Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: birdwatching

Lambsquarters, Christmas Tree, Feline Birdwatching

With the Christmas tree in the patio door, Wildfire and I can watch the birds in the yard without being seen. Normally, they see me through the door and scatter. Today I got a good long look at four juncos (Junco hyemalis) and a sparrow, which I think was most likely an American tree sparrow, Spizella arborea.

Somewhere on the internet, I once saw a story about an old farmer who lamented the fact that his son, in taking over the farm, had hired someone to spray all the lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The old man said that there had been bad years when the crops failed, so lambsquarters were all they had to eat. But they survived because of it. (In another reading of this story, we can imagine why the son, in the brash way of youth taking over from the older generation, would be inclined to destroy all lambsquarters in a violent and toxic manner.)

With this story in mind, I’ve let lambsquarters grow in my back yard. The first year or two, it was because they’re such a terrific source of nutrition. They’re really only tasty in the early spring, though I could still steam a few leaves with spinach through the summer; but we don’t actually get much overall from this so-called weed. Maybe I should be like the sensible gardeners, who take out even nutritious weeds to make space for the more desirable cultivated vegetables. But then, in winter, I saw the black-capped chickadee return day after day to munch on lambsquarters seeds, while perching on stems that poked up above the deep snow. The fantastic source of nutrition for humans is also a lifesaver for birds.

That was all the impetus I needed. I let lambsquarters have part of the vegetable patch. When I took them out in the fall, instead of tossing them into the compost, I bundled them up and tied the bundle to the leg of the treehouse. Naturally, this year I had a nice patch of lambsquarters under the treehouse, and at this very moment, four juncos and an American tree sparrow are having their way with it. Why buy birdseed when you can just let the weeds take over?

Sure, it’s a bit chilly lying here on the floor under the Christmas tree, but true birders put up with way worse conditions than this.

Happy winter, dear friends.

“Scissor-Tailed Flycather! Killdeer!”

It seems to have become a full-on habit, to call out the names of birds I see while driving. It’s like my own personal version of Tourette’s syndrome. The kids have taken to critiquing my performance. “That wasn’t as loud as you could yell, Mama.” And most of the time they don’t catch a glimpse before we’re on down the road, though the scissor-tailed flycatcher that flew in front of the windshield yesterday gave us all a lovely view of the stripes on his tail.

I get most excited about the more interesting birds, such as the said scissor-tail, which has a relatively small range, and isn’t seen many places in the US. I’ve never found any good footage of the scissor-tail in flight, even though it is the state bird of Oklahoma.

You regulars know how fond I am of turkey vultures, which are quite common and widespread in North America. But just the other day we were talking about the return of bald eagles from near-extinction, and it occurred to me that perhaps my failure to pay attention wasn’t the only reason I never saw turkey vultures when I was growing up in Emporia, just twenty miles down the highway from where I see them every day now. Their populations were hit hard by DDT contamination, like other raptors. Their numbers have increased steadily since DDT was banned in 1972, when I was five years old. So I remain unapologetically thrilled when I see them gliding above the highway, and, besides writing poetry about turkey vultures, I do not hesitate to shout out their name when I see them from a vehicle.

The kids are also used to my shouts of “Blue heron!” and “Red-winged blackbird!” and “Franklin’s gull!” We finally got my car’s air conditioner repaired, so no one outside the vehicle is likely to hear. But if you see me driving by, look to see if I’m pointing and shouting, and maybe you’ll get to see it too, whatever it is.

I tried to shoot a scissor-tail while driving once, and the best shot I got was of my own leg. Here's a cat instead, the late Toulouse.

I tried to shoot a scissor-tail while driving once, and the best shot I got was of my own leg. Here’s a cat instead, the late Toulouse.

More Prairie Burning

I promised you some pictures of burning prairie, and here they are. I couldn’t get as close as I wanted, without going into privately owned pastures. From the road I did get some dramatic flames and some blackened ground and some distance shots of black and smoking horizons. Maybe next year I’ll talk to some ranchers and get out in their pastures when they’re burning.

Timothy Barksdale, Birdman

One of the pleasures of operating a lodging is that occasionally we get to meet inspiring people, people who are living into their lives without hesitation or doubt, who aren’t just on this planet to enjoy the ride, but who choose to make their time here something worthwhile.

Timothy Barksdale stayed here several times while shooting for a film about greater prairie chickens. He is a wildlife filmmaker who has had a number of films shown on PBS. He always has time to talk about birds, and I didn’t hesitate to pick his brain about any bird question that popped into my head when he was here. I think I actually saved some questions for him, when I knew he would be coming soon. We loved having him here, and told him everything we could think of that might possibly be helpful, like what ranchers had prairie chickens on their land, or where to get a hot-air balloon ride in the Flint Hills, but he’s the kind of guy who finds what he’s looking for with or without anybody else, so I doubt I ever did anything useful for him, except perhaps making a bed or taking his reservation. We did let him leave a piece of equipment once, I don’t remember why or exactly what it was, but it was a long metal thing that set beside the building for months, or was it over a year? I would occasionally walk by it and wonder how Tim was doing.

This week he finally stopped in to pick it up. I was pleased to see him, but saddened when he told me how difficult it’s been for him to raise the funds to complete his film. The greater prairie chicken is a unique and amazing bird, which numbered in the millions when Europeans arrived upon this continent. Now a few hundred survive in isolated, undisturbed patches of the most remote prairies of the midwest. The beauty of the prairie is not like that of mountains or oceans, the kind that whacks you over the head and leaves you for dead. The prairie’s beauty waits for you to come to it. You have to want to see it, and look for it. Timothy Barksdale is on a mission to expose people to this beauty, and to the urgency of the need to save the prairie and prairie chickens. Not surprisingly, these days are not easy times for wildlife filmmakers. Tim has been partially saved by having sold some stock footage to appear in The Big Year, an upcoming film about birdwatching, with a fabulous cast. But he still doesn’t have the funds to complete his film about prairie chickens. He’s got some trailers on vimeo.com, so watch them, go see The Big Year, and if you can possibly make a donation, please do.

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