For whatever reason, snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) seem a little scarce this winter. I know of only one seen in either Cass or Clay counties just before the new year and it hasn't been relocated. Not that our little corner of the northern prairie is a magnet for these giant owls, but we usually have a few more. There have been some winters in the recent past where a short trip down any direction on the Interstate highway would produce one or two sitting along fence posts. Just what makes these magnificent predators appear common some winters yet scarce to absent in others is a mystery.
The 15th of December marked the 71st time local bird enthusiasts braved the elements to take part in Fargo-Moorhead's version of the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Nationally, this season represents the 108th running of the annual survey which seeks to count all the birds in designated 15-mile diameter rings. Data gleaned from these surveys is used to plot population trends and general movements of birds. I hesitate to give much scientific credence to this effort - there are far too many uncontrollable variables to meet those standards.
In 2000, David Sibley came out with The Sibley Guide to Birds, a much-anticipated bird guide which instantly found its way into every aficionado's library. This world renowned bird expert not only authored the entire text, but illustrated every depiction found therein. It's a must-have for North American birders. The volume contains information on 810 species found in the U.S. and Canada.
During the 15th century a certain prince, in a region of what is now Romania, established a reputation for cruelty nearly beyond the bounds of imagination. Atrocities committed on his behalf in order to establish control of his small empire were particularly heinous. In Romania he is known as Vlad Tepes. English speakers call him Vlad III the Impaler.
There is a fairly new imposter in our midst going largely unnoticed. For a long time the Canada goose (Branta Canadensis) has been recognized as representing many different subpopulations. Variability within the species (including size, appearance, nesting areas, voice) is considerable enough to produce as many as 30 different subspecies, in the opinion of some. The governing body of bird science in this country is the American Ornithological Union, or AOU.
We've all seen lists itemizing the more dangerous professions: firefighter, police officer, coal miner, construction worker, underwater welder, etc. But virtually any line of work - or play for that matter - involves accepting a certain level of risk. With over 25 years of aviation experience and many thousands of hours of flying time in both the military and civilian worlds, I've been exposed to a few tense moments. Most risk is mitigated through proper training, well-maintained aircraft and experience.
English, like all languages, is continuously evolving, being nudged this way and that by whatever cultural and usage influences gain a foothold on our collective tongues. However, certain words and phrases stand up to the rigors of time. I started thinking about the number of age-old phrases in our lexicon involving birds and came away quite surprised. There are many. Crazy as a loon, silly as a goose, sing like a canary, stool pigeon, just to name a few. Early last week I was working for a friend driving combine during the harvest of his soybeans.
There exists a certain curious fear when we think about dangerous animals. Like most fears it stems mostly from ignorance. We eagerly watch, however, in a sort of morbid fascination, while others face the risk. Remember Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom? Jim Fowler would amaze viewers by deftly handling all sorts of lethal critters from faraway places. More recently, Steve Irwin starred in one of the more popular shows ever on Animal Planet: The Crocodile Hunter. He daringly faced off with a variety of savage species in a bold and confrontational way that held viewers spellbound.
Ever since I can recall, I've had a childlike fascination with things around me. Be it bugs, birds, plants, whatever, I've possessed an inner passion to know more about what creeps, crawls, flies or walks around me. In this light, I had a visitor to my back yard about three weeks ago I quickly recognized as a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus). It's not that viceroys are uncommon--they're not--but it was the first one I had seen in my yard this year.
When it comes to putting common names to specific birds, some seem to fit quite descriptively while others make a person want to scratch their head and say, "Where did that idea come from?" For instance, there really isn't that much yellow (if you can see it at all) on a yellow-bellied sapsucker. But in the first category there are a pair of shorebirds that are so aptly dubbed that one might say, "Well duh." I'm referring to the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).