It actually began some weeks ago, the arrival of the first migrant shorebirds into our area following the breeding season. An individual here, a small group there, and large concentra-tions at ideal sites.
I’ve been racking my brain in an attempt to remember if I’ve ever seen a cliff swallow (petrochelidon pyrrhonota) nest attached to something other than a manmade structure here in the Red River Valley. I would venture to say that such a scene doesn’t exist and never has.
That we as a species have a fascination, a need even, for light is not in doubt. In its absence there is only deep, glooming dark. With dark comes unease, trepi-dation, even fear. Imagine the days of prehistoric cave dwellers and the anxiety that permeated everyone’s psyche with the setting of the sun. I am sure a fire was kept burning in the middle of the room every night. It would not only bring warmth, but an easing of the nightly discomfort brought by the darkness. Somewhere in our history we began to use more reliable sources to produce light – peat, coal, various oils, etc.
Every school kid growing up in North Dakota learns of our state bird, the Western meadow-lark (Sturnella neglecta). It’s a robust specimen of grassland habitats that, no doubt, our early settlers were quite familiar with.
I can see it now: Gorth steps out of his cave to stretch and take out the garbage when, “splat,” a pterodactyl flies over and leaves its mark on a brand new wheel he had just carved from a piece of wood. OK, I realize that pterodactyls and humans never coexisted in the same paleontological age, but the point is still valid. That is, humans have long interacted with nature and those interactions aren’t always pleasant, even in the highly controlled urban landscapes most of us occupy today. My generation grew up with a somewhat sanitized version of nature in our heads.
Early last week the dam finally, thankfully, broke. The endless cold of a protracted spring gave way to warming on a level we have all been eagerly anticipating for well, months actually. Cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers; everyone got out. Lawn mowers were humming, cars were being washed, lawn cleanup was happening in earnest. All those chores put off until the “weather gets nice” were suddenly being tackled. It is astounding what warm spring weather will stimulate in activity among the local populace.
I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten a head start 30-some years ago if it had been called something other than “bird watching.” The phrase implies, after all, a strict adherence to the visual sense. Maybe I was simply too literal in my interpretation. It’s very likely this circumstance stifled my appreciation of avifauna at the beginning. It took some time and some mentoring for me to understand that listening to birds is arguably more important than seeing them. Bird sounds and vocalizations serve many purposes – warnings, courtships, territorial declarations, etc.
An axe-wielding man ambles toward a pile of wood. The obvious assumption is he’s about to create smaller pieces of wood out of the larger ones with the axe. Likewise, when a woman waiting at the doctor’s office pulls a couple of knitting needles out of her purse it’s a safe bet she’s about to continue work on some sort of knitting project. The tool says it all. It’s the tool sticking out the front of a bird’s head that declares what the bird is and what it’s designed to do.
“Going down there to tend to my birds is a joyful and wonderful part of my day, I look forward to it every time,” my friend Bubba Schwartz told me recently. He was referring to the chicken pen where 11 domesticated hens reside in a corner of his yard in Catalina, Ariz. Both of my parents grew up on farms with chickens. While I did not, I still recall well visiting my grandparents and helping with their chores, either cleaning the coop or gathering eggs. Even more memorable was the rich buttery flavor and color of the eggs.
As lucky as we were to be able to tally a Brown Thrasher during the recent Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count held Dec. 14 (see Flightlines, Dec. 25), ultimately the bird wasn’t as well-off. West Fargoan Jim Rauch wrote, “Unfortunately the Brown Thrasher met its demise on Dec. 19 at dusk. My wife was looking out the kitchen window when she saw an owl take the bird out of the feeder.” Such occurrences are actually fairly common—even in urban areas—but still tend to surprise observers. Usually seen are daytime raptors such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, or Merlins.