Through the slowly thickening coat of frost oozing across your spare room window you glimpse your bundled-up neighbor trudging out to her car to attempt a start. The layer of snow that fell last night crunches loudly under her heavy boots. It's crisp and clear, 'at least the sun is shining,' you tell yourself, 'it's not all that bad.'
It was likely during one of the annual family automobile treks to the Pacific Northwest to visit relatives that I first encountered the sign, "trailhead." Even as a kid I was intrigued. I didn't see them back home in the Red River Valley. No, these signs were reserved for rugged, forested areas, places that leant themselves to hiking, real hiking. Elevation stuff.
It's empty now, exposed to the elements and slowly deteriorating. It's assuming the look of unkempt hair, messy, scraggly, loose pieces swaying to the whimsical breeze. I see it every morning when I open the kitchen blinds; about 10 feet above ground, it sits atop a lateral branch stemming from my neighbor's crabapple. It doesn't seem that long ago when this delicate structure was the hub of bustling activity. The American robins that raised a family here are gone. But their nest remains, an ephemeral monument to those precious few frantic weeks.
Among the more frequent questions I get asked regarding birds is what and how to feed them. Before taking a look into this area, let's begin by stating that artificially feeding animals is not a universally accepted practice. Moreover, it's one often planted with public relations landmines.
Jonathan Weiner's book, The Beak of the Finch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for general non-fiction. It wasn't like I avoided it all these years; there were just too many other reading projects that always seemed to get in the way I guess. I finally picked it up and finished it.
Specialists come in just about any field of interest, from automobile racing-- Indy cars, stock cars, and sprint cars for instance—all the way to medicine (neurology, otolaryngology, oncology, etc.). It should come as little surprise to find that bird watching also seems to have its niches.
That the Black Hills of South Dakota is a unique place is not lost on people around here. Most everyone I know has made the trek at one time or another and seen Mt. Rushmore, Badlands National Park, maybe a cave or two along with the much-hyped Reptile Gardens, or perhaps even the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It's close enough to get there in a day and makes for a great--albeit tourist-choked--getaway for us in this region. Yet I would venture to guess most visitors do not fully appreciate just how geographically and biologically special these five thousand square miles really are.
With a spare moment last week I decided to check on the only great blue heron nesting area that I am aware of in Cass County. A handful of miles south of Galesburg just inside the county line, a small grove of cottonwoods have, for several years, provided a home to many pairs of this large wading bird, creating a small nesting colony known as a rookery. Upon arriving this day, though, it was apparent that no nests were present. Plus it looked as if there may not have been any last year either.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I went through the Air Force's land survival school in eastern Washington. At the time it was a two-week course, I believe, consisting of classroom academics plus several days "in the woods" to hammer home the concepts introduced therein. As a person who had grown up in a rural state camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, and being generally familiar with the outdoors, it wasn't particularly challenging. Certain individuals, however, were pretty wide-eyed about it all, this "woods" thing representing a stark alien concept to them. And it showed.
As a young teenager I found and read a book about tracking animals. The idea that creatures leave prints, signs or some clue to their having been present in a place was—and still is—mystically alluring to me. Those old western movies we watched as kids probably started it. It seemed like all the scout had to do was look down at the dust and he'd instantly know how many guys they were after and how long ago they passed along with other relevant information. It was heady stuff.