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.
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.