One of the least appreciated and perhaps underutilized destinations in our area is the Sheyenne National Grasslands. I consider it a large public playground with limitless possibilities for the outdoor enthusiast. It's truly a gem, administered by Dakota Prairie Grasslands, falling under the umbrella of the US Forest Service. I recently interviewed (via email) the District Ranger in charge, Bryan Stotts.
It had been accomplished twice in the past, once in 2005 in Burleigh County, and again in 2007 in McHenry County. But no one that we know of had done it in Cass. This all started rather innocently several years ago when Corey Ellingson, a devout bird-watcher from Bismarck, issued a challenge to the state's birders. It was simply this: Find 250 bird species in one North Dakota county in the span of one calendar year. I guess I hadn't given the idea a whole lot of thought. I'd always considered Cass County to be a sort of "tweener" location.
Four years ago, I wrote of a bird that seemed destined to colonize our fair area after having been found in Kindred, a first for Cass County. Well, it's happened. Nearly every burg a person ventures into these days gives up a Eurasian collared-dove (Streptopelia decaocto) or two. All this, as some may recall, started from the accidental release of this Old World bird in the Caribbean. From there, the bird made its way to the mainland in Florida; some years later, North Dakota and virtually the rest of the continent. Last summer, the birds even nested in the middle of West Fargo.
A red-tailed hawk, the most widespread soaring hawk (buteo) on this continent, is more likely to be seen in the open country than in the middle of forested habitat. Most buteos share this trait. One large hawk of the western Great Plains is so linked to prairie that it commonly nests on the ground - the ferruginous hawk. In the woods others predominate. Species like the accipiter group (eg. Cooper's hawk), broad-winged hawks and red-shouldered hawks are more tied to treed habitat. This divide among diurnal raptors is evident even among our nocturnal ones.
About noon this past Monday a magical event occurred. It went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated by most, but it had a hemisphere-wide impact on us in the North. At 1747 (GMT) the sun reached its most southerly declination, an annual happening known as the winter solstice. Indeed we have bottomed out for the year and now stare six months of growing day length squarely in the face. I love it. It will take a month or so for the temperatures to round the corner but with more minutes of daylight, winter now becomes easier to take.
It may have happened to me before but I can't recall. Certainly it's rarely experienced even during this season. But happen it did. Late last week, I found myself taking a stroll in the cold and light snow in a wooded area along the Red River. All told, I probably walked a mile through the trees and weedy overgrowth. A half hour later I returned to my car somewhat stunned. During the entire excursion I had not seen nor heard a single bird. Not a woodpecker, not a chickadee, not a crow, nothing. For a few weeks in May a person could reasonably find 100 species in this same area.
I've grown used to the funny looks; the subtle little side glances as they pass by on bicycle or on foot, often walking a dog. Or maybe it's the delayed turnaround after putting enough distance between us, just to make sure they aren't being followed by the strange guy with the binoculars. From the homebound, it's the furtive peek around the curtain. It's the rare person - often a young child - whose curiosity can't keep them from asking that which is begging to be asked, "Are you a bird watcher?" I can't blame them, of course.
Eclipse (i klips), n. the partial or complete obscuring, relative to a designated observer, of one celestial body by another, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. But this wasn't the definition I was seeking. Actually none of the three dictionaries I accessed had it. But such is often the case when words are borrowed and narrowed by specific fields of endeavor. It wasn't until I looked in the Encyclopedia of North American Birds that I found the eclipse I was looking for, but instead of noun usage, it's now an adjective, as in eclipse plumage.
The annual Halloween season has a way of letting the weird, the unexplained, and the downright scary rule for a time. Both my kids have seen the latest spooky movie - "Paranormal Activity." Our culture has a way of cultivating a certain uneasiness this time of year, at least the retailers do. I think it has something to do with sales. Being freaked out, it seems, is worth paying for. There is more value inherent in those things we call legends and myths beyond money. They serve as a form of entertainment and can be a rich source of ideas.
There is a basic and centuries old principle familiar to anyone who has taken a class in economics; something called the law of diminishing returns. Simply stated, it says as one factor of production is increased while others are kept constant, a point will eventually be reached when output per unit of input begins to decrease. In an odd sort of way, the search for birds can suffer a similar mathematical fate. Let me explain. Let's say a person is just discovering the rewards and joys of the outdoors - specifically birding - and has decided to keep a log of every new species encountered.