Monday, December 08, 2008

Highlights of 2008

Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

As the end of another year draws nigh, I am beset and bemused by thoughts of the year's highlights. One of the first highlights to come to mind for 2008—and for many of the past six years for that matter—was my annual ride on the Pale Playground Pig of the Prairie.

Located in a small lakeside playground not far from Carrington, North Dakota, the pig is one of those timeless kids' rides: a cartoonish animal attached to a giant spring mounted in cement in the ground. Every time I make the pilgrimage to see it, I am amazed at its longevity. It probably gets covered in feet of snow each winter and chilled by howling, sub-zero Alberta Clipper winds, then baked by the prairie sun each summer. And though it's a bit paler each time I see it, it's always smiling.

When I'm lucky enough to be a leader on the Arrowwood NWR birding field trip at the annual Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival held each June in central North Dakota, I look forward to getting in a little quality riding time with the PPPP. We always stop at the park because it has public restrooms, which are near the top of the must-have list for any birding trip (just below a thermos of bad coffee and a bag of waxy chocolate donuts). The park also has breeding least flycatchers, western kingbirds, both orchard and Baltimore orioles, and tons of warbling vireos.

The Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival is the very essence of quality over quantity, which is one of the reasons we've done the event for many years running. Other festivals may get more attendees, but few offer more birds, or nicer people. If you're interested, visit the festival's website and see for yourself.

Who knows, may YOU'LL get to ride the Pale Playground Pig of the Prairie in 2009. If you come to the festival, I give you directions right to it.

I'll share some other highlights from 2008 as they come to mind. In the meantime, please share a few of yours!

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Oh My Godwits

This marbled godwit's nest was somewhere along the roadside. S/he was kind enough to escort our van down the road a piece.

One special shorebird that breeds in North Dakota is the marbled godwit. I'm always pleased to encounter this large, chunky-yet-graceful bird with the two-toned, upcurved bill on my annual NoDak trip. Last week at the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival I had two close encounters of the godwit kind: one near Pingree and one farther to the west, in Kidder County. Here are some images from both.

Female godwits have the longer bill of the two sexes. This is probably a male.

One of the marbled godwit's best field marks is the cinnamon in the wings. Not literally of course.

Godwits eat seasonally. In summer it's grasshoppers and insects on the prairies.
During winter they probe mudflats and sandbars for mollusks and crustaceans.

We did not venture off the road or even get out of our van. Still, the godwits cursed our souls for trespassing.

Later that week in a field full of photographers, sparrows, and longspurs, this godwit made a fly-by just to check us out.

Its nest was at least a quarter mile away. But we stood out like sore thumbs standing on the prairie, so the godwit came over for a look-see.

The marbled godwit's two-toned bill is fairly obvious even from a long distance.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Prairie Home Companions

Abandoned homestead, Kidder County, North Dakota.

North Dakota is a photogenic place. Not only are the prairies, sloughs, and roadside ditches full of birds, the landscape stretching across the horizon is dotted with old farmsteads, granaries, and farm equipment.

Old tractor skeleton near Lake Juanita, North Dakota.

There's something deeply haunting about the loneliness of an old house or barn sitting out there in the middle of a vast sea of grass, having survived decades of harsh winters and baking summers, the constant push of the prairie wind—and even outlasting the hopes, dreams, and lives of the people who built and lived in them.

I find myself standing alone, gazing at the lichen-covered wood and wondering about the people who lived there. Until a bird song nearby breaks the spell and my mind returns to the present, I am lost in the past with a tinge of heartache for all that is no longer in this very lonely, very beautiful place.

In North Dakota there is earth and there is sky and there is water. We people move across the scene like bit players on a vast stage, leaving behind some small evidence of our passing, the prairie grass waving a constant goodbye. Listen! The birds are already singing about tomorrow.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Singing in the Rain

The male yellow-headed blackbird's song may sound like the stroke of midnight on the bird clock from hell, but that bright lemon head is like a flicker of sunshine on an otherwise rainy day.

The last few days we've been in central North Dakota completely immersed in prairie things, including the ever-changeable prairie weather. Home again soon, trading those yellow-headeds for red-winged blackbirds and chestnut-collared longspurs for common yellowthroats. Also trading cold and rainy 47 degrees for hot and muggy 85.

Am tired from the travel and the 4:00 am wake-ups but it was another great trip to the Great Plains. Sitting in the middle of a never-tilled patch of prairie, watching the sun rise today, I felt my own breath returning in long, slow inhalations. My morning ears were filled with the buzzy songs of Baird's sparrows and Sprague's pipits. Images and a few words to follow...

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