If Macklin Smith made the pilgrimage to the Black Hills of South Dakota you know it's something special. Really special. Mr. Smith, for those unaware, teaches poetry at the U. of Michigan. One of his other interests is birds. For him it's more than just an interest though. Smith has seen more bird species north of Mexico than any other person ever (880 at last report). When a rare bird shows up in the country, you can bet Smith is aware. It was the middle of July, and I was out of town.
Matt is a friend who lives on a nearby rural farmstead. He's not a farmer, mind you, but he and his wife prefer the quieter atmosphere of country living. It also allows her to keep her horses at home instead of boarding them somewhere else. During the few years they've lived out there, Matt has worked tirelessly to create a landscape favorable to themselves and to their animals. In doing so, they've cleared brush, planted numerous trees and maintained a large garden.
You'd think by now this whole flying thing would be figured out. It's not. Credit to the first great thinkers to ponder the possibility of manned flight goes to the venerable names we all learned, the Aristotles, the Galileos, the da Vincis, and others. That's only because they preserved their thoughts with written words and drawings. I'm confident the first humans to walk the earth also wondered and wished. With creatures all around them plying the air with moving wings, how could they not? Insects and bats were doing it.
By most people's reckoning, the birds are simply seagulls, a word which makes me cringe somewhat. Some refer to them derisively as "flying rats," a nickname it seems to share with the ubiquitous rock pigeon. Regardless of what a person calls them, gulls are not usually high on the list of respected avifauna. I suspect the birds' reputation is related to their habit of regularly appearing at landfill sites and sanitary lagoons. During any given year, roughly a half dozen different gull species can be seen in North Dakota without too much difficulty.
The explosion and subsequent leaking of the deep-water oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is a tragedy on every level, beginning with the deaths of the workers on day one. Daily we are inundated with continuous media coverage of the toll - both environmental and human - the event is taking on us. Granted this is a big event, but I'm reaching the saturation point. For years, people of the world, especially Americans, have been ripe targets for certain folks promulgating what I consider an anti-human message; one that constantly reminds us just how evil and destructive we are to the environment.
There is much yet to know about bird migration. Oh sure, we've come a long way since the days of faulty beliefs such as swallows hibernating underground or hummingbirds riding upon the backs of flying geese. Still, many questions of how, why, when and where remain largely unanswered. Recent technological developments - namely miniaturization of GPS trackers - are aiding biologists in the pursuit of this knowledge. Yet there remains a lot of armchair guessing. I contend that's okay.
Early one morning last week I walked up the steps of a neighbor's house. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement. A moment later there was an explosion of sorts. Three or four young American robins fluttered out of a nest atop the porch light and scattered in every direction. Barely feathered, this was obviously their first excursion out of the nest. Life, from this point on, will get no easier for these birds than it was while snuggled in the care of doting parents. Most folks from my generation remember well the Walt Disney show which used to air on Sunday nights.
As a species, humans are far-and-away the most capable organisms with reference to the ability to modify the environment. After us, the impact of other organisms falls off pretty fast. Critters, such as locusts, come to mind. Numbering in the billions, these voracious insects can bring widespread devastation to seasonal plant growth in Africa. Bison, which once numbered in the tens of millions on this continent, could eat their way through untold tons of grass on the Great Plains.
Right off the top of my head, I can think of five avian species that have become extinct north of Mexico since Europeans first stepped ashore in the New World. One is known by nearly everyone and became the storied, yet chilling, icon representing just what we as a people are capable of - the passenger pigeon. The other four are less known and numbered far fewer individuals to begin with. The Carolina parakeet was the only member of the parrot family known to nest north of Mexico. By the 1920s this bird was gone. The Labrador duck was a sea bird that wintered on New England's coast.
Several years ago, I was made aware of just how bound some photographers are to certain light conditions. Early on that day, a friend and I were wending through some lush grassland; I was looking for birds, he was aiming and firing his camera at rich golden landscapes. Once the full disc of the sun had cleared the hurdle of the horizon, it didn't take long for my partner to stow his gear and call it a day. He explained how the light was no longer ideal for landscape photography, that midday light was just too harsh.