Everyone seems to relish in the annual practice of reviewing the previous 12 months when late December rolls around. It's a nearly sacred rite in some media circles. In the event, dear reader, you are not yet fully exhausted by this, allow me to point out the year's birding highlights from our fair state and county. January saw the continued presence of the snowy owl invasion which had begun early in the winter of 2011-2012.
The potluck dinner was finished, most had already exited into the frosty still air last Saturday when I, too, thanked our hostess and made my way to the car, still scratching my head in awe. How had we done it? Indeed, a loose-knit group of area birdwatchers had gone out that day to tally birds as part of the 113th running of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), billed as the "largest and longest-running Citizen Science program in the world," according to the National Audubon Society's website.
Not surprisingly, the most recent issue of Living Bird News features a bird photograph on its cover, two birds actually. Captured by photographer Tim Laman, the stunning shot depicts a pair of twelve-wired birds-of-paradise. The male's upper half is a resplendent jet black, the rest seemingly dipped in lemon-yellow paint. Coral legs and stoplight-red eyes complete the look while its 12 long thin tail plumes make it appear as if the tropical bird is a Christmas ornament constructed in someone's craft shop. Very few North American birds can approach the sheer gaudiness of most tropical ones.
Every once in a while, a keen observer will spot an obvious flaw in the seemingly error-free world of bird morphology. Maybe it's a missing toe or eye. Sometimes it's a feather colored differently than the rest or a wing that can no longer support flight. The sources of such deviations can either come from within the bird, such as a hormonal imbalance causing errant color pigmentation.
Early November, the time of year when things in the world of birding are waning considerably. Nothing is nesting, very few birds are singing, and the diversity of species has fallen precipitously from even a month ago. The days of seeing 100+ species in an outing are behind us, now 50 is a good day.
Certain groups of birds seem to invite a degree of lumping by the public when it comes to their descriptions. It's not to fault observers necessarily; the birds themselves can be difficult to separate into species, they being so frustratingly similar to their kin. "Seagulls" is one of my personal favorites. There are many species of gull in North America, even here in North Dakota. None include the word seagull in their name yet the usage of it remains customary. Another commonly used collective noun is "sparrow." There are about 25 sparrow species regularly seen in North Dakota.
I'm typically not a person to sit still when it comes to being in the out-of-doors. Fly-fishing was a sport which occupied a significant portion of my personal time earlier in life. Rare was the instance when I wasn't continually working up or down a river. So it is with birding; non-stop walking or driving is pretty much my modus operandi, slowing only to scan surroundings before moving on. For this reason I'm not sure I would be a very effective bowhunter if it meant sitting in a blind for hours at a time.
It's called the "universal solvent," if I can maintain the thin threads of foggy memory from high school science class; so named for its unparalleled ability to dissolve more substances than any other chemical. What magical compound occupies such a lofty perch? Water, good old H-2-O. This wonderfully adaptable stuff covers no less than 71 percent of the earth's surface which, oddly enough, is roughly equivalent to the ratio of water in the human body. All forms of life -- at least the ones we are aware of -- require water in some form.
From a still and benign assemblage of cluttered stones, plants, and grass, a pale form moves haltingly. Soon it becomes apparent to the onlooker that this is some sort of animal. Details fill in, a head with a short black beak and black eyes, somewhat longish yellowed legs, it's an overall tan-colored critter with blacker flecks of feathering along its back. It's a bird alright, a buff-breasted sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis) to be specific, but where it was a few moments before its movement gave away its position, is puzzling. The answer, of course, is simple.
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.