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Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald , Published August 26 2012

Flood-control project becomes birding Mecca

WARREN, Minn. — A flood-control impoundment southeast of here has proven to have a benefit water managers never anticipated.

The four-square mile Agassiz Valley Water Resource Management Project also has become a haven for birds — and the people who watch them. The impoundment, which is designed to control the flow of water from the Snake River during flooding, soon will be the newest stop on the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail.

Founded in 1997, the trail markets more than 45 bird-watching destinations from Warroad to Fergus Falls in northwest Minnesota. In 2009, the trail was expanded north to Delta Marsh and Hecla Island in Manitoba.

Nick Drees, administrator of the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District, led about 20 members of the birding trail’s governing board on a tour of the Agassiz Valley site Friday.

Drees said he never envisioned the impoundment’s recreational potential when it was completed in 2008. The impoundment can store more than 10,000 acre-feet of water during floods and holds about 800 acre-feet during normal water levels in pools ranging from 3 feet to 40 feet deep.

An acre-foot is the amount of water that will cover an acre of surface area to a depth of 1 foot.

“The pond is why it’s become a Mecca for bird-watching,” Drees said. “It has a great capacity to hold water, so it does become a birding place in the summer.”

The impoundment also borders the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley, a nature center that already is a stop on the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail. Heidi Hughes, manager of the Audubon Center, said the impoundment is especially good for bird-watching because it’s located where the tall-grass prairie and more forested aspen parkland ecosystems meet.

Pelicans, sandhill cranes by the thousands, bobolinks, terns, gulls and other shorebirds are just a few of the species Hughes routinely sees at the impoundment. Last winter, she said snowy and short-eared owls were common.

“From a prairie wildlife perspective, there are birds I’ve never seen in such numbers because of the open land here,” she said. “It’s just phenomenal.

“From a marketing perspective, the trick, I think, is to get people who live here to see it as something special.”

Because of the interest the Agassiz Valley site has attracted from birders, the watershed district recently completed a mile-long wildlife drive with a gravel road and parking area near the northwest corner of the impoundment. The drive, which overlooks the largest pool on the impoundment, offers the best view for bird-watchers.

The wildlife drive has nothing to do with flood control, but it’s an example of the kind of partnerships that have made the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail a success.

In this case, the Audubon Center and the watershed district are the partners.

“It’s a great site,” said Carroll Henderson, nongame wildlife program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who was among the visitors to tour the impoundment Friday. “If there’s a way to get the word out of what’s been seen here, people will come and see it.”

In that context, the city of Warren will see the same kinds of benefits other communities along the trail have enjoyed.

“It’s really made an impact,” Henderson said of the birding trail. “People started showing up in these towns from other states. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the state.”

Hughes, manager of the Audubon Center, said she’s excited about the designation.

“I think the key to it all was the watershed seeing the benefits of bird-watching as an economic machine,” Hughes said. “I think there’s more great things to come in terms of nature viewing in the Warren area.”