Twice in the last 10 days I've heard from friends telling me of their encounters with owls in the dark. Neither one actually saw the animals, but both definitively heard calls from the nocturnal creatures. One went so far as to describe her brief experience as "creepy," a common description fixed upon this group of birds and one felt by humankind for thousands of years.
There is a mistake commonly committed by birdwatchers of all stripes, particularly those just starting out. That is treating the species range maps depicted in the various field guides as though they were chiseled in stone, irregularly shaped blobs of color or outlines corralling the species in question into a tidy well defined border. That is not the case and it never has been.
When the inevitable chilly breeze from the north shows up in September, I get the same urge every year. The urge to find a spot with a broad view of the sky and watch migrating hawks. The day the first sharp-shinned hawk appears (usually the first species) begins the months-long stop-and-start migration of eagles, hawks and falcons stretching well into November.
Even the book's cover enchants. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the dramatic photograph centered on it. Four Mongolian horsemen are seen riding over a cold and grand steppe-like landscape dressed in a variety of colorful furs, overcoats and trimmed hats.
It was one of those fortunate moments last week when a person gets the opportunity to stop and fully inhale his surroundings, however brief it lasts. I was standing on the ramp at the Fargo airport marveling at the dim yet strengthening rays of light being cast by a soon-to-rise sun upon an approaching storm to the west. The cool pastels were painted unevenly across the dimples and swirls of the burgeoning cumulous cloud. It would rain soon.
It had been on my radar for many years. Like all those big, green, inviting splotches found while poring over maps, Riding Mountain National Park stood out for me as a "would-like- to-explore- someday" destination. It didn't seem all that far away either. Mapping software said the drive should be about five and a half hours from Fargo, closer by far than, say, the Black Hills. Yet no one I knew ever really mentioned it. In fact, it wasn't until this summer that I had ever met anyone who had stepped foot there.
"Hey, Keith. Hey, Keith," the voice on the other side of the fence shouted. "Guess what we saw today? A green heron," said Clay Schultze, excitedly answering his own question while popping his ballcap-covered head over the top of the fence. He had just returned from a bird outing in south Fargo and couldn't wait to share the news. It just so happened that upon moving into a new residence in north Fargo, I immediately discovered the oldest child next door has found a love for birds. The backyard was festooned with bird houses hanging here and there. How ironic is that?
They did it to us again. After savoring the beautiful scientific name Catoptrophorus semipalmatus for more than 200 years, scientists have seen fit to change it to Tringa semipalmata. The common name remains the same: willet. But the bird's Latin binomial has been redubbed due to DNA analysis that suggested it belonged with the Tringini tribe.
If anyone has had the chance to see one of the three North American ptarmigan (Lagopus sp.) species in the wild, you know what I'm talking about when I say these are birds so cryptically feathered as to make them virtually invisible in their environment. Unfortunately there are none to be found here as two of them are strictly Canadian and the other is confined to the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains.
I wasn't around when the debate took place in Bismarck to determine just what bird would represent the great state of North Dakota as its avian symbol, but I'd be interested in reading the record if one exists.