Mid-winter on the northern Great Plains is a time of trial and forbearance for its scattered inhabitants, both human and animal. Frequent storms, such as last weekend's whoppers, continually test our collective backbones. At times such as these, it helps to consider the early pioneers who endured the same conditions with considerably fewer amenities. I can't even get my arms around the thought of a frozen dirt floor, for instance.
Now what, Disneyland? It took until the 74th year of the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but area observers finally topped the 50-species mark last Saturday. Indeed, so many birds were found that the previous record of 48 was not only surpassed, it was left in the dust. At day's end, a total of 58 species of birds were recorded, an amazing number for midwinter in the upper great plains. For those unaware, the CBC, now in its 111th year of existence, began as a way to bring attention to an alarming situation taking place at the end of the 19th century.
As a young child, one of the stranger memories I can recall is seeing a publication in December of every year featuring the predictions of Jeane Dixon, a prominent psychic of the day. I can't remember if it was National Enquirer or some other tabloid, but the issues trumpeted all sorts of impending doom and mayhem straight from the mind of Dixon. I gave it curious glances, but even at that age it was sort of laughable. I can't pretend to know the future, no one can.
Imagine you are a bird. You've spent the spring and summer somewhere up north, raising young while safely avoiding predators and other dangers, but generally enjoying the warmth and nutritional bounty served up by the long, lazy days of sun. Now it's getting colder, the days much shorter, your family has dispersed, and food is getting harder to come by. There's this nagging notion you can't shake, something deep within your core says to go south, or at least somewhere else.
"These 'silverbacks' are the largest jackrabbits in the country," Carson said as we headed west out of Tucson and into mesquite desert habitat. He had carefully loaded his two Harris's hawks into the topped bed of his pickup while his labrador rode in front. Several miles later brought us to a suitable spot where we would spend the next couple of hours walking among the prickly desert scrub and witnessing the excitement of his southwestern hawks working their cooperative skills on the antelope jackrabbit.
Tempo and pacing, two words we run across in just about everything we do. Golfers understand it, as do baseball pitchers and runners. Musicians are keenly aware of these terms. Even economists and city planners talk of pacing. "Ops tempo" is a phrase used in the military to describe the pulse of activity. I was involved in the area's sugar beet harvest yet again this fall. The choreographed ballet that is the beet harvest runs up against obstacles aplenty, put down mainly by the vagaries of weather: Too wet, too cold, too hot.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is about as common an airborne predator as there is. During the breeding season, this large soaring hawk can be found in just about any habitat from mainland Alaska to the tip of Florida, even down into Central America. For this reason, it's probably the most visually recognized bird of prey in this country. Even its voice is known to all.
February, 1980, marked a moment of some significance among the state's birders. This was a milestone. In Bismarck, North Dakota, the first official sighting of a house finch was recorded. Two months later Cass County got one too; on April 6, to be exact. The occasion was not unexpected, however. House finches, you see, were steadily and inexorably marching across the continent from both coasts. Originally a western species, house finches had been introduced to the east during the 1970s. So from both directions, the heartland filled in.
A recent stroll at an out-of-state park helped me realize just how fast the summer is coming to an end. While most tree leaves still hold their green color, somehow they look tired. Ragged, weather beaten and insect-chewed, they still are capable of synthesizing sugar, but their efficiency has been extremely curtailed. The grasses and forbs also are evidencing the change of season. Some are dried up completely, while others are fading and tipping over.
It began with a fellow named Joe who wondered, along with some of his neighbors in Petersburg, N. D., whether the owls they were seeing every night in town were something special. A decent photograph of the birds he took recently was e-mailed to the N.D. Game and Fish Department. Turns out, the birds were special. They were barn owls (Tyto alba). North Dakota is not exactly a hotbed of barn owl sightings, there being less than 20 in total. When found, the birds are typically alone and remain for very brief periods of time.