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Dakota Doe

Thursday, June 28, 2007


There’s no real plot in this one; just the beauty of a summer doe, surprised. North Dakota is famous for its "monster bucks," heads and antlers of which were hanging all over the hunting lodge where we stayed. Big. Really big.

We shocked this girl by stopping to look at a Krider’s redtail. I backed my telephoto off as far as I could but just barely got her in the picture. Unlike my Wisconsin model, she’s almost in full summer dress, just a few gray winter hairs hanging along her lower flanks and belly. I wonder why deer would change to red in summer, and remember that red radiates heat better than gray. The same explanation works for why there are so many more red-phase ruffed grouse and screech owls in the southern parts of their range. Red is a warm-weather color.

There had been perhaps eight inches of rain in the last two weeks. We’re in a drought, like much of the country, and it was pure heaven to be on squishy ground. Look at the droplets she flings up as she turns to flee.I’m sure the doe would disapprove of this shot, but it does show her nice full udder. She’s got a fawn somewhere hidden in the grass.Or maybe she’s just fixin’ to drop one. Either way, she’s got milk.Over the hill she goes.And stops for a last look back. Lucky girl, to be able to bring her baby up on the prairie, listening to western meadowlarks.I'm praying for rain tonight like a prospector prays for gold. Please. The sky is deep Payne's gray-blue, the leaves are inside out, the radar looks good, all sprinkled with green and yellow, and I hope this storm actually forms and gives us some relief. We had our last picking of sugar snap peas last night, and the first picking of snap beans, and the beans are all J-shaped, the shape of drought. My tomatoes are just sitting there, sulking, hard little green marbles hanging from their tiny limbs. I don't want to haul out 200 feet of hose if I don't have to. I'm waiting, hoping, visualizing inches of rain coming down on my crisp gardens. May it rain on you, too.

Birthplace of Ducks

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A blue-winged teal, Bill of the Birds' favorite duck. They are everywhere in North Dakota, leading little broods of bumbly yellow ducklings.

The North Dakota Missouri Coteau region is justly famous for being the birthplace of ducks. Brief, geology-for-morons explanation: The Missouri Coteau is the place where the glacier stopped, and dumped all its gravel. Big chunks of ice bore down into the earth, creating deep potholes, and the gravel that the glacier pushed before it piled up into moraines and ridges, that rise above the flat ancient sea bottom in ridges visible for miles. Here’s a road, going along the flat, then rising up to the Coteau.You get up on the Coteau, and everything seems to come to life. The land rolls and undulates and rises up in sudden promontories. Grasses wave like the sea. Birds pop out of every slough and ditch. It is a birder’s paradise. It is...ridiculously birdy. It is one of the places you MUST go before you die. Start with the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival. Next June. Be there.

The potholes are full of ducks, like these gorgeous shovelers. This pair of males was keeping company, and even displaying a bit to each other, but I did not feel as though their relationship threatened the institution of marriage. I'll have to check the laws in North Dakota to see what's allowed, but personally, I was cool with it.This male was one of a heterosexual pair, but he looked wary. He exploded into flight, unexpected colors flaring from his epaulets. WOW. Being on the wrong side of the car, I thrust my camera into Bill’s hands, and he captured the images. I doubt I'd have gotten it. Thanks, sweetie.Such an exultation of color! The same sky-blue upper wing coverts as a blue-winged teal, with a teal-green speculum. Whoooo-eee. Imagine if we hadn't been shooting smack into the light. Oh, gosh. I'm sounding more like a photographer all the time. Picky, picky.

flying shoveler photos by Bill Thompson III

I'm painting flying woodpeckers today, slowly losing my mind from boredom. There are like a bazillion polka dots on the outspread wings of every darn one of them, and each one has to be painted around. Yawwwnnn...prairie dreams.

Phalarope Love, Wasabi Lenses

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Phalaropes, like the Wilson's phalaropes hanging out in a flooded cornfield outside Pingree, North Dakota, have an interesting spin on the usual boy-meets girl, courts girl, and makes cloacal contact story that comprises most bird courtship. The female phalarope is the Sadie Hawkins of shorebirds. Not only is she larger and more brightly colored than the male, but she also takes the initiative in courtship. And once she's laid her eggs, the male is left to incubate them and care for the (luckily precocial) chicks. Wow. Can I get a Hayull Yeah! from the ladies out there?

Though the lighting wasn't great, and the birds were very distant, I trained my 300 mm. lens on a couple of phalaropes, hoping something might be going down between them. First, the female approached the male. She's the one on the left, with the darker red neck. He's paler, and kind of scrunched down. You're a handsome fellow. May I buy you a drink?
They did a little strutting, female in the lead. Hayull Yeah. All aboard!Oh, excuse me. Just checking out somebody over across the slough. Sorry.Almost...
I love it when you go all puffy.Update on the unpack: Trader Joe's has these tamari wasabi almonds that I love so much that I brought them along. I could have only two carry-ons, and those were my laptop and my photo backpack. In the mad re-pack to make our way home, I put snacks in the body of the photo backpack, since the front pockets were full. The almonds sprang open and about a half-pound of wasabi dust went all over my camera and lenses. I said (well, shouted) some very, very bad things when I found my camera nestled in a bed of green wasabi salt dust. Now, there's a lesson. No freakin' food in the camera backpack. Well, maybe jerky. No wasabi almonds. I brushed the equipment off and took a power hose to the backpack and left it in the sun. It still smells faintly of wasabi. Far as I can tell the lens caps did their job. Any piece of optical equipment that belongs to me earns its living.

A mouse died in the dryer lint trap. Or perhaps a whole nest of mice. Can't get to it. Tried to figure out how to pull the front off the dryer. Couldn't. Tried to dig around through the little lint trap slot with chopsticks. It's like trying to pull a cow through a transom. Hanging out load after load of tiny underwear and socks. Hoping it turns to compost by the time the weather turns cold. Putting my faith in putrefaction.

Shopped for food. Ran into friends. Talked a lot. Took hours. Still, I love living in a small town for just that reason, that someone will make fun of me reading US Magazine or the Star in the grocery line. Had to get an update on Nicole's bump, Katie's private anguish and Angie's spindly arms. Life's not easy for anybody, that's all.

Happy birthday, Barbie. I love you.

Sweet Prairie Birds, Zick Hit

Where I come from, upland sandpipers are pretty much limited to the grasslands you’ll find around large airports. If they’re even there. This bird has become vanishingly rare in the East, just like natural grasslands. As the habitat goes, so go the birds. It’s refreshing to come to a place where the saucy wolf-whistle of the upland sandpiper can still be heard.Like all grassland birds, uppies (as we call them when we’re excited and blurting) are always looking for a good perch, mostly for lookout purposes. Those shoe-button eyes, placed high on a bony head, don’t miss much. But the upland sandpiper sings mostly on the wing, its Whip Wheeel Yewww! whistle ringing out from on high. A distinctive stuttering wingbeat, a bit like a spotted sandpiper’s, makes it recognizable at a good distance. And yet it melts into the grass as soon as it lands.I almost didn’t recognize this willet in breeding plumage, so used am I to seeing them in drab, unmarked gray winter plumage. He is fine. When he takes to the wing, he waves striking black and white flags.A signature sound of the prairie is the winnowing of snipe—a mellow woop woop woop woop woop, given when the bird is high in the air. The snipe’s outermost tail feathers are narrow and stiff—lanceolate is the term—and the snipe tilts from side to side as he flies, spreading his tail wide. Somehow, he forces air into those feathers as he banks, and their vibration produces the ghostly sound. It’s extremely hard to locate—perhaps the origin of the term “snipe hunt.” Snipe winnow when they’re courting, and boy, were they courting in early June! I think this bird is taking a siesta. Looks like it’s been on that post before. Those white back stripes are a great field mark for a wonderful bird.I’m guessing that tree swallows nest in fenceposts out here, since there seem to be few nest boxes. I would imagine that competition for available cavities is pretty darn stiff. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a prettier tree swallow, in a nicer setting. He glowed like a piece of azurite.
So we're home, and I'm especially glad I "canned" these posts before we left. Everybody's fine except me. I'm getting a fabulous airplane cold, especially enjoyable in the summer. Whiling away the time in JFK for four hours, where every gate was crammed full and every restroom had a line snaking out the door, was like being dipped in a bath of germs from all over the world. My cold might be from Pakistan.

Downloading and editing the hundreds of Maine photos is going to take all week, as the North Dakota photos did. But they'll come. Oh, we had so much fun. I could get used to summer days in the 60's and low 70's, clear, dry air and high white clouds, the keening of gulls and the fresh salt tang of low tide. Ohio, meanwhile, is wrapped in its hot damp, not-so-fresh summer sleeping bag of haze...The birds we saw most frequently? Common eiders. Imagine. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Stick with me, and I'll finish my hymn to the prairies before we go to the Maine coast.

Oh, after the weeklong diet, if you need a hit of Zick, complete with photo gallery, see Joe Blundo's good story in the Columbus Dispatch. It appeared on Sunday, June 24, 2007. I love the HTML tag they gave it: "Bird Lady." Yeah, that's me. It's a good story, treacle-free. Be sure to check out the audio slideshow that their ultracool photographer/media dude Eric Albrecht put together. There are some fresh pictures of Chet Baker, being generally obtrusive, and some really neat shots of me in my natural habitat. Now I know you're clicking. Baker hit!

Prairie Friends

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hi everybody! Sitting in JFK Airport on a Monday afternoon layover, wading through hundreds of offers for Cialis and Rolex Replicas, answering an email here and there. Jet Blue rokks. TV's in the back of the seat, free wireless in the terminal. As you may know, I don't watch TV much...American Idol in the winter and Entourage from time to time, but that's it. Phoebe and I watched a Project Runway marathon all the way to Maine and got irretrievably hooked on this strangely fascinating show. What fun! We are mini fashionistas now. We're on our way back from a week in Maine. It was superb. There was no Internet or cell service. Yes, you read right. Superb. Weather was great; people were even better; ocean was beautiful and so were the birds. You'll see...but first you'll be hearing about North Dakota for awhile.

There has been some talk on this blog of sadly misguided but sweet people wanting to be adopted so they can live at Indigo Hill. Well, we’ll have to leave you a key, because I want to be adopted by Ann and Ernie Hoffert of Pipestem Creek outside Pingree, North Dakota.

These folks live gently on 5,000 acres of land that was farmed by Ann’s family for decades. She lived in other parts of the country for 22 years, and in 1987 she and Ernie returned to the Reimert farm. Ernie grows crops for seed, so you know he grows the finest crops on that deep black loam. Ann uses four acres to grow flowers and ornamental seed-bearing plants. She has a thriving business, making ornamental wreaths, edible bird feeders, and other home decorating accents for such clients as Martha Stewart and Smith and Hawken. Everything is grown on the farm, and hung to dry in outbuildings that Ann and Ernie have salvaged and moved before they were to be destroyed.

We have Pipestem Creek wreaths and creations all over our house, and love them. They're all natural, all locally-grown, and simply beautiful.

To say that Ann has a way with plants is a vast understatement. These peonies, on the verge of bloom, will all be dried and included in her exquisite creations, if they’re not incorporated in impossibly lush bouquets in their beautiful ranch house.Salt of the earth—it’s a cliché, I know, but it describes Ann and Ernie. They are constantly watching and appreciating the birds that populate their land. They love the sky and its moods, and they can linger for hours in a marsh and let the beauty wash over them.These red admirals and monarchs were swarming all over a late lilac in their yard. It’s a lushly planted garden of delights. (Remember what I said about stretching spring out? Lilacs on June 11? Please!! And I just got done sniffing the last fading flowers on traditional lilacs and late French lilacs like these in Port Clyde, Maine...on June 24!! It's a thing now.)Ernie has a wonderful baritone voice, and he plays guitar and sings beautifully. Ann is so kind and and solicitous, and she made Phoebe and Liam feel appreciated and included when her monomaniacal parents were clicking away at grassland birds. I always think of Jessica Lange when I see Ann. She has an egret’s elegance, even when windblown. I think she likes it when we visit, because we “get” this land she loves so much, and she can see it anew through our eyes. If they’ll have us, we’d like to be adopted by Ann and Ernie. Instant grandchildren! Think about, OK?My sweet father-in-law has kindly sprung Chet Baker from Puppy Prison as of Monday morning. He'll be waiting in Phoebe's bed, most likely, when we get home. That's where he likes to sleep when we're away, because he can hop up and peer out the window at the driveway, awaiting our return. Being greeted by Boston kisses is the next best thing to kid kisses. Since we have the kids with us, we'll take Baker's welcome gladly. He's going to be one happy puppeh.

Bill of the Birds

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Don’t advertise your man. Sippie Wallace wrote it, Bonnie Raitt sang it…it’s true.
Women be wise, keep your mouth shut. Don’t advertise your man.
But he’s some kind of something, so I'm going to be foolish.

A typical pre-field-trip shot. We're on our way to go see bison and prairie birds in a wooden wagon. He’s got all the gear, the spotting scope, camera, binocs, AND the granola bars, first aid kit, and Wet Wipes. He will carry loads until he drops, always looking for what needs to be done.

He looks out for the young ones, sparing no effort to get a little girl her first look at a burrowing owl. He's spraddling out the legs of his tripod to get it down to her level. See that? It’s a burrowing owl, hunkered down in his hole.I just wanted to appreciate Bill for all he does to make sure everybody else has a good time. photo by Ernie Hoffert

Happy Father's Day, B. We love you, and we know that we're lucky to have you in our lives. Our babies will only be this little for awhile longer, and we must savor every moment with them.

I'll be posting sporadically, if at all, for the next week. The pace of our summer has not let up. But there will be adventure and beautiful birds to photograph, and you can be sure I'll share. See you when I'm able. Stay casual and keep things watered!

Bringing the Kids Along

Thursday, June 14, 2007

One of my favorite images from the trip:
And what of the kids? How does that work, taking your kids along while you're birding and shooting endless photos of a single little longspur? (Here's Bill, with his tiny subject over on the right side of the picture, just to give you an idea of the scene:) Well, it works very well, if your kids are Phoebe and Liam. They were into it. They love North Dakota, and our friends treat them kindly and make them feel a part of things. They wander in and out of the scene, fetch forgotten bits of gear from the car for us, read their books (at 7, Liam is already devouring chapter books, at least one a day), eat copious and usually verboten candy bribes, and just generally mellow out. Liam amused himself making rockpiles on a rockpile. When I came closer, I could hear him humming softly and sweetly, and I made out the tune: "What Hurts the Most" by Rascal Flatts, a song that makes him very sad, and that he won't listen to any more, but obviously still loves. As sweet a sound as any singing meadowlark.
North Dakota is a state of mind. It's immensely calming to be out on the prairie in the mellow evening sun, to breathe air fresher than any you've ever breathed, to hear the burbling of western meadowlarks and the buzzing of grasshopper and Savannah sparrows. It worked its magic on kids, and they never fought or complained; they ate dinner with us at 10 pm when the sun finally disappeared, and went to bed at 11, and we dragged them out of bed at 6:30 AM for field trips, and they were absolutely great about it. This is the reward that was waiting when we were getting up several times each night to feed and comfort them as infants. They're full-fledged agreeable and adorable people now. Ahhhh.Phoebe and Liam explore an old engine and caboose at a little historic rail museum.The snowplow spoke silently of a different North Dakota--one buried under yards and yards of snow. That is a snowplow what am a snowplow.And a happy man, doing what he loves most, with his family close at hand. Blessings? We're soaking in them!

Aerial Broadcasting

Lacking a perch taller than a dried weed stem or a rock, the longspur resorts to flight songs--a lot of them. A surprising number of common birds have flight songs (indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, ovenbirds, Kentucky warblers, Acadian flycatchers, mockingbirds, and many others). These could be called forest birds, and flight songs are more or less optional for them. They'll fly and sing at dawn and dusk, or, like the chat and indigo bunting, intermittently through the day. For grassland birds, which have a hard time finding a perch tall enough to work with, flight songs are a more important component of their courtship display. Think horned lark, pipits, and these longspurs. Even the small, secretive sparrows engage in flight songs. The idea is to broadcast your message of sex or defiance as far and wide as you are able. Birds often adopt a striking flight style while singing on high. The longspur lifts his head and flutters shallowly, like a moth, as he pours out his song. It is not easy to get a picture of that, but we tried.
You have to envision BOTB and me standing under the bird, pointing our long lens barrels up at him as he circles overhead, singing his head off. We're laughing quietly and having so much fun.
It was a longspur feast. Just another time I am so happy not to be shooting film! I have him launching himself in the air, assuming a leg position I'd never dare draw... resting, singing, loafing,showing off his beauty from every angle, and filling the air with his silvery song.

Longspur Joy

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bill and I worked very hard at the Potholes and Prairies festival in Carrington, North Dakota. We led two field trips, each gave a seminar, performed music for two functions, and I gave a keynote--all in three days. We didn't get a chance to go to some of our favorite spots, like Chase or Horsehead Lakes, to see some of the prairie specialties. We birded when we could, squeezing in a few hours here and there. North Dakota is so generous with its landscapes and birds, though, that we were surrounded by beauty wherever we went. Imagine driving down a highway, and there are all kinds of birds in the air, and instead of being starlings or rock pigeons, they're all different kinds of ducks and shorebirds. That's what's common out there.

But we missed some birds, like Baird's and Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. And chestnut-collared longspur, one of my very favorites. This little bird likes unbroken prairie, with shallow, gravelly soil and protruding rocks. After five years, Bill and I will say things as we drive like, "This looks longspurry to me." And we've found lots of great birds that way. This time, though, we got exact directions to a place with longspurs, and took off at 5:30 PM Sunday to find them. Our dear friends Ann and Ernie Hoffert accompanied us. Ernie amused himself while we were shooting longspur portraits by dipping his toe into digiscoping, coming up with some excellent results. I think we may have gotten him hooked. And Ann birded for a long time, then just relaxed and soaked up the landscape, a pursuit she has taken to a high art. She is the most serene and contemplative of companions.And we found a longspur, perhaps the friendliest, most cooperative bird we could have asked for. He had a couple of favorite song perches and he sang like a madman, bopping from one to the other. Bill and I approached, slow and low, and eventually were just outside his comfort zone.

There is a decision to be made in cropping one's bird photos. Do you go for the luscious, full-frame bird, or do you try to give some idea of where and how it lives? Although closeups are delightful, I just can't bear to crop off the prairie plants that are so vital to its existence, and so I offer you these. I had to get down on my knees to bring the bird above the distant horizon. When you have a super-cooperative bird, you have the leisure to think about composition , instead of just trying to get the darn thing in focus.Perhaps my favorite shot, and it also happens to be sharp. When I cropped it in closely, the bird was tack-sharp, but the dried artemesia stalks seemed to evoke its liquid rollicking song, and so they stayed.And for a look at how the chestnut-collared longspur got its name, this:This is such an ornate little bird, and it's utterly different depending on what view you get. A black breast and belly make a potent visual message on bright, open grassland, and all a longspur has to do is face his rival to make a statement. No wonder good song perches are vital to good habitat for prairie birds. You have to make yourself known.This is why so many grassland birds--red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, dickcissels, horned larks, snow buntings and longspurs, to name a few, have such strikingly contrasting markings. Black reads well in landscapes that are flooded with light. There's nothing subtle about a longspur, head-on. And yet, he can turn his back on you, and melt into the grasses.

Meadowlarks do this all the time. Ever wonder why they always seem to be facing away from you when you try to get a look at them? They're hiding from you on purpose, because they know that their bright yellow breast and black vee will attract your attention. I'll never forget watching a migrating flock of eastern meadowlarks feeding at Anzalduas Park in south Texas. When we first spotted them, it was like a field full of daffodils. The moment the meadowlarks became aware that they were being watched, they all turned their backs on us at once, and the flowers melted away.

I originally made one huge post about this one sweet little bird, but decided to cleave it in half. So there will be more longspur joy in the morning.
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