Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dakota Doe

There’s no real plot in this one; just the beauty of a summer doe, surprised. North Dakota is famous for its "monster bucks," heads and antlers of which were hanging all over the hunting lodge where we stayed. Big. Really big.

We shocked this girl by stopping to look at a Krider’s redtail. I backed my telephoto off as far as I could but just barely got her in the picture. Unlike my Wisconsin model, she’s almost in full summer dress, just a few gray winter hairs hanging along her lower flanks and belly. I wonder why deer would change to red in summer, and remember that red radiates heat better than gray. The same explanation works for why there are so many more red-phase ruffed grouse and screech owls in the southern parts of their range. Red is a warm-weather color.

There had been perhaps eight inches of rain in the last two weeks. We’re in a drought, like much of the country, and it was pure heaven to be on squishy ground. Look at the droplets she flings up as she turns to flee.I’m sure the doe would disapprove of this shot, but it does show her nice full udder. She’s got a fawn somewhere hidden in the grass.Or maybe she’s just fixin’ to drop one. Either way, she’s got milk.Over the hill she goes.And stops for a last look back. Lucky girl, to be able to bring her baby up on the prairie, listening to western meadowlarks.I'm praying for rain tonight like a prospector prays for gold. Please. The sky is deep Payne's gray-blue, the leaves are inside out, the radar looks good, all sprinkled with green and yellow, and I hope this storm actually forms and gives us some relief. We had our last picking of sugar snap peas last night, and the first picking of snap beans, and the beans are all J-shaped, the shape of drought. My tomatoes are just sitting there, sulking, hard little green marbles hanging from their tiny limbs. I don't want to haul out 200 feet of hose if I don't have to. I'm waiting, hoping, visualizing inches of rain coming down on my crisp gardens. May it rain on you, too.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Birthplace of Ducks

A blue-winged teal, Bill of the Birds' favorite duck. They are everywhere in North Dakota, leading little broods of bumbly yellow ducklings.

The North Dakota Missouri Coteau region is justly famous for being the birthplace of ducks. Brief, geology-for-morons explanation: The Missouri Coteau is the place where the glacier stopped, and dumped all its gravel. Big chunks of ice bore down into the earth, creating deep potholes, and the gravel that the glacier pushed before it piled up into moraines and ridges, that rise above the flat ancient sea bottom in ridges visible for miles. Here’s a road, going along the flat, then rising up to the Coteau.You get up on the Coteau, and everything seems to come to life. The land rolls and undulates and rises up in sudden promontories. Grasses wave like the sea. Birds pop out of every slough and ditch. It is a birder’s paradise. It is...ridiculously birdy. It is one of the places you MUST go before you die. Start with the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival. Next June. Be there.

The potholes are full of ducks, like these gorgeous shovelers. This pair of males was keeping company, and even displaying a bit to each other, but I did not feel as though their relationship threatened the institution of marriage. I'll have to check the laws in North Dakota to see what's allowed, but personally, I was cool with it.This male was one of a heterosexual pair, but he looked wary. He exploded into flight, unexpected colors flaring from his epaulets. WOW. Being on the wrong side of the car, I thrust my camera into Bill’s hands, and he captured the images. I doubt I'd have gotten it. Thanks, sweetie.Such an exultation of color! The same sky-blue upper wing coverts as a blue-winged teal, with a teal-green speculum. Whoooo-eee. Imagine if we hadn't been shooting smack into the light. Oh, gosh. I'm sounding more like a photographer all the time. Picky, picky.

flying shoveler photos by Bill Thompson III

I'm painting flying woodpeckers today, slowly losing my mind from boredom. There are like a bazillion polka dots on the outspread wings of every darn one of them, and each one has to be painted around. Yawwwnnn...prairie dreams.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Phalarope Love, Wasabi Lenses

Phalaropes, like the Wilson's phalaropes hanging out in a flooded cornfield outside Pingree, North Dakota, have an interesting spin on the usual boy-meets girl, courts girl, and makes cloacal contact story that comprises most bird courtship. The female phalarope is the Sadie Hawkins of shorebirds. Not only is she larger and more brightly colored than the male, but she also takes the initiative in courtship. And once she's laid her eggs, the male is left to incubate them and care for the (luckily precocial) chicks. Wow. Can I get a Hayull Yeah! from the ladies out there?

Though the lighting wasn't great, and the birds were very distant, I trained my 300 mm. lens on a couple of phalaropes, hoping something might be going down between them. First, the female approached the male. She's the one on the left, with the darker red neck. He's paler, and kind of scrunched down. You're a handsome fellow. May I buy you a drink?
They did a little strutting, female in the lead. Hayull Yeah. All aboard!Oh, excuse me. Just checking out somebody over across the slough. Sorry.Almost...
I love it when you go all puffy.Update on the unpack: Trader Joe's has these tamari wasabi almonds that I love so much that I brought them along. I could have only two carry-ons, and those were my laptop and my photo backpack. In the mad re-pack to make our way home, I put snacks in the body of the photo backpack, since the front pockets were full. The almonds sprang open and about a half-pound of wasabi dust went all over my camera and lenses. I said (well, shouted) some very, very bad things when I found my camera nestled in a bed of green wasabi salt dust. Now, there's a lesson. No freakin' food in the camera backpack. Well, maybe jerky. No wasabi almonds. I brushed the equipment off and took a power hose to the backpack and left it in the sun. It still smells faintly of wasabi. Far as I can tell the lens caps did their job. Any piece of optical equipment that belongs to me earns its living.

A mouse died in the dryer lint trap. Or perhaps a whole nest of mice. Can't get to it. Tried to figure out how to pull the front off the dryer. Couldn't. Tried to dig around through the little lint trap slot with chopsticks. It's like trying to pull a cow through a transom. Hanging out load after load of tiny underwear and socks. Hoping it turns to compost by the time the weather turns cold. Putting my faith in putrefaction.

Shopped for food. Ran into friends. Talked a lot. Took hours. Still, I love living in a small town for just that reason, that someone will make fun of me reading US Magazine or the Star in the grocery line. Had to get an update on Nicole's bump, Katie's private anguish and Angie's spindly arms. Life's not easy for anybody, that's all.

Happy birthday, Barbie. I love you.

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Sweet Prairie Birds, Zick Hit

Where I come from, upland sandpipers are pretty much limited to the grasslands you’ll find around large airports. If they’re even there. This bird has become vanishingly rare in the East, just like natural grasslands. As the habitat goes, so go the birds. It’s refreshing to come to a place where the saucy wolf-whistle of the upland sandpiper can still be heard.Like all grassland birds, uppies (as we call them when we’re excited and blurting) are always looking for a good perch, mostly for lookout purposes. Those shoe-button eyes, placed high on a bony head, don’t miss much. But the upland sandpiper sings mostly on the wing, its Whip Wheeel Yewww! whistle ringing out from on high. A distinctive stuttering wingbeat, a bit like a spotted sandpiper’s, makes it recognizable at a good distance. And yet it melts into the grass as soon as it lands.I almost didn’t recognize this willet in breeding plumage, so used am I to seeing them in drab, unmarked gray winter plumage. He is fine. When he takes to the wing, he waves striking black and white flags.A signature sound of the prairie is the winnowing of snipe—a mellow woop woop woop woop woop, given when the bird is high in the air. The snipe’s outermost tail feathers are narrow and stiff—lanceolate is the term—and the snipe tilts from side to side as he flies, spreading his tail wide. Somehow, he forces air into those feathers as he banks, and their vibration produces the ghostly sound. It’s extremely hard to locate—perhaps the origin of the term “snipe hunt.” Snipe winnow when they’re courting, and boy, were they courting in early June! I think this bird is taking a siesta. Looks like it’s been on that post before. Those white back stripes are a great field mark for a wonderful bird.I’m guessing that tree swallows nest in fenceposts out here, since there seem to be few nest boxes. I would imagine that competition for available cavities is pretty darn stiff. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a prettier tree swallow, in a nicer setting. He glowed like a piece of azurite.
So we're home, and I'm especially glad I "canned" these posts before we left. Everybody's fine except me. I'm getting a fabulous airplane cold, especially enjoyable in the summer. Whiling away the time in JFK for four hours, where every gate was crammed full and every restroom had a line snaking out the door, was like being dipped in a bath of germs from all over the world. My cold might be from Pakistan.

Downloading and editing the hundreds of Maine photos is going to take all week, as the North Dakota photos did. But they'll come. Oh, we had so much fun. I could get used to summer days in the 60's and low 70's, clear, dry air and high white clouds, the keening of gulls and the fresh salt tang of low tide. Ohio, meanwhile, is wrapped in its hot damp, not-so-fresh summer sleeping bag of haze...The birds we saw most frequently? Common eiders. Imagine. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stick with me, and I'll finish my hymn to the prairies before we go to the Maine coast.

Oh, after the weeklong diet, if you need a hit of Zick, complete with photo gallery, see Joe Blundo's good story in the Columbus Dispatch. It appeared on Sunday, June 24, 2007. I love the HTML tag they gave it: "Bird Lady." Yeah, that's me. It's a good story, treacle-free. Be sure to check out the audio slideshow that their ultracool photographer/media dude Eric Albrecht put together. There are some fresh pictures of Chet Baker, being generally obtrusive, and some really neat shots of me in my natural habitat. Now I know you're clicking. Baker hit!

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Prairie Friends

Hi everybody! Sitting in JFK Airport on a Monday afternoon layover, wading through hundreds of offers for Cialis and Rolex Replicas, answering an email here and there. Jet Blue rokks. TV's in the back of the seat, free wireless in the terminal. As you may know, I don't watch TV much...American Idol in the winter and Entourage from time to time, but that's it. Phoebe and I watched a Project Runway marathon all the way to Maine and got irretrievably hooked on this strangely fascinating show. What fun! We are mini fashionistas now. We're on our way back from a week in Maine. It was superb. There was no Internet or cell service. Yes, you read right. Superb. Weather was great; people were even better; ocean was beautiful and so were the birds. You'll see...but first you'll be hearing about North Dakota for awhile.

There has been some talk on this blog of sadly misguided but sweet people wanting to be adopted so they can live at Indigo Hill. Well, we’ll have to leave you a key, because I want to be adopted by Ann and Ernie Hoffert of Pipestem Creek outside Pingree, North Dakota.

These folks live gently on 5,000 acres of land that was farmed by Ann’s family for decades. She lived in other parts of the country for 22 years, and in 1987 she and Ernie returned to the Reimert farm. Ernie grows crops for seed, so you know he grows the finest crops on that deep black loam. Ann uses four acres to grow flowers and ornamental seed-bearing plants. She has a thriving business, making ornamental wreaths, edible bird feeders, and other home decorating accents for such clients as Martha Stewart and Smith and Hawken. Everything is grown on the farm, and hung to dry in outbuildings that Ann and Ernie have salvaged and moved before they were to be destroyed.

We have Pipestem Creek wreaths and creations all over our house, and love them. They're all natural, all locally-grown, and simply beautiful.

To say that Ann has a way with plants is a vast understatement. These peonies, on the verge of bloom, will all be dried and included in her exquisite creations, if they’re not incorporated in impossibly lush bouquets in their beautiful ranch house.Salt of the earth—it’s a cliché, I know, but it describes Ann and Ernie. They are constantly watching and appreciating the birds that populate their land. They love the sky and its moods, and they can linger for hours in a marsh and let the beauty wash over them.These red admirals and monarchs were swarming all over a late lilac in their yard. It’s a lushly planted garden of delights. (Remember what I said about stretching spring out? Lilacs on June 11? Please!! And I just got done sniffing the last fading flowers on traditional lilacs and late French lilacs like these in Port Clyde, Maine...on June 24!! It's a thing now.)Ernie has a wonderful baritone voice, and he plays guitar and sings beautifully. Ann is so kind and and solicitous, and she made Phoebe and Liam feel appreciated and included when her monomaniacal parents were clicking away at grassland birds. I always think of Jessica Lange when I see Ann. She has an egret’s elegance, even when windblown. I think she likes it when we visit, because we “get” this land she loves so much, and she can see it anew through our eyes. If they’ll have us, we’d like to be adopted by Ann and Ernie. Instant grandchildren! Think about, OK?My sweet father-in-law has kindly sprung Chet Baker from Puppy Prison as of Monday morning. He'll be waiting in Phoebe's bed, most likely, when we get home. That's where he likes to sleep when we're away, because he can hop up and peer out the window at the driveway, awaiting our return. Being greeted by Boston kisses is the next best thing to kid kisses. Since we have the kids with us, we'll take Baker's welcome gladly. He's going to be one happy puppeh.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bill of the Birds

Don’t advertise your man. Sippie Wallace wrote it, Bonnie Raitt sang it…it’s true.
Women be wise, keep your mouth shut. Don’t advertise your man.
But he’s some kind of something, so I'm going to be foolish.

A typical pre-field-trip shot. We're on our way to go see bison and prairie birds in a wooden wagon. He’s got all the gear, the spotting scope, camera, binocs, AND the granola bars, first aid kit, and Wet Wipes. He will carry loads until he drops, always looking for what needs to be done.

He looks out for the young ones, sparing no effort to get a little girl her first look at a burrowing owl. He's spraddling out the legs of his tripod to get it down to her level. See that? It’s a burrowing owl, hunkered down in his hole.I just wanted to appreciate Bill for all he does to make sure everybody else has a good time. photo by Ernie Hoffert

Happy Father's Day, B. We love you, and we know that we're lucky to have you in our lives. Our babies will only be this little for awhile longer, and we must savor every moment with them.

I'll be posting sporadically, if at all, for the next week. The pace of our summer has not let up. But there will be adventure and beautiful birds to photograph, and you can be sure I'll share. See you when I'm able. Stay casual and keep things watered!


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bringing the Kids Along

One of my favorite images from the trip:
And what of the kids? How does that work, taking your kids along while you're birding and shooting endless photos of a single little longspur? (Here's Bill, with his tiny subject over on the right side of the picture, just to give you an idea of the scene:) Well, it works very well, if your kids are Phoebe and Liam. They were into it. They love North Dakota, and our friends treat them kindly and make them feel a part of things. They wander in and out of the scene, fetch forgotten bits of gear from the car for us, read their books (at 7, Liam is already devouring chapter books, at least one a day), eat copious and usually verboten candy bribes, and just generally mellow out. Liam amused himself making rockpiles on a rockpile. When I came closer, I could hear him humming softly and sweetly, and I made out the tune: "What Hurts the Most" by Rascal Flatts, a song that makes him very sad, and that he won't listen to any more, but obviously still loves. As sweet a sound as any singing meadowlark.
North Dakota is a state of mind. It's immensely calming to be out on the prairie in the mellow evening sun, to breathe air fresher than any you've ever breathed, to hear the burbling of western meadowlarks and the buzzing of grasshopper and Savannah sparrows. It worked its magic on kids, and they never fought or complained; they ate dinner with us at 10 pm when the sun finally disappeared, and went to bed at 11, and we dragged them out of bed at 6:30 AM for field trips, and they were absolutely great about it. This is the reward that was waiting when we were getting up several times each night to feed and comfort them as infants. They're full-fledged agreeable and adorable people now. Ahhhh.Phoebe and Liam explore an old engine and caboose at a little historic rail museum.The snowplow spoke silently of a different North Dakota--one buried under yards and yards of snow. That is a snowplow what am a snowplow.And a happy man, doing what he loves most, with his family close at hand. Blessings? We're soaking in them!

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Aerial Broadcasting

Lacking a perch taller than a dried weed stem or a rock, the longspur resorts to flight songs--a lot of them. A surprising number of common birds have flight songs (indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, ovenbirds, Kentucky warblers, Acadian flycatchers, mockingbirds, and many others). These could be called forest birds, and flight songs are more or less optional for them. They'll fly and sing at dawn and dusk, or, like the chat and indigo bunting, intermittently through the day. For grassland birds, which have a hard time finding a perch tall enough to work with, flight songs are a more important component of their courtship display. Think horned lark, pipits, and these longspurs. Even the small, secretive sparrows engage in flight songs. The idea is to broadcast your message of sex or defiance as far and wide as you are able. Birds often adopt a striking flight style while singing on high. The longspur lifts his head and flutters shallowly, like a moth, as he pours out his song. It is not easy to get a picture of that, but we tried.
You have to envision BOTB and me standing under the bird, pointing our long lens barrels up at him as he circles overhead, singing his head off. We're laughing quietly and having so much fun.
It was a longspur feast. Just another time I am so happy not to be shooting film! I have him launching himself in the air, assuming a leg position I'd never dare draw... resting, singing, loafing,showing off his beauty from every angle, and filling the air with his silvery song.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Longspur Joy

Bill and I worked very hard at the Potholes and Prairies festival in Carrington, North Dakota. We led two field trips, each gave a seminar, performed music for two functions, and I gave a keynote--all in three days. We didn't get a chance to go to some of our favorite spots, like Chase or Horsehead Lakes, to see some of the prairie specialties. We birded when we could, squeezing in a few hours here and there. North Dakota is so generous with its landscapes and birds, though, that we were surrounded by beauty wherever we went. Imagine driving down a highway, and there are all kinds of birds in the air, and instead of being starlings or rock pigeons, they're all different kinds of ducks and shorebirds. That's what's common out there.

But we missed some birds, like Baird's and Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. And chestnut-collared longspur, one of my very favorites. This little bird likes unbroken prairie, with shallow, gravelly soil and protruding rocks. After five years, Bill and I will say things as we drive like, "This looks longspurry to me." And we've found lots of great birds that way. This time, though, we got exact directions to a place with longspurs, and took off at 5:30 PM Sunday to find them. Our dear friends Ann and Ernie Hoffert accompanied us. Ernie amused himself while we were shooting longspur portraits by dipping his toe into digiscoping, coming up with some excellent results. I think we may have gotten him hooked. And Ann birded for a long time, then just relaxed and soaked up the landscape, a pursuit she has taken to a high art. She is the most serene and contemplative of companions.And we found a longspur, perhaps the friendliest, most cooperative bird we could have asked for. He had a couple of favorite song perches and he sang like a madman, bopping from one to the other. Bill and I approached, slow and low, and eventually were just outside his comfort zone.

There is a decision to be made in cropping one's bird photos. Do you go for the luscious, full-frame bird, or do you try to give some idea of where and how it lives? Although closeups are delightful, I just can't bear to crop off the prairie plants that are so vital to its existence, and so I offer you these. I had to get down on my knees to bring the bird above the distant horizon. When you have a super-cooperative bird, you have the leisure to think about composition , instead of just trying to get the darn thing in focus.Perhaps my favorite shot, and it also happens to be sharp. When I cropped it in closely, the bird was tack-sharp, but the dried artemesia stalks seemed to evoke its liquid rollicking song, and so they stayed.And for a look at how the chestnut-collared longspur got its name, this:This is such an ornate little bird, and it's utterly different depending on what view you get. A black breast and belly make a potent visual message on bright, open grassland, and all a longspur has to do is face his rival to make a statement. No wonder good song perches are vital to good habitat for prairie birds. You have to make yourself known.This is why so many grassland birds--red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, dickcissels, horned larks, snow buntings and longspurs, to name a few, have such strikingly contrasting markings. Black reads well in landscapes that are flooded with light. There's nothing subtle about a longspur, head-on. And yet, he can turn his back on you, and melt into the grasses.

Meadowlarks do this all the time. Ever wonder why they always seem to be facing away from you when you try to get a look at them? They're hiding from you on purpose, because they know that their bright yellow breast and black vee will attract your attention. I'll never forget watching a migrating flock of eastern meadowlarks feeding at Anzalduas Park in south Texas. When we first spotted them, it was like a field full of daffodils. The moment the meadowlarks became aware that they were being watched, they all turned their backs on us at once, and the flowers melted away.

I originally made one huge post about this one sweet little bird, but decided to cleave it in half. So there will be more longspur joy in the morning.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It's Pea Pickin' Time

Ah, summer. Tire swings and fresh garden vegetables, bare limbs and dogs belly-down in cool grass, gorging on peas.
We're home, as of 10:30 last night. Sleeping in our own beds, hearing our own crickets and night sounds. We're all so happy to be home. The gardens survived. My housesitters are brilliant. Chet got all his booster shots and spent a week in the kennel and is back on bunny patrol, playing Gremlin's Gold at night, tug-of war and tag with the kids. He's a mighty forgiving little animal. People should spring back so readily.We are smothering him with love and he's soaking it all up. He slept with Phoebe last night, a beatific grin on both their faces.

I got up at 7 this morning and was still watering at 9. It's been wicked dry here, but I soaked everything the evening before we left and the plants hung in there until I could get back.

The word is in: I have Rocky Mountain spotted fever. A mild case, I think. Still on antibiotic and feeling fine but for sore arms and more fatigue than usual. Great. Two tick-borne diseases on my resume.

North Dakota was amazing. I can't really begin to describe it without pictures, and those are coming, as are the thoughts that go with them. For now, I'm placeholding with peas. The important stuff has to be done first, like picking fat sugar snap peas. Finally, for the first time in my life, I have enough of them. Five big rows of two varieties--early Sugar Ann bush peas, and later Sugar Snap climbers. The early peas are at peak; the climbers are just now coming in. We took a big bag of them on the plane and ate them all week. What a godsend. I love North Dakota but I don't consider iceberg lettuce a vegetable, and after a couple days of pizza and hamburgers and meat and bread and potatoes with tiny iceberg lettuce side salads I get this hungry glint in my eye and consider dropping to my hands and knees to eat clover. Chlorophyll is what I need.

Baker helped us pick peas this morning. He flopped down on my tuberoses and glads and supervised while Phoebe and I worked.I never saw a green vegetable the entire week in the kennel. I do not know what is wrong with those people. Kibble and meat, that's all they gave me. I am starving for peas.
I would appreciate it if you would shell them for me, but I will eat the pods if you are too lazy.
He picks his own, leaving a distinctive chewed stub on the plant. But he cannot be trusted around the harvest.
Nor can Sir Liam. He's a two-fisted sugar snap pea eater. He has always called them sugar nas peas, so we do, too.Enough peas to share. Life is good.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Deer Story

I have given this Canon Rebel XTi quite a workout in the five months I've had it. I've worn it so often over my shoulder that I no longer even notice its weight. It lies against my hip, always ready, always on, asleep, but ready to awakened in an instant. I keep a spare battery in my pocket all the time; I live in fear of laundering it.

I was immersed in warblers when something moved in the corner of my vision field. A big doe was coming out of the woods just across the road from me. A strong breeze was blowing from the east, bringing her scent to me, though I couldn't discern it. She could smell nothing of me, and being a doe, she moved closer to investigate.

An old deer hunter once told me that a buck won't do that, and I have found it to be true, even in fawns. Bucks who move closer to a strange object often get shot for their curiosity. Does let it all hang out, the desire to know what they're seeing overpowering their fear. They are Science Chimps, too.

She moved on an oblique angle toward me as she continued to cross the road. She couldn't make out the details of my face, covered as it was by a camera. She hesitated, and watched me.

Over her head, I could see a couple approaching, walking the road near their cabin. They had a Norwegian elkhound with them, and the man, sizing up the situation, stopped to put her on a lead. Thank you. The doe still hadn't perceived them. Oh, this was good.

She tilted an ear back. Someone was coming!Tearing those curious eyes away, she turned to look. Ruh-roh. No curiosity about this! She made up her mind quickly.
I was gratified to see her choose me as the lesser threat, as she wheeled and ran toward and past me and into the safety of the woods. I felt I had done something right. Stillness is to be desired in the pursuit of beauty.

I'm writing from North Dakota, where we spent most of the day on unbroken prairie, watching upland sandpipers, vesper sparrows, soras, and magnificent bison rolling like dark boulders over the hummocked hills. I was overcome by emotion several times, thinking that this is how it all looked before we broke it. I'm grateful to be here, to show it to my children, to be able to play music with my husband, to share what I can with everyone here. I love North Dakota, and the strong, self-effacing people who hang through her winters and bask in her short, ravishing summers. Thanks for all your good wishes. I'm feeling fine and soaking it all up.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Beyond Warblers

On my way to the Duluth/Superior airport for the flight home from Wisconsin, I finally got into some grasslands. Burbling bobolinks and western meadowlarks, Savannah sparrows, and these little cuties: clay-colored sparrows. It's a little blurry, but see that gray hindneck? Kind of like a bleached-out chipping sparrow. They like evergreens in grassy savannah. I got out of the car at several places and just breathed, and let the songs wash over me. It all made me thirst for North Dakota's Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival, held in Carrington June 7-10, where we'll be speaking, field-tripping, and playing music for the fifth consecutive year. I missed it last year due to severe burnout; Bill soldiered on alone. We're taking the kids. They can't wait. This year, they'll be going on the field trips with us, as they did in West Virginia. Oh, boy! It's nice that they're old enough to drag out of bed early, and be good troopers on long field trips.

Here on the blog, we're still in Wisconsin. I hope that by now all birders with a pulse will be heading to Chequamegon Bay's Second Annual Birding and Nature Festival next May. Tuck your pants into your socks. I'm currently fighting a tick-borne disease (take your pick; there are at least four I could have) and I'm rooting for the doxycycline. Feeling like I've been run over by a truck, and still having to get up and go. I've had Lyme disease four times (oddly enough, while living in Lyme, Connecticut) so I'm pretty familiar with the symptoms. Had a spectacular bulls-eye bite on my ankle, and a week later couldn't lift a jug of milk without groaning in pain. I will say that this is a fairly mild case as they go, and I hope I'm catching it in time.

Enough about me. Not only warblers were migrating, and stacking up on Superior's south shore. Everything was moving: woodpeckers, hawks, sparrows, nuthatches, vireos, grosbeaks. It was a heady show.

The nasal yanks of red-breasted nuthatches sounded through the spruces everywhere I went. They'll breed here, but they, too, were waiting for a tailwind.
I was eager to see a black-backed woodpecker, which would have been a life bird, so I checked out every woodpeckeresque form and woody tap. Who's that? All the clues are there.
A resplendent female yellow-bellied sapsucker. If she were a guy, she'd have a red beard.Earlier in the day, I'd followed a slow pecking deep into the woods, visions of black-backed woodpeckers dancing in my head, to find a pileated woodpecker working on a trunk at ground level. It always pays to check. And it reminded me of my childhood, when I made a sport and science of sneaking up on any woodpecker I heard in the Virginia woodlands. Man, the looks I got at pileated woodpeckers that way! I learned the peck intensities and rates of different species, too, stuff you can't get from any field guide. Funny: we all seem to remember our childhoods as quite solitary. I can assure you that, for the most part, mine was. Youngest of five, obsessed with birds and nature, alone and quiet, and in the woods as much as possible. Not much has changed.

A red-eyed vireo found a lovely backdrop in maple seeds. I always marvel that maples set seed before most trees even have their leaves!This gorgeous adult broad-winged hawk flew low in front of my creeping car, then swept up onto a low-hanging limb. Car as blind. I poked myself out the window to make a portrait, then waited for him to move on of his own volition before advancing. I count it a little victory when a bird moves because it wishes to, not because I've forced it to. Each bird has its own comfort zone, and I try not to violate that. Wisconsin's gifts have fueled this blog for a long time. Hard to believe I was only there for two full days and parts of two more--Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. What treasures will four days in North Dakota's pothole region bring to a blogger who's finally gotten a good camera? I'll probably be blogging about the birds out there until Christmas. Brace yourselves! We're off at the screech of dawn.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Little Spring Gift

Where'd you come from
Where'd you go?
Where'd you come from, Rose-breasted Joe?

If you keep watching, you never know what you'll see. I awoke one morning in the last days of May to find a rose-breasted grosbeak on the peanut feeder, right by the front door. This is something I had never seen, but I see things I've never seen before almost every day.

There were several things that were unusual about this event. I hadn't known peanuts would attract a rose-breasted grosbeak, for starters. He was an adult male, but in unusual plumage--a very pale pink cravat, instead of the typical deep carmine. He was missing the right half of his tail. He was almost a month late in migrating. He shouldn't have been here, in southern Ohio, outside the breeding range. And he was ridiculously tame.

My wheels started spinning. Poor plumage and soft part coloration generally indicates an inadequate diet. Tameness can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it means illness or injury, and sometimes it means that a bird has prior association with people. Sometimes it just means that a bird is unafraid, for reasons we can't divine. I began to wonder if this bird had been hand-raised. When you get a forest bird that hangs around your front door, perching freely on man-made objects, you wonder. When I came out of the door to fill the suet dough feeder, he flew to our Air Chair stand, perched on the slippery, shiny metal, and sang a sweet melody for me. Hmmmm. If somebody hung a naked lightbulb over my head, I'd tell them this bird had been captive raised, and be pretty sure I was telling them the truth. But he'd have to have been captive raised a year ago, as a nestling, to behave like this. Well, stranger things have happened. What I loved was that he showed up at Hotel Zickefoose.

I had a special interest in this little guy because, years ago when I did a lot of songbird rehabilitation in Connecticut, I raised a rose-breasted grosbeak. I'm not thinking this is the same bird, by any means--that was 24 years ago, and five states away...What a wonderful bird he was, too. He came to me with spraddled legs from a calcium deficiency. He was about 9 days old, and had been fed a questionable diet at a nature center. I taped his legs together in a normal position until they corrected themselves, put him on a proper substrate (a flat, hard surface can cause sprawled legs in a nestling in only a day or so), pumped up the calcium, fed him and stood back. Delightful, he was, sweet and unassuming, not bossy like a robin, just a nice, gentlemanly bird. He went back to the wild as smooth as silk, learning to pick up his own food. He loved peas and peaches and mealworms and sweet corn, and he hung around, taking food from a cup outdoors, for a few weeks after his release. He was sweet and affectionate, but when it was his time to leave, he left. This vagrant brought back pleasant memories of Jeff. What a blessing they both were.

He came to the feeder every morning for four days, parking on it, threatening the cardinals and woodpeckers who marveled at the colorful new visitor who'd come to share their peanuts.
This downy woodpecker looks pretty taken aback at his manners.
He drank and bathed in the Bird Spa, and he bossed folks around there, too. He didn't seem ill. Just odd, and tame.Walking outside with our friend Jason, we were startled when all the mourning doves spooked from the feeders. Urgent seet calls from the titmice indicated a hawk was nearby. We heard a bonk on the studio windows, and I cringed, wondering who had hit. It was the grosbeak. Of all the birds to hit the window...He sat in the hummingbird bed for a half-hour while I kept watch over him from the studio. Please, please, open your eyes. Please fly. Please don't be hurt. The hanging left wing worried me sick. We're leaving for North Dakota this week. I can't nurse you back to health. Please don't be injured. You're too sweet to wind up in a cage for the rest of your life, though you know I'd make a hot breakfast for you for the next 15 years if I had to.
Finally, he flew up to the birch, made a rocky landing, and sat there for awhile, gathering his scattered wits.
I had to leave then, to take the kids to a softball game. When we came back, the grosbeak was perched attractively on the trunk of my western red cedar bonsai, right by the front door. Oh, poor sweet thing. Are you feeling shaky? Do you need help?
I put some peanut bits and suet dough in front of him. He considered those for a few minutes, then launched in flight--straight into the foyer window. He didn't hit hard, having flown only a couple of feet. I came to his rescue, and he hopped up on my finger like a tame parakeet. Go get my camera, Phoebe! She couldn't find it, and by the time she'd come back out with it, he was gone, flying strongly over the roof of the house. That would have been a picture.

He stayed through June 2, past the "safe date" for suspected breeding in Ohio. I doubt that there's a female rose-breasted grosbeak for 100 miles around (about the closest would be Canton, Ohio, where Shila saw a pair gathering nesting material yesterday!) so I know he wasn't breeding here, and I hope he headed north, away from windows and houses, when he finally left. He was a gift, that's all, and I still shiver with the remembrance of his strong slate-blue toes, clutching my fingers.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Real Poop on Canada Geese

I'm a painter. And often, I use a brush that's too broad for the job. I got a thought-provoking private email from my friend Ken Faller, pointing out some... uh, inaccuracies in my "Righteous Geese" post. In it, I wrote about the introduction of a nonmigratory race of Canada goose that has succeeded too well, resulting in gobs of geese marching around suburbs and golf courses all over the country. In the post, I'm in full 20/20 hindsight mode, and I needed some background on why the giant Canada goose was encouraged to go forth and cover the earth in the first place. Ken's a gentleman, and he didn't want to seem overcritical, or turn the comments section into a forum on nonmigratory Canada geese. He also happens to be one of my favorite writers. He made some points and supplied some information that I found fascinating, and I was inspired to pass it along to you. From Ken's email:
(1) You place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the USF&WS. I believe they were eagerly aided and abetted by various State governmental entities, and that the nuclei of the earliest populations came from entirely private sources. (2) You state that USF&WS placed populations of wing-clipped birds. I believe this is entirely incorrect. The earlier decoy birds were certainly clipped, but I have never seen any evidence that FWS released such birds. (3) While you do not explicitly so state, I think that you strongly imply that the sole motivation of FWS was to create hunting opportunities. It is pretty clear to me that an equally strong motivation was to repatriate a subspecies that had been thought near extinction. Most would agree that this is a laudable goal. (4) You strongly imply that FWS's intent was to establish sedentary populations. I believe the intent was to reestablish populations of at least short distance migrants. True, this may have been a vain and even foolish hope given the brood stocks and methodology employed. But I think that inferring intent from results is not only unsound logic, but also gives the organization more credit for brainpower than it deserves. In looking around for some support for my preexisting notions, I ran across the following article that I think for the most part supports what I've said. So...Correct me if you can, and I'll take my medicine like a man. Otherwise, soldier, I think your excitement at seeing the enemy has led you to shoot from the hip, and that the accuracy of your shot pattern has suffered as a result.

This is one of the myriad reasons I love the blog, and blogging. It's a place to share and learn. A blogger posts a picture of a mystery insect or plant, and out there in cyberland, someone raises a hand. "I know what that is!" Someone points a blunderbuss at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and assigns the wrong intent for a disastrous result, and someone out there in cyberland glides gently in to correct the record. Thanks, KF. As always, you rock. Go read Jack Hope's excellent Audubon article linked in Ken's comments, above. My cheek patches are pink.

In my other life, I've been thinking and writing a lot about "problem" birds lately--house sparrows, gulls, brown-headed cowbirds. It's so easy to excoriate the birds, and it's more difficult and time-consuming to try to understand how they became a problem in the first place. In all of this, the birds are blameless. That finger always points straight back at us.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Righteous Geese

Canada geese, depending on where in the country you make your home, can either be a blessing or a curse. In places where they've been introduced, like Ohio and Connecticut, they make real pests of themselves, camping out on golf courses, leaving big gooey bombs that stick perfectly in cleats; polluting reservoirs and overcrowding lawns. Poor things, they were never meant to be nonmigratory. It took the US Fish and Wildlife Service to decide to breed a whole bunch of a nonmigratory race of Canada goose (the Giant, Branta canadensis maximus) and then take it even a bit farther. They clipped their wings, and installed them on ponds all over the Midwest and Northeast, so we'd have resident geese to shoot whenever we wanted. Gee, it worked really well. Ask anybody in Connecticut.

The only problem with this elegant plan is that in the fall, hunters wind up preferentially shooting the declining migratory races that come in nice shootable flying vees, the Canada geese who are still earning an honest living, breeding way up north and migrating to the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf Coasts for the winter. Not many people shoot Giant Canadas except out of pure frustration, so they multiply like bunnies. Hey, we invited them...

The geese in Wisconsin looked to me like they belonged there. I'm not sure what race they were; they didn't look small and stubby-billed enough to be Richardson's, which breeds in Minnesota. But they were properly wary and wild, and they were breeding out where they ought to be breeding--in marshes and sloughs, instead of in people's front yards or on median strips.

I fooled around with automatic settings while shooting these strongly backlit geese, wading through a wet meadow. Oddly enough, the Night Portrait setting did best, with a nice, soft-focus touch. I guess the slightly longer exposure blurred it a bit, and picked up more detail in the birds. They are lovely birds, and so intelligent.

Take enough pictures, and weird stuff happens. This little family fled my approach, and for a moment both parents melded into a two-headed, hypervigilant bird. I feel like this at softball games, when I'm trying to watch Phoebe play and Liam mess around the outskirts at the same time.

Comedy turned to lyrical beauty as soon as the birds hit the water. They relaxed into grace, and so did I.

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