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North Dakota, 2012. Do It!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

By now you may have discerned that this is a stealth attack on your personal inertia. Maybe you've been saying, "I've got to get out to that Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival one of these years." Maybe you've been saying that for


Which is how many years Bill and I have been working this festival. So I am here to tell  you that it is time to stop talking about it and DO IT.

Here are some reasons why.

 Give me land, lots of land with the starry skies above...don't fence me in.

Let me ride through the wide open spaces that I love. Don't fence me in.

Give me rails. Sora, Virginia and maybe a yellow. Hey, it could happen. Bill of the Birds tries his hardest. And Liam's mighty good at spotting those little slippers-through-the-reeds.

Give me the easy companionship of other winter-weary souls who just want to soak up some sun and the burbling song of western meadowlarks.

Give me blue-eyed grass

and Brewer's blackbird eggs, shining olives in a grassy martini.

Give me duck hatch, and blue-winged teal springing from every roadside ditch.

I have more reasons. 

First Stop in North Dakota: Scheel's!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


A lot of people ask, "Which airport do you use in North Dakota?"

We always reply, "Fargo."  Because that's where Scheel's is. Scheel's is a North Dakota institution, a friendly palace to outdoor life, geared to families and above all, fun.

It has every possible sporting good, type of clothing or gear a person could ever need. Scheel's is where we discovered Keen shoes. And are wearing them still.

We go there to stock up on everything from Frisbees and dog toys to camping stuff, shoes and clothing.

And we go for the Ferris Wheel. The Hotdog Brothers take one seat, the Chimney Swift Sisters take the other.

We ride it a couple of times while we're there.

It is awesome and dizzying but not really too scary. Just enough to sweat your palms. (Mine are sweating just looking at this photo).

We wish we had a Scheel's in Ohio. We would gladly trade all our Cabela's and Dick's for one Scheel's.

 You can get the best sandwiches ever there, too. Try the turkey with cranberry cream cheese on wild rice bread . Ohhh my gosh. Get extra sprouts on it.

When we leave the big city, we head out to tiny towns on the prairie with my kind of Main Street. This one has Eurasian collared-doves in its grain elevator. So we stop there on our Big Day.

Lonely deserted homes and potholes, the wind singing through the barbed wire and missing windows.

Phoebe watches the scopes left behind, and they watch her.

A common snipe crouches on a fencepost, a single drop of water glistening on its bill.

And everywhere, yellow-headed blackbirds sing Kor de BLAAAAAAAAA!

Kids and Horses

Thursday, February 23, 2012


We have been coming to North Dakota for a long time. 

This June will make our tenth summer that we've given ourselves the gift of the prairie. 

I have been sifting through photos, and gathering my favorites from 2011 and a few from years past.

When we first came to North Dakota, Liam was too young to bring along, so he stayed home with GeePop, who simply refused to bother with diapers and in one swell afternoon toilet trained Liam.

This is a few years later. We've found some very sweet horses standing out in a field near Chase Lake, and we've come to pet them.

It was here that I took one of my all-time favorite photos. If there is a horse with a kinder eye, I have not seen it. Phoebe reminds me of a little Raphaelesque madonna.

Fast-forward to 2011. There's something familiar about this scene.

Recognize anyone?

The horses seemed as happy to see us again as we were to see them.

 Only the paint was from the original crew. But oh, it was good to see him again.

If we could have fit the paint into our suitcase and taken him home, we would have.

We are so looking forward to another spring on the prairie. See, 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival in Carrington, North Dakota.

And we will be taking the kids.

Not leaving them in Fargo, as we threatened to do last June.

 Be good, little children...

Common Redpoll: Gift of the Birches

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I looked out the window on January 27 to see a pink chickadee dangling in the gray birch. From its behavior, I knew right away what I'd see when I raised the binoculars. A common redpoll!

I was flabbergasted. We've only had redpolls once before in twenty years. What is it with our yard and terrific birds this year?

Blame it on the birches. Phoebe and I sat up in the tower room today and reflected on all the gifts that these simple gray birches have brought us: spring warblers, sapsuckers, Garrett the red-headed woodpecker (who made his home in a dead birch snag); siskins and goldfinches and now this beautiful visitor from the far north.

Hands down, gray birches are the single best bird attractant we have.

Birches are quite simply a year-round smorgasbord for birds. The seed cones persist from late summer through to spring, quietly dispensing food. They leaf out early and are immediately attacked by aphids, caterpillars, loopers, and many other insects, which brings in the spring warblers, tanagers and orioles. Sapsuckers bang holes in them in the fall, and by then the seeds are ripe, and they feed finches all winter. When the seeds fall to the snow the juncos and tree sparrows eat, too.

They're beautiful, emerald green in spring and summer; stark white in winter, rich gold in fall.

They die young and woodpeckers love that, too. You let the snags stand and plant more right beneath them.

Perhaps you would like to know where I get my birches. Try Burgess Nurseries.  This link will take you right to the birch page. They're selling them as Betula papyrifera, white or paper birch, but that's not what you'll get. You'll get gray birches, B. populifolia, and I guarantee you will adore them. And so will the birds in your yard. And the price is right: a little over $2 per tree. 

As we gazed out the meadow I hatched a plan to dot the entire thing with clumps of birches. We could do that.

Lood at the seeds flying out of this cone as the redpoll attacks!

The bird's tiny bill is perfectly suited to extracting them. By its behavior, I could see this redpoll had no idea what bird feeders might be. It has never shown the slightest interest in the niger or sunflower chips that most redpolls eat with gusto. It's a naive bird, probably a young male, born this spring in the firs and spruces of far northern Canada.

Neither did it show the slightest concern about us as we walked right under it and fired away with our cameras.

I feel a special attachment to redpolls, because Bill Thompson III called me up and talked me into painting a cover for Bird Watcher's Digest in the fall of 1990. I didn't want to paint redpolls; I hadn't seen them for several years. But he talked me into it. The painting appeared on the Jan/Feb 1991 issue. By that time, I couldn't wait for him to call me again. 

That was two kids and 22 cover paintings ago.

Thank you for staying around, little redpoll, and letting me remember.

Baby Rhinos, Bitter Tears

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The best adjective I can use on the southern white rhino's personality is "doglike." These animals wanted some love from us. We were happy to oblige.

They are warm, solid animals. Even the horn, which is made from fused hair, is warm. Everything about them is warm--their hearts and their soft-concrete skin. And inside the folds of their skin it is soft as silk.

The rhino's horn has long been thought in Asia to have medicinal properties; powdered down, it was the Viagra of the early 20th century. In addition, ceremonial sword hilts, much in demand in the Middle East, were carved from rhino horn (mostly that of black rhinos). In South Africa, southern white rhinos have been terribly persecuted by farmers and trophy hunters. They very nearly vanished by the beginning of the 20th century--down to less than 200 animals. 

The Wilds' beautiful bull rhino. Think what his horn is worth to heartless mercenaries. $65,000.00 per kilo is the current going rate.

Concerted efforts to breed them in captivity and protect the remaining animals (anyone else remember the National Geographic photos of rhinos, each with its own personal armed guard?) allowed them to rebound. The world population peaked around 20,000, 80% of which live in South Africa. There are now more individual southern whites than there are individuals of all other rhino species combined. But the game has abruptly changed, and we may never see that peak again.

Poachers still take them, now at a rate of


 despite the fact that almost all extant rhinos live in protected parks and game reserves. Living in a park does you no good when poachers are about. Rhino poaching is escalating at a horrifying rate in South Africa, the last stronghold for the southern white rhino.

This site  has detailed information on the increased demand for medicinally worthless powdered rhino horn in Asian markets, which is leading to a huge spike in rhino deaths. Three hundred thirty-three rhinos were slaughtered in 2010. This sickening number went up again in 2011. Despite the presence of 500 wardens in South Africa's Kruger National Park,  over half of the 448 rhinos killed were in the park. Already in January 2012, poachers have brutally slaughtered eleven animals, putting 2012 on track to be the worst year for rhinos ever in South Africa. I have seen rhinos browsing happily in Kruger Park, when poaching was a distant and unwelcome memory, and knowing this is happening again makes my stomach turn over.

In addition to the slaughter of white rhinos, 19 critically endangered black rhinos were killed in 2011, eight in Kruger Park alone. Poachers use high powered rifles and veterinary tranquilizers to dart rhinos before hacking off their horns. I watched a video of a rhino who woke up without his face, and that image will stay with me for life.

If you have ever laid a hand on a rhinoceros' kind head, scratching him around the ears and his big weepy eyes, knowing this should make you weep. Perhaps it does anyway. Is there no end to human greed and selfishness? Is there no end to the gullibility of people who believe in folkloric cures that must, oddly enough, be made from endangered species' odd parts, like tiger penises and rhino horns? (The more expensive it is, the better it must be!) The fable du jour driving this obscene slaughter is that powdered rhino horn (news flash!!) now not only enhances male potency but also cures cancer. So let's wipe out the rhinoceros, just eating their hair.  

I'm sorry. I am crying and spitting bullets at the same time, and that's not a good thing. But there is more to life than pecking at a computer, enjoying cute and cuddly animals. There is seeing that they survive into tomorrow.

If you would like to help:
See the International Rhino Foundation web site, which is working directly with South African authorities to supply antipoaching patrols with the funds and manpower they must have to make a difference.

This is Anan, a southern white rhino. This photo was taken a couple of years ago at The Wilds. In the interim, she's grown up into one of the adorable yearlings pictured above. 

May she live to see a world where people have finally realized that her hair is not medicine. Where she will be treasured, alive and running around on her spring-loaded feet, for the priceless gift she is.

Asian One-Horned Rhinos

Thursday, February 16, 2012


This is not a southern white rhino. This is an Asian one-horned rhino. While they look superficially similar, in a captive situation like this the difference in their personalities and general way of going about things is marked. And it's all about the mouth.

Ack! Asian one-horned rhinos are very oral. They want to meet you, but they also want to taste you.

Here is a southern white rhino's square lip. I will note that it is a very demure and unobnoxious lip.

And here is the eerily prehensile upper lip of an Asian one-horned rhino, noobling about Ms. West's persona.

There is quite a bit of drool involved with Asian rhinoceri.

One goes about loving them somewhat gingerly.

What are you afraid of? 

I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to taste you. Or, better, I would like you to drop an apple in my maw. Or a pear. Something. Just give me something to chew on.

Liam kept his distance!

Savannah thought they all smelled.

Bill of the Birds was charmed.

How can we get that bird man to come closer?

More more more said the Science Chimp.

photos by Tricia West

 By the time we were done my parka was covered in Asian rhino slobber.

and we all reeked of rhino, and that made us very, very happy.

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