-throated Vireo. You can also see Pileated Woodpeckers in the trees and warblers such as the Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow Warbler. 

3. Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge is a  27,589-acre conservation area. It has a large expanse of prairie grassland, providing a habitat for many grassland-loving bird species.

There are wetlands scattered throughout the grassland, providing places for waterfowl and shorebirds. You can find such bird species as Horned Grebes and Eared Grebes on these waters.

It would be best to watch for birds like Sora and American Bittern, which can be found on the edges of wetlands in vegetation.

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge is designated as an Important Bird Area. Muddy shorelines of the wetlands can be fruitful for bird watchers. You can see Piping Plovers and Willets in such areas. 

Short-eared Owls, Upland Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits, Sprague’s Pipits, Vesper Sparrows, and Bobolinks have all been recorded in the prairie at this refuge.

You can reserve a spot at the viewing blinds to watch the lekking behavior of Sharp-tailed Grouse. You should contact the reserve to find more information about this.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

4. J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge

This is the most prominent established refuge in North Dakota at 58,700 acres. It is located along the Souris River and is on the border with Canada.

The area has a range of bird habitats, including large stretches of mixed-grass prairie, Sandhill grassland, marshland, wetlands, and woodlands.

There is a 22-mile Scenic Trail that you can drive on, so you can bird watch from the car. There are also hiking trails and an observation deck where you can walk and view birds. 

Bird species you can find here in the prairie include Chestnut-collared Longspur, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, and Baird’s Sparrow. 

5. Sheyenne National Grassland 

This is a large area of 70,000 acres of grassland in the state’s southeastern part. This area has the most significant population of the Greater Prairie-Chicken in North Dakota. This is a bird species that is endangered due to habitat loss.

Other bird species in Sheyenne’s grasslands include Bobolink, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Northern Harrier, and LeConte’s Sparrow.

The area includes the Sheyenne River and surrounding riparian vegetation. Some woodlands are good for birdlife. In the woods, you can see woodpeckers and various passerine bird species.

TOP TIP: Birds’ anatomy is very different from many other creatures. They do not have visible ears, but they do have excellent hearing. Find out the reason why in this article. Attracting birds to your yard is easy if you know how. Discover which colors are likely to attract birds here.

6. Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge is on the western and central side of the prairie pothole area of North Dakota. The refuge was established in the 1930s as a conservation area for migrating birds.

This refuge is 22,300 acres and has a large lake present, attracting numerous waterfowl and shorebirds. Vegetation on the shores and out on the prairie also attracts many bird species.

A big reason I visit this refuge is to see the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that start arriving in October each year. Besides the cranes, you can also find the Piping Plover, which is a species of great concern because it is threatened. 

There is also a Sharp-tailed Grouse present, which breeds in the refuge. While at the refuge, you should check the grasslands for other birds, such as Grasshopper Sparrows and Bobolinks. You may even catch sight of a Northern Harrier soaring low over the grassy and marsh areas.

7. Garrison Dam

Garrison Dam is situated about 75 miles north of the city of Bismarck. This reservoir attracts many gulls.

The species of gulls you can find at the dam include Herring Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Iceland Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls, and Glaucous Gulls. If you visit in the fall, you may also find Sabine’s Gull here.

Caspian Terns and Forster’s Terns are frequently spotted flying over the water. Bald Eagles can be found at Garrison Dam in winter. You can also use hiking trails to access the dam and surrounding vegetation to look for birds.

8. Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is where you can see Sharp-tailed Grouse and Tundra Swans. The grouse lekking behavior is in spring when you can reserve a spot at a blind to watch this behavior.

You can find several types of waterfowl on the wetlands in the refuge. Birds like Blue-winged Teals, Gadwalls, Eared Grebe, Hooded Merganser, and Western Grebes can be seen on the water.

Shorebird species recorded in the refuge include Piping Plover, American Avocet, and Wilson’s Phalarope. Secretive marsh birds include Sora and American Bittern. In the marsh, you can also find the Marsh Wren, Sedge Wren, and Nelson’s Sparrow.

The woodland area southeast of the lake provides habitat for birds such as Say’s Phoebe, Least, Willow Flycatchers, and Warbling Vireos. You may also recognize the liquid song of an Orchard Oriole and spot the beautiful Yellow Warbler in these trees.

9. Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge

Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge has numerous wetlands and grasslands providing good foraging and bird nesting opportunities. The refuge is in the Red River Valley of North Dakota.

Thousands of shorebirds and ducks occur in the refuge. April through August is the best time to see the most shorebirds, with July often optimal for the maximum numbers you can see.

An information kiosk in the refuge, parking spaces, and an elevated platform provide good views over the area.

Bird species at Kellys Slough include waterfowl species such as Canvasback, Redhead, and Hooded Grebe. Prairie bird species to watch for in the refuge include Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse.

These both nest in the area as well. Watch for Bald Eagles and small passerines such as the Willow Flycatcher and Bobolink.

10. White Horse Hill National Game Preserve

This preserve is good for bird watching because it has a variety of habitats, including oak and bass woodlands and aspen woodlands. There are also wetland areas and mixed grassland prairies, providing many habitats for different species of birds.

The refuge is 1,674 acres in size. Many birds, including the Pileated Woodpecker and American White Pelican, live and breed in the preserve.

The lakes and other wetlands in the preserve are excellent for seeing waterfowl. A further benefit is that when water levels drop, shorebirds will occur in large numbers along the muddy edges and shallow waters.

TIP: Check out my recommended products if you are looking for the best and trusted equipment for birdwatching in the wild or on your backyard (Amazon link):

11. Icelandic State Park

This 912-acre park is in the northeastern section of North Dakota. It has some vegetation not commonly found elsewhere in the state. Icelandic State Park has moist forests of ironwood, basswood, elm, and oak trees.

You can find birds such as Ruffed Grouse, Veery, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Warblers and related birds to look out for in the trees, including the Black-and-white Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo. 

The Ruffed Grouse is only found in the northern parts of North Dakota in hardwood forests. Pileated Woodpeckers are also commonly found where many big trees can feed and nest in. You should keep this in mind when trying to locate these two species.

Best Time to Bird Watch in North Dakota

North Dakota is excellent for waterfowl and shorebirds, but you can also see songbirds during migration. You should contact each reserve before deciding when to visit, as they can give you more details and suggestions on which species you can find at which times of the year. 

Geese and ducksEnd of September
WarblersSpring and fall
Best Time to Bird Watch in North Dakota

The North Dakota State Bird

Western Meadowlark - The State Bird of North Dakota
Western Meadowlark – The State Bird of North Dakota

The state bird of North Dakota is the Western Meadowlark. Meadowlarks are birds included in the Icteridae, a family of birds that includes cowbirds, blackbirds, and grackles. 

The Western Meadowlark is bright yellow underneath, with a noticeable and diagnostic black bib on the breast. You will also notice the brown and black flecked back and wings. This bird stands somewhat like a pipit and sings loudly from a perch.

You can expect to encounter meadowlarks in open country and grassy areas of the pothole prairies of North Dakota. The Western Meadowlark looks a lot like the Eastern Meadowlark, but distribution and call can separate the two species if you ever doubt the identification.

Bird Watching Laws in North Dakota

There are specific regulations regarding birds in North Dakota. Wild birds are protected in the state, including the eggs, nests, and young of such birds.

You may not possess or harm the birds in any way. Scientists can apply for a permit if they are completing a bird study.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


North Dakota is on the Central flyway of bird migration, and it is mainly thought of as a state with lots of prairie grasses. However, there are areas of forest, woodlands, and wetlands so that you can see more than just birds in the grasslands.

The lakes attract many waterfowl and shorebirds on migration, and you can watch the lekking behavior of grouse in various refuges. This is a state I would recommend for bird watching.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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