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Several winters ago I found myself in Colorado just a stone's throw from Guanella Pass. This location - aaccording to Holt's A Birder's Guide to Colorado--was the best one in winter to find white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus), a grouse-like bird which had thwarted my every attempt at seeing it. Despite the fact I had lived three years in Colorado well prior to this occasion, frustratingly, I had not encountered this alpine specialist. A few miles below the pass, wind-driven wisps of snow were leaping horizontally from the mountain top; a poor omen if there ever was one.
Motel maids are not usually considered integral to the success or failure of an economy. Likewise perhaps, the garbage worker, the septic tank emptier, and the busboy could be similarly lumped. Yet without the service these and other somewhat undesirable jobs provide, our entire system begins to strain and eventually break.
It all starts with green plants. They are the direct beneficiaries of the sun's benevolent and life-giving rays, magically, silently divining sugars from light energy in a process known as photosynthesis. Without this organic alchemy wondrously taking place every hour of every day around the earth, virtually nothing else would exist. The food chain or web or however you defined it in school, wholly depends upon step number one: the presence of green plants.
I buy more books than I read. I'd like to think I will get around to them all at one point in my life but let's be realistic, I won't. Two things conspire against me in this regard. One is available time, or at least the perception of available time. There never seems to be enough of it. The other is waning interest. That's right, too often what is appealing to me one day slowly becomes less so over time and so another book sits unread, destined for a future library donation. However, two recent additions to my collection moved to the top of the reading list upon their arrival.
Mention the phrase "invasive species" in the presence of a biologist and she'll usually respond with elevated blood pressure, a knitted brow, and a less-than-friendly stare. And for good reason; all manner of mischief and mayhem detrimental to native habitats and wildlife typically ensues once uninvited genies get out of their bottles, so to speak. There are countless cases from around the globe and the problem is ongoing, but even locally we have examples.
"I doubt it." That was my answer to the question, "Do you think these caterpillars are eating lichens?" Sure there were quite a few of them crawling on the large lichen-encrusted rocks on a beautiful piece of native prairie south of Woodworth last weekend, but the idea just didn't fit the paradigm I had of moth and butterfly caterpillars. Self respecting lepidopteran larvae are supposed to eat leafy plants, I reasoned. Stuff like willows, hackberries, stinging nettles, and milkweeds are supposed to facilitate the tremendous growth of caterpillars.
Last Sunday I asked for a copy of North Dakota's most recent record of Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens); it soon arrived via email. In the dispassionate language of scientific data, the entry simply stated, "5/29/1973 (1 called) Montpelier (LCH)." Translated it means someone with the initials LCH had heard this species calling in Montpelier in late May, 1973. Presumably "LCH" did not even see the bird. Prior to this there is only one other record from the state, a specimen recovered in Grafton in 1927 which now purportedly resides within a collection at the University of North Dakota.
Dates are important. Always have been; just ask Julius Caesar about the Ides of March. Whether to recognize birthdays or anniversaries, or to memorialize an event for a specific reason (eg. June 6, 1944, D-Day), people all over the world have long looked at certain spots on the calendar as being significant. Sometimes these days evoke sadness, as in the anniversary of a loved one's death; sometimes joy, like on the birthday of a relative or friend; other times it might signify nothing more than the time of year to set out tomato plants.
There is any number of ways we can divide birds into groups: Pelagic (oceangoing) vs. land-based, precocial vs. altricial young, cavity nesting vs. nest building, or perhaps vegetarian vs. flesh-eating. Among the birds that spring to mind when a person considers the flesh-eaters are hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. But if we further define carnivores as those beasts which catch and eat live prey the club's membership is perhaps more broad than we would think. Some ducks, herons, and most water birds are included.
A 2006 poll conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed North Dakotans among the least likely Americans to be bird watchers on a per capita basis at 14 percent. Only Hawaiians polled lower among the 50 states. I've got my own theories as to why this might be the case but let's put that aside for another time and assume the data are reasonably accurate. Consider what this means to bird biologists.