Last weekend, I stumbled upon a curious scene. Sitting on the snow under a spruce tree was a blue jay. It looked cold but comfortable. Its feathers were fluffed a little and its head was turned and tucked into its back like birds do when sleeping. I was surprised it let me get so close without flinching; usually jays are pretty wary birds. Only when I reached down and touched it was the truth revealed. It was dead. In winter, birds and other organisms are focused largely on only one thing: survival.
Rosalie Anderson isn't one to let setbacks quash her desire for more in life. Not even the tragic loss of her first husband when the couple's son was nine months old. After years working as a secretary for a Lutheran church in Golden Valley, Minn., she married again; this time to Herb Anderson of Hillsboro, where the couple carved out a productive life on a farm north of town. Later with children grown and gone, milder winters beckoned the couple like it does to so many on the northern plains.
Mid-winter on the northern Great Plains is a time of trial and forbearance for its scattered inhabitants, both human and animal. Frequent storms, such as last weekend's whoppers, continually test our collective backbones. At times such as these, it helps to consider the early pioneers who endured the same conditions with considerably fewer amenities. I can't even get my arms around the thought of a frozen dirt floor, for instance.
Now what, Disneyland? It took until the 74th year of the Fargo-Moorhead Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but area observers finally topped the 50-species mark last Saturday. Indeed, so many birds were found that the previous record of 48 was not only surpassed, it was left in the dust. At day's end, a total of 58 species of birds were recorded, an amazing number for midwinter in the upper great plains. For those unaware, the CBC, now in its 111th year of existence, began as a way to bring attention to an alarming situation taking place at the end of the 19th century.
As a young child, one of the stranger memories I can recall is seeing a publication in December of every year featuring the predictions of Jeane Dixon, a prominent psychic of the day. I can't remember if it was National Enquirer or some other tabloid, but the issues trumpeted all sorts of impending doom and mayhem straight from the mind of Dixon. I gave it curious glances, but even at that age it was sort of laughable. I can't pretend to know the future, no one can.
Imagine you are a bird. You've spent the spring and summer somewhere up north, raising young while safely avoiding predators and other dangers, but generally enjoying the warmth and nutritional bounty served up by the long, lazy days of sun. Now it's getting colder, the days much shorter, your family has dispersed, and food is getting harder to come by. There's this nagging notion you can't shake, something deep within your core says to go south, or at least somewhere else.
"These 'silverbacks' are the largest jackrabbits in the country," Carson said as we headed west out of Tucson and into mesquite desert habitat. He had carefully loaded his two Harris's hawks into the topped bed of his pickup while his labrador rode in front. Several miles later brought us to a suitable spot where we would spend the next couple of hours walking among the prickly desert scrub and witnessing the excitement of his southwestern hawks working their cooperative skills on the antelope jackrabbit.
Tempo and pacing, two words we run across in just about everything we do. Golfers understand it, as do baseball pitchers and runners. Musicians are keenly aware of these terms. Even economists and city planners talk of pacing. "Ops tempo" is a phrase used in the military to describe the pulse of activity. I was involved in the area's sugar beet harvest yet again this fall. The choreographed ballet that is the beet harvest runs up against obstacles aplenty, put down mainly by the vagaries of weather: Too wet, too cold, too hot.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is about as common an airborne predator as there is. During the breeding season, this large soaring hawk can be found in just about any habitat from mainland Alaska to the tip of Florida, even down into Central America. For this reason, it's probably the most visually recognized bird of prey in this country. Even its voice is known to all.
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.