Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cranes, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and turkeys

Meadowlark - photo by Robert Clements

This is my first spring on the prairie, and the grass is greening slow but sure.  The days are getting warmer, more or less, unless the wind blows.  The wind blows a lot.  As I was walking - excuse me - bowing my head and ploughing into a 40-mile an hour gust this morning during the dog walk, I was remembering the words to the song, "They Call the Wind Mariah".  I loved that song - overdramatic as it was - "Mariah, blow my love to me, I need her here beside me...Mariaaaaaahhhhhhh....MarEYEaaaaaahhhhh... They call the wind Mariah."  I wanted to come west where the rain is named Tess, and the fire, Jo.  Well, here I am.  But I'm not calling the wind Mariah.  No sirreee.  I have a few names for the bluster and guster that blew past me this morning on a greater mission, but I'm not going to use them, here.

So, anyway.  My sure spring marker in the East was spotting groundhogs along the sides of the highways.  Fat, sleek groundhogs munching on slim green grass.  (My sure mark for summer back East are individual shoes along the sides of the highways.  Who lost one shoe?  Why?  What were they doing?  Is there one foot inside?  There is so much about culture and, indeed, life in general, that I don't understand.)  Groundhogs aside, and my beloved East aside, I wondered what would be my marker that spring has truly arrived here.  I've been finding out for a couple of weeks now, that it's birds.  Birds that return.  Birds that fly over on their way to a touch down further down the road, hopefully aided by that brat of a wind.  Birds that call and sing and hop and fly and get down to business.  I love hearing them, seeing them, wondering how these tiny, delicate forms - well, okay, Canadian Geese are as delicate as a tossed, or lost, size 13 sneaker baking along the side of the highway - survive all that flying and migrating to come back here to the prairie to mate and raise younger generations of little but mighty fledglings.

First back, the robins.  In February, no less.  Gutsy, with an odd sense of timing, they flocked in brown and red numbers to Belle Fourche, where I've heard their calls - honestly, I swear that some of those calls have contained some curse words to accompany the prairie 'breeze' - for some weeks, now.  They encouraged the Blue Jays to get loud, as if they needed encouragement.  "Thief!!!"  "Thief!!!"  Then, some black-capped Chickadees, Maine's state bird, came out into the open.  The hawks and eagles have been here all winter, as have the owls.  A bald eagle on snow is stunning.  A bald eagle taming the wind is awe-inspiring and enviable. (Take that, Great Plains blowhard).  I admire hawks for their tenacity and for their beautiful brown and red plummage and snowy bellies.  Owls, I respect just because they're owls and because they make no sound when they fly.

Then of course, skeins and skeins of the afore-mentioned Canadian Geese and flocks of ducks - both brought hope, and the Geese brought noise and some rowdiness to the surrounding fields and man-made and natural ponds and small lakes.  Lots of jostling goes on amongst the geese.  I imagine them catching up on their journeys, gossiping, and finding old friends or rivals. 

With more sun filling the expanse of sky, longer these days, Bob and I have taken to doing something I really love to do.  Ride around in the pick-up.  If life had gone one way, I would have chosen to do it for a living.  Riding around, yep.  Well, in my dotterish years, I sit in the passenger seat, sometimes with my feet on the dash, and we talk, or listen to the radio - Tom Waits takes up a lot of space, as does Bob Dylan and anyone else vaguely country-folky, pick-upish, and road-weary - and we ride down gravel roads, head out on highways leading in all directions, up hills leading to the edge of the end of the world, down hills to bottoms filled with creeks, Cottonwoods, and deer.  Bob takes some of his best photos this way.  We stop, snap, and move along.  Sometimes, Rua and I hop out and walk aways.   

The other day whilst riding around, we saw a field filled with turkeys.  Hundreds of turkeys, strutting along, heads to the ground, pecking away at what the snow hadn't frozen or driven to despair.  That was a sight to behold.  But there was more to come a couple of nights later, when we stopped the truck to explore along the sides for a little bit.  Bob saw an bluer than blue Eastern Bluebird - many species of birds overlap here - and we saw two yellow and speckled meadowlarks.  They aren't elegant birds, or even pretty, but their song hustles in spring like no bird can.  I miss my Northern Mockingbirds and their sassy imitations of other birds, but the Meadow Lark's song is original, not copied, and it's beautiful and filled with light.  "An Exaltation of Larks", or just one lark, cannot help but lift the winter-weary heart.

Sometime later, out in the distance, sounding like geese with frogs in their throats, came a great chorus of many, many birds and we looked up, and the sky was filled with black shapes flying in undulating wedges.  I immediately identified the song of the Flying Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum lived in South Dakota for a while), but these were not harmful or scary creatures.  Flocks and flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes gracked and squawked their way overhead and to the left and right of us, long legs floating behind them, great dark wings making small work of the sky.  I have never seen this migration, and it was thrilling to watch them and to wonder at their numbers.  Where were they going?  It would soon be night, and they needed to find a destination, which the prairie, in one way or another, would surely provide.  Respite on their way to bring spring to their seasonal home.  Shelter from They Call the Wind Mariah

Sandhill Cranes on their way to somewhere else - photo by Robert Clements