LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Walk On The Wild Side — In The Bad Lands

While life at Red Oak House here on Missouri River is filled with many blessings and much happiness, as frequently as possible we refresh our spirits with visits to the Bad Lands of North Dakota, which we did early this week, joined by our daughter, Chelsea, and Paul and Joe, our friends from Arizona.

We met on the veranda of the Rough Riders Hotel to make a plan. After a quick lunch, determining that Paul had not been to the Chateau de Mores since his southwest N.D. childhood days, we went there to tour. Joe had never been. Thus it was a good way to reflect upon the founding of the town of Medora and the colorful characters who lived there in the 1880s. When Chelsea was in college, she worked at the Chateau for the summer, as part of the interpretative staff, in period costume. I’m pleased at how much she remembers.

It was a perfect late May day and the Bad Lands are very green right now. There is an array of wildflowers in bloom, including Prairie Ragwort and, my favorite, Prairie Smoke.

We spent the remainder of their two-day visit hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park trails and driving the loop road. It was very interesting to observe the effects of the recent controlled burn, which although it might seem extreme due to the fire’s proximity to the road, close observation revealed a mosaic pattern that mimics the natural prairie fire process, effecting a relatively small percentage of the Park’s total acreage.

We observed many grazers taking advantage of the fresh green native grasses that had quickly sprouted in the wake of the fire, including a fine bull elk.

Day 2 found us taking a four-mile hike to the Petrified Forest on the park’s west side, a place neither Joe nor Paul had seen, and it was another pleasant day with temperatures in the high 70s. I pointed out to my companions that we were in the officially designated wilderness within the park. A couple of bison bulls were spotted and we gave them a sufficiently wide berth.

Although I’m fairly knowledgeable regarding prairie wildflowers, this one (right) had me stumped (although I thought it was likely a vetch). In all of the miles we hiked, I saw only this one large clump of this specimen. Later, I checked with friends, crowd-sourcing this on social media. One of my friends identified it as a Narrow-leaved Milkvetch (Astragalus pectinatus).

The dominant birds of the day were Lazuli buntings, bobolinks, meadowlarks and yellow-breasted chats. While we hiked, I taught the others some about the birds and plants and confessed to being rather a dunce when it comes to rocks.

While we hiked and chatted, we learned that our friends had never been to the Elkhorn Ranch. By Godfrey, this must be solved, we said, and off we went. The ticks were thick there and a very fine specimen of a bull snake slithered across the trail. We were pleasantly surprised to find a few other visitors who’d made the trek.

Then, it was time to return to Medora, for pizza, followed by a farewell to our good friends and trail companions, until their next visit to North Dakota.

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand–though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset.” — Theodore Roosevelt

RUSS HONS: Photo Gallery — Eye For The Eagles

Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons has an eye for bald eagles. If you don’t believe it, these images will go a long way to disprove your skepticism. (Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.)

MICHAEL BOGERT: Photo Gallery — Mission Accomplished

Grand Forks photographer Michael Bogert recently happened upon this bald eagle nest near Lake Bemidji in northwestern Minnesota, just in time to see the male fly off to find something for dinner for its mate and little one(s).

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — El Paso Redux

I never imagined when my family left El Paso, Texas, in 1970, that it would take me almost 50 years to return for a visit, but it did.

I was an Army brat, and my father’s last posting was Fort Bliss, in El Paso, a gritty city in extreme west Texas. Since then, I’ve been very near to El Paso but never quite made it there.

This time, I’m back in the Trans-Pecos region as the guest of a friend, Val, who has recently purchased a home here. It was her suggestion that I fly into El Paso and visit my old haunts, and so I did. Great idea. I’m eternally grateful to her. We enjoy birding and hiking together when we get the chance.

She and I visited my elementary school — Terrace Hills Elementary (now Middle) School — which is just a few blocks from both of the houses in which we lived. What a headrush.

My friend loves this kind of stuff,so I couldn’t find a better partner for this lark of a mission. Here at Terrace Hills Elementary, my fifth-grade science teacher, whose brother worked at the Houston Space Center, had us all avidly following the Apollo space program news. Here I took Spanish and with my friends played with my Trolls.

Here I learned how to carefully open a newly published book so that it would not be damaged.

I’m certain these vintage tables were used by my friends and me.

I’m in the blue dress sewed by my mother, front and center, sporting pretty much the same hairstyle I wear to this day, although in those days it was called a “pixie.” I adored this teacher, Miss Buck, who was from Amarillo, Texas. Each day, she read to her third-grade class a chapter of “Charlotte’s Web.” We took field trips to the planetarium, which I greatly enjoyed. Midway through the year, she married and honeymooned in Acapulco, which we thought sounded so romantic.

1968 is big in the news these days, given that it was a pivotal year in the nation’s history and it is the 50th anniversary. This convergence made it extra fun to be in the place where I spent that year, roaming around with my siblings and pals in the nearby Chihuahuan Desert, playing “Red Rover” in our front yard.

We went to the first house in which my family settled, on Mercedes. Memories of trick or treating in the neighborhood flooded back to me. It was in this house that I watched the Apollo news on our small black-and-white TV as well as the horrifying bulletins from Vietnam. We would often visit El Paso’s twin city, Juarez, Mexico, back in the day when it was easy to cross the border. My father would pay a local boy a nickel to watch our Ford station wagon while we strolled the streets and visited the glass factory. Once, President Johnson flew into El Paso, and my older brother and his Boy Scout troop got to go to see him.

My older sister was so chic. Wonder where my older brother was? Maybe off with the Boy Scouts.

As part of this lark, Val and I found the 7-Eleven a few blocks away, to which we kids would walk back and forth to buy icies. Often we would snag on goat head stickers that poked through our thin flip-flops. Once some naughty kid in my class put one on the teacher’s chair. I’m bringing home a goat head for my mother, which will tickle her greatly to show off to her neighbors.

Harcourt Drive was the house in which we lived the longest while in El Paso. When our landlord told us that he had sold the Mercedes house, my parents went off in the evenings to look for another. When they came home with the news that Harcourt it would be, I was jubilant, as my best friend, Debbie, lived just a few doors down. On this visit, I knocked on her door and inquired, but her parents had moved away, just a couple of years ago.

Here I was in ballet, and we Crook kids were all in Scouts. My father also managed the Fort Bliss movie theater, a terrific gig from our perspective, as we got to go to lots of ’em, loaded up on popcorn and soda.

This snow on Thanksgiving in 1968 or 1969 was big news.

Whenever we were out of school and not camping in the New Mexico mountains, we roamed freely in the desert. I routinely kept a horned toad in a cigar box in my bedroom. Roadrunners periodically scooted across our lawn.

Here we watched the first moon landing and read Life magazine and spent long summer days at the swimming pool. Here I listened to “Hey Jude” and “Crimson and Clover,” over and over. Here we watched “Gunsmoke,” “Mission Impossible,” “Laugh-In,” “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and “Gilligan’s Island.”

The Harcourt house had changed so much that I struggled to find it (that’s another story in itself). Lots of superstructure has been added to the front of the house. When we lived there, we had two beagles, Lady and Duchess. Val has a beagle, so we re-created the scene. I could hear an ice cream truck in the Mercedes neighborhood and, boy, did that music take me back.

On my last day in Texas, I toured a lovely Catholic church and we did some more birding along the Rio Grande.

A portion of the border wall, Juarez in the distance.

At Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, we saw this burrowing owl. He eventually flew from this perch and bobbed up and down in his “Howdy Owl” mode.

Our final stop was Chamizal National Memorial, an National Park Service site that commemorates the friendship of Mexico and the U.S. and a peaceful border resolution. President Johnson was here in 1967 to seal this deal. I concluded that this would have been the day when my older brother got to see Johnson.

El Paso was my father’s last posting, and when he retired, we went home to Slope County, North Dakota, to my grandparents’ farm and ranch, and other than a brief time in Nashville, Tenn., for graduate school, North Dakota is where I’ve lived.

Wednesday, from my airplane window, I looked down on Juarez and my last view of the Franklin Mountains, and I read several issues of my New Yorker magazines. This story about canoeing the Rio Grande had special resonance for me.

As the final leg of my journey ended, it was so good to look down at the Missouri River and the green hills of Burleigh County, my heart filled with new and happy memories of West Texas adventures. My husband and daughter wrapped me in their arms and took me home, where the work of the garden awaits.

“Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality.” — Ram Dass

New lifer past two days:

Mexican duck (subspecies of Mallard)

Total new lifers in Texas: 14 (No Colimas or Montezuma quails, but great birding nonetheless)

Total birds on this adventure: 112. This might be a record for me!

  • Mexican duck (mallard).
  • Blue-winged teal.
  • Scaled quail.
  • Gambel’s quail.
  • Black vulture.
  • Turkey vulture.
  • Osprey.
  • Northern harrier.
  • Common black-hawk.
  • Gray hawk.
  • Swainson’s hawk.
  • Red-tailed hawk.
  • Virginia rail.
  • Sora.
  • American coot.
  • Killdeer.
  • Spotted sandpiper.
  • Solitary sandpiper.
  • Lesser yellowlegs.
  • Wilson’s snipe.
  • Rock pigeon.
  • Eurasian collared-dove.
  • White-winged dove.
  • Common ground-dove.
  • Greater roadrunner (Paisano).
  • Great horned owl.
  • Elf owl.
  • Burrowing owl.
  • Common nighthawk.
  • Common poorwill.
  • White-throated swift.
  • Black-chinned hummingbird.
  • Broad-billed hummingbird.
  • Acorn woodpecker.
  • Golden-fronted woodpecker.
  • Ladder-backed woodpecker.
  • American kestrel.
  • Least flycatcher.
  • Say’s Phoebe.
  • Vermilion flycatcher.
  • Ash-throated flycatcher.
  • Brown-crested flycatcher.
  • Cassin’s kingbird.
  • Western kingbird.
  • Eastern kingbird.
    Loggerhead shrike.
  • Bell’s vireo.
  • Plumbeous vireo.
  • Western scrub-jay.
  • Mexican jay.
  • Chihuahuan raven.
  • Common raven.
  • Violet-green swallow.
  • Northern rough-winged swallow.
  • Bank swallow.
  • Barn swallow.
  • Black-crested titmouse.
  • Verdin.
  • Bushtit.
  • Canyon wren.
  • House wren.
  • Marsh wren.
  • Bewick’s wren.
  • Cactus wren.
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher.
  • Black-tailed gnatcatcher.
  • American robin.
  • Curve-billed thrasher.
  • Crissal thrasher.
  • Northern mockingbird.
  • European starling.
  • American pipit.
  • Lucy’s warbler.
  • Common yellowthroat.
  • Northern parula.
  • Yellow warbler.
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (both Magnolia and Myrtle).
  • Townsend’s warbler.
  • Yellow-breasted chat.
  • Green-tailed towhee.
  • Spotted towhee.
  • Rufous-crowned sparrow.
  • Canyon towhee.
  • Chipping sparrow.
  • Clay-colored sparrow.
  • Lark sparrow.
  • Sagebrush sparrow.
  • Lark bunting.
  • White-crowned sparrow.
  • Dark-eyed junco (gray-headed).
  • Summer tanager.
  • Northern cardinal.
  • Pyrrhuloxia.
  • Black-headed grosbeak.
  • Blue grosbeak (lots!).
  • Lazuli bunting.
  • Varie bunting.
  • Red-winged blackbird.
  • Eastern meadowlark.
  • Yellow-headed blackbirds.
  • Brewer’s blackbird.
  • Great-tailed grackle.
  • Bronzed cowbird.
  • Brown-headed cowbird.
  • Bullock’s oriole.
  • Scott’s oriole.
  • House finch.
  • Pine siskin.
  • Lesser goldfinch.
  • House sparrow.
  • Red-breasted nuthatch.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

Monday’s West Texas expedition was to the Davis Mountains area in search of Montezuma quails. The Davis Mountains are what is known as a “Sky Island,” rising high above the Chihuahuan Desert and are one of the most beautiful places in Texas.

In addition to birding, our destination was the famous McDonald Observatory. On my last visit to Texas, we visited Fort Davis National Historic Site but had to force ourselves to drive on by the observatory due to time constraints. We were acquainted with it because of the StarDate daily program on public radio and thrilled just to have seen it.

Val and I ate lunch and then took in a program on the sun, which included views of the solar orb in real time. After the program, we loaded into a tour van and up we went, on what we learned was the highest highway in Texas, to tour two of the huge research telescopes. Our tour guide was funny and knowledgeable.

A couple of websites the tour guide recommended are Solar Dynamics Observatory and Space Weather.

One of the most interesting things I learned is that the moon is moving away from the earth 3 centimeters a year, something that was discovered at this observatory. That and Jupiter causes the sun to wobble ever so slightly.

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered, the point is to discover them.” — Galileo Galilei

Our birding destinations of the day included the Davis Mountains State Park. Here they offer two specially designed buildings from which one can observe feeders and water features, loaded with birds. Both the state park and the observatory offer great scenic views of the area.

It was a great birding day. We “bagged” 47 different species of birds. The highlights were lots of blue grosbeaks, a broad-billed hummingbird and a new lifer for me — a western scrub-jay. But no Montezuma quails. Oh, well.

We capped off an eventful day looking at the full moon flirting with Juniper. And almost stumbled over a nasty looking giant desert centipede. Always walk in the desert night with a flashlight.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Day The Colima Warblers Broke My Heart

I am in Texas at the invitation of my friend, Valerie, who has a house here near the Davis Mountains. I have been a birder for more than 40 years, and she and I greatly enjoy birding together whenever we get the chance. Here we birded together five years ago, but it was February, so I jumped at the chance to visit in April, before it gets so blistery hot.

Colima warbler.
Colima warbler.

My penultimate goal was to observe the Colima warbler, which can only be seen in the U.S. in the high reaches of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, a species I’d never seen. (It is not present in the U.S. in February, and my parents never took me to Big Bend NP all those years ago when we lived in Texas.)

Val picked me up in El Paso, where I lived as a very young girl. (More about that in a future blog.) We started birding the Chihuahuan Desert right away. The song of the cactus wren in my old neighborhood took me back in time.

It took us quite a while to drive to her West Texas home because we made frequent birding stops. In fact, it takes us quite a while to get anywhere for this reason. It wasn’t long before I snagged a new species, the Chihuahuan raven.

I’m enchanted by the fact that this is the street sign on the corner on which her house sits.

In the morning, we observed birds in her yard and then all around the town, including the cemetery, a very interesting walk in its own right. Our most frequent sighting for these days was the iridescent scarlet tanager. We took a tour of downtown Alpine, which has lovely murals that capture the images of West Texas culture.

The next day, we took the long drive to Big Bend National Park, a fitting place to spend National Park Week. Valerie is a retired National Park ranger, and one of her postings was five years in Big Bend NP as Chief of Interpretation. She knows and loves the landscape well and one can find no better guide.

We camped in Cottonwood Campground on the Rio Grande River, where we birded and interacted with other birders. She has a camper, but I set up a tent, unaware that a very windy night was to come. The constant gusts of wind flattened the tent on my face, and we both got very little sleep.

Nonetheless, we arose the next morning and began birding in earnest. Because of the water of the Rio Grande, the habitat makes for excellent birding. When we saw a bird, we noted its markings and slowly, unless it is a familiar species to us, came to agreement. Our reference sources are our field guides, a couple of birding apps on our phones, our lifelong knowledge of birds and the “Big Bend Bird Checklist” by her friend, Mark Flippo.

Neither of us take all that many photographs as we prefer to be looking through our binoculars and storing away the mental images. I did attempt to photograph the Vermilion flycatcher, but it is a poor quality photograph that doesn’t begin to do justice to the bird.

Here is a better photograph by a professional.

 

Equally as wonderful is the Scarlet Tanager.

All around are other campers and hikers, birders and photographers. Near to our campsite was a gray hawk nest.

Our next destination was the Rio Grande Village campground and a boat trip across the river to Boquillas, Mexico, for the day, via the border crossing in the national park. It was staffed by a ranger who knew Val from her Theodore Roosevelt National Park days, and we all had a friendly chat.

We paid the $5 for the boat ride across the river, although it is very low, as this is the livelihood of the locals. In Boquillas, I ate the best chicken tamales of my life and we enjoyed the laid-back village vibe. Val purchased some highly recommended tortillas from a village woman to bring back for herself and her friend.

Upon our return, we birded around the Rio Grande including some outstanding evening birding on the nearby nature trail. Then, it was on to Panther Junction, where we crashed with an old friend of Val’s who has been a wildlife biologist at Big Bend NP for decades.

I am particularly taken with the Chisos red oak that grows in Raymond’s backyard. Val, Raymond and I took a stroll in the dusk to find elf owls. We heard one, but did not see it. Although Val does not, I count it when I hear a bird as I can picture these in my mind. A hot shower and a good night’s sleep revived us.

The last day in Big Bend was focused on finding the Colima warbler. We drove to the Chiso Basin, stopped in the Visitor Center and prepared for the hike up the Chisos Mountains.

The Chisos are the farthest south range of the Rocky Mountains and a striking feature in the heart of Big Bend NP. Big Bend NP is a huge and wild landscape, on a big bend of the Rio Grande River on the border, and is comprised of 801,163 acres with many diverse ecosystems. The Chisos Basin is at 5,400 feet and the highest peak is Emory at 7,825 feet. We weren’t going all the way to Emory but nearly. We knew we had a long hike planned, complete with lots of birding dawdling. Although I love all rivers, including the Rio Grande, the Chisos Basin is my favorite area of the park and I was thrilled to be there again.

The ascent of the Pinnacles Trail is 1,655.84 feet to an elevation of 7,078.05 feet. I was feeling the mild effects of the elevation and very grateful that the temperature was fairly mild. I could never endure the height of the summer desert temperatures with my N.D. sensibilities. As we hiked, Val identified plants unknown to me.

We met up with hikers on the way. This woman had seen a Colima warbler about 20 minutes before and she was on her way down. We pressed on, frequently stopping in the shade to cool off. The orange from my pack revived me, a lifesaver.

It is difficult to read the sign below, but it says Colima Trail, the trail we took to make a loop to connect to the Laguna Meadows Trail.

All around were desert plants: cacti, agave, juniper, matrona and the Chisos red oak. The distinctive blue agave is called a Century Plant. It blooms just once, after several decades of growth, and then dies. The side-by-side photo below is an example of this phenomenon. The hummingbirds and butterflies and other pollinators flock to the blossom.

We wondered if this Century Plan shown below, somewhere on the Colima Trail, would fall off this rock to which it clung when it sent up its bloom.

As we reached The Pinnacles, white-throated swifts chattered about. Otherwise, the day was dominated by Mexican jays and blue-gray and black-tailed gnatcatchers.

At the end of a very long hike, more than 10 miles, we trudged back into the Chisos Basin, as the sun was setting. No Colima warblers. Raymond had warned us that due to the exceptional dryness of the year, the birds away from the Rio Grande were not as active. Valerie lived here for five years and has frequently visited and she has only seen “couple” of Colimas. I might have jinxed it when I bought this cool medallion for my walking stick.

My heart wasn’t completely broken though. I’ve weathered much worse. I had just spent a day soaking up the silence of this place, renewing my spirit, knowing that I was where the Colimas live and breed. We saw no other hikers for the last six miles. And we were both spent.

As we left the Chisos Mountains, a full moon was rising over the desert. The stars were spectacular, Venus a beacon on the horizon, and Mars very red in the southeast. Deep within, I’d stored the memory of another Chihuahuan Desert adventure, complete with numerous new bird species for my life list. More to come.

“Drunk on my milky light of the stars

Anyone staggers. If I seem mad

I am. And if you see that

You are too. Be glad.”

Rumi

New bird list so far, 12 “lifers”:

  • Scaled quail.
  • Black vulture.
  • Elf owl.
  • White-throated swift.
  • Ash-throated flycatcher.
  • Plumbous vireo.
  • Chihuahuan raven.
  • Crissal’s thrasher.
  • Rufous-crowned sparrow.
  • Varied bunting.
  • Scott’s oriole.
  • Gray-headed dark-eyed junco.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Wonder Of Birds

Thank goodness for winter, a time here at Red Oak House for us to catch up on reading.

About a year ago, I bought myself the book “The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future,” by Jim Robbins (Spiegel & Grau, c2017). I tucked it away, waiting for an opportune time to read it. This week was that time.

Robbins, a Helena, Mont., native, is an accomplished and respected writer. He has written for the New York Times for more than 35 years and for a variety of other magazines, covering environmental and science stories. He is also the author of the books: “The Man Who Planted Trees, Last Refuge: the Environmental Showdown in the American West,” and “A Symphony in the Brain.”

In this book, “The Wonder of Birds,” he wanders through a wide variety of locations, from wild places all around the world to a business that creates feather clothing and costumes of all varieties, the Mother Plucker Feather Co.

He writes of the transformative and healing powers of birds, something I can attest to from decades of birdwatching.

“Walking across the broad sweep of grassy prairie of northern Montana day after day is an immersion into a starkly beautiful landscape. On the days I hunt I become a predator, and the experience touches some deep and ancient part of my psyche, a calm, though vigilant, deeply felt energy, providing me with the stamina to hike mile after mile along creeks and down one-lane dirt roads, all but oblivious to distances covered or the hours passed, consumed only with thoughts about in which patch of chokecherry, cattails, or thick grass the birds might be hiding” (pg. 104).

My husband, Jim, recounts that he also has a greater ability to walk without tiring when in the wild than when he is at the YMCA, much like Robbins describes. Speaking for myself, I get bored walking around the track but can walk for miles on a hiking trail. The presence of the birds is a part of that.

Robbins meets with Cagan Sekercioglu, an associate professor of biology, who says, “Even if you just look for birds, you’ll see the best parts of the planet. Not just landscapes and biodiversity, but some of the last remaining interesting cultures.”(pg.115)

Illustrations copyright by DD Dowden, 2017.
Illustrations copyright by DD Dowden, 2017.

Each chapter begins with a lovely pen and ink illustration by DD Dowden. The chapter devoted to ravens and crows is particularly delightful.

Again, from the book:

“If we can learn how to move beyond the subconscious terror we all carry and the emotional numbing we take on to shield ourselves, if we can tap into the extraordinary power of birds and bottle this lightning, if we learn from our relationship with birds to fully understand our nervous system and the full range that we are capable of feeling and sensing in the world, we will find something inexhaustible and profound, even life-changing” (pg. 280).

In this, the “Year of the Bird,” this book was worth every penny and a delight to read. I give it my highest recommendation. If you Google the title, you will see that many other reviewers agree with me.

While you are at it, do check out this delightful issue of National Geographic magazine.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Winter Notes: Owls

Here at Red Oak House, in the wooded Highland Acres neighborhood of Bismarck, we like owls very much. We frequently have great horned owls and Eastern screech owls in our large blue spruce and green ash trees.

Many years ago, my brother, Thomas, took me to Yorktown, Va., where I bought this wonderful wooden snowy owl at street arts and crafts fair. (Thomas looked at me a little sideways that I would buy a hunk of wood, but it “spoke to me,” and I’ve never regretted the purchase.)

Last February, at the suggestion of our friend, Alan, who is a great owl enthusiast, I rounded up our friends, Jeff and Linda, to help me build three owl nests, to encourage the owls to stick around our yard. Jeff and Linda opted to not take a nest home because they had Cooper’s hawks nesting in their yard the previous summer and did not want to risk conflicts, so I gave the extra two nests to friends, Mike and Bill. So far, no nesting in any three of these nests.

Just before Christmas, Jim and I took out the ladder and put some beef soup bones into the nest in an effort to encourage the owls. We laugh at the thought that we give our neighbors something to scratch their heads about, wondering just what we might be up to now, messing around in the tall green ash tree in December. Our springer spaniel, Lizzie, was quite perplexed as to why she wasn’t getting these meaty bones. When one dropped to the ground, she seized it and we relented, knowing she would snap at us if we attempted to take it away.

For Christmas, I gave Jim a wonderful screech owl nest box and today, while there was a break in the weather, we mounted the box, at the opposite side of the backyard from the great horned owl nest. We had to use both ladders, and I held the box while he secured it, as suggested by the craftsman who created it.

When I was a young mother, two of my children’s favorite books were “Owl Moon,” which I’ve written about before, and “Owl Babies.” To this day, my children and nieces and nephews can recite the lines from this charming book, the story of three owlets who grow alarmed when the mother owl leaves to hunt. Here is an animated reading of the book.

Our friends, the Suchys, are as fond of owls as anyone I know, and they have many nesting owls at their ranch in Morton County. Linda Suchy has formed a powerful bond with her great horned owls. I look forward to her owl reports, including sightings of the grand snowy owl. This PBS Nature program on snowy owls is a great delight, and I give it my highest recommendation.

A few years ago, there was a big irruption of snowy owls in North Dakota, and we drove around the rural roads in Morton County finding many. At this time, our daughter, Chelsea, was a student at Dickinson State University, so I met her halfway between our two towns for a day of snowy owl watching. We must have seen about nine that day, her first sightings.

Another memorable snowy owl day for me was that same winter. My friend, Valerie, had not yet seen these, thus we went hunting southeast of Bismarck and found one, perched on a power pole. Valerie was thrilled, and I was equally as thrilled to have been able to find one for her.

One winter, Jim and I made two separate trips to northeastern North Dakota, once to see a hawk owl and the other time to see barn owls. Many a night we’ve laid in our tent listening to owls hooting above us at campgrounds all around the country. When we were living in Medora, N.D., we found a tiny western screech owl perched in a juniper at Cottonwood Campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it was quite a delight to take Chelsea to see it, blending into that juniper in a magical way.

Several times I have participated in northern saw-whet owl banding at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, led by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and, once, took my daughter, Chelsea, with me. You can see the joy on her face when she got to hold one of these tiniest of owls. She says it is one of her happiest memories, she who loves the Harry Potter books and movies so. The banding programs have added greatly to the knowledge of saw-whet owls. Turns out, the Little Missouri River Valley is a major migration corridor for them.

Owl folk art holds a prominent place in the Library of Red Oak House, with this trio of wooden owls on a top shelf looking down upon us

and a beautiful white woolen mother owl with her owlet in a pouch, which I purchased in Winnipeg some years ago. It is called an “owl packing doll” and was handmade by the Canadian Inuk artist Fait a la Main, from the community of Holman, in 2004. When I saw it on the store shelf, I fell in love.

In the future, I hope to see two other species of owl: the elf owl and the great grey owl, both of which will require some travel. A trip to Manitoba, Jim?

I leave you with this poem “The Owl” by Edward Thomas.

“The Owl”

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;

Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest

Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,

Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.

All of the night was quite barred out except

An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

But one telling me plain what I escaped

And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my response,

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Christmas Bird Count

Fifteen below at noon New Year’s Eve 2017 with record lows in the night convinced me that this was a year to participate in the area Christmas bird count by making observations at the Red Oak House feeders. These are my tools for the day.

The hyperborean dawn revealed that the kitchen window suet feeder had fallen to the ground. Red Oak House’s Word of the Day, “hyperborean” (late Middle English), is from the Greek huper for beyond and Borean for Northwind.

I finally channeled my inner North Dakotan, put on the serious coat and went out with the ladder to rehang the feeder, filling it with the Suchy beef suet they gave us at our annual Winter Solstice potluck.

While I was outdoors, I also brushed off last night’s snow from the surface of the sunflower feeder. Lizzie, the springer spaniel, was of no help, but she was eager to be with me nonetheless, and then equally as eager to go back into the warmth of the house, to nap in the sunshine.

The thistle and sunflower feeders are covered with pine siskins, and I also observe them scratching about in the spent vegetation of the perennial beds. By this point of the winter, the birds have stripped the crab apple trees of their fruit, yet the saffron dots of bittersweet remain as a bright spot in a somewhat drab landscape. The low sun shone brightly all day.

With a cup of lemon tea, I settled in near the woodstove to read a couple of books, checking the feeders now and again throughout the short day while Jim napped while he “watched” football.

Earlier today, Jim had been over to get our daughter’s dead car going, attaching the battery charger in the hopes that this will do the trick. She is not alone in struggling with this, a common problem here on the northern Plains in these frigid days. Jim has ice fishing on his mind. The car didn’t start and I can see neighbors dealing with the same issues.

Last year, we constructed and mounted an owl nest in the big old green ash tree, and a couple of weeks ago, we placed a hunk of beef soup bone within in the hopes of luring nesting great-horned owls. We are certain this gave the neighbors something to puzzle over — “What are they up to now?” A few hours later, Jim spotted one plucking at the meat, but we have not seen it since. For Christmas, I gave Jim a beautiful screech owl nesting box and am confident that Eastern screech owls will use it as I so often see and hear these in our yard.

I researched the hairy woodpecker in my book “Words for Birds”: “Dendrocopos villosus, which is Greek for “tree cleaver” and coined from dendron, “tree,” and kopis, “cleaver.” villosus which is Latin for “hairy or shaggy”; the reference is to the general appearance of the plumage, which gives the species a hirsute but combed appearance.” The downy woodpecker is “Dendrocopos pubescens, Latin for “coming into puberty,” which seems to be related to the species being less hairy and less mature.” (pg. 168) The downy is the smaller of the two.

On and off all afternoon, this downy woodpecker clung to the huge blue spruce in the front yard, puffed up for warmth, feeding on the resin. Later, I observed the same behavior by the nuthatches. I hoped for a brown creeper to show up as I have occasionally observed one on this big tree that is right outside my kitchen “office” window.

We are not the partying sort, so our end of the year celebration will consist of my homemade Swedish meatballs, made from Striefel beef and Napoleon sausage. The special taste comes from the cardamon and the lingonberry jelly I include in the creamy sauce. Add to that some of our own bubbly, with daughter, Chelsea, as our guest and we will savor the last day of 2017.  I included black-eyed peas to the menu, as they are a Southern tradition, thought to bring prosperity to the upcoming year. Remember, my father is from Mississippi. While I cook I listen to Jason Isbell and Greg Allman.

The sun has set and my tally of birds is:

  • Hairy woodpeckers.
  • Downy woodpeckers.
  • Slate-colored juncos.
  • Black-capped chickadees.
  • Red-breasted nuthatches.
  • Pine siskins.
  • Goldfinches.
  • House sparrows.
  • House finches

The hoped-for brown creeper was a no-show as were any owls. Here’s to more birding in 2018!

A New Year’s Eve full moon has risen, good tunes are playing in our kitchen, and while we wait for our child to get off from work, we dine on mussels, crackers and cheese, with white wine.

I wish for you as much joy and love as I’ve received in the past year, highlights of which include the Bismarck Women’s March on the Capitol grounds, the beginning of my blog, new friendships, my dive into Twitter, an abundant garden, many good books, time with my parents and Rachel, my husband’s 70th birthday, our trip in the Midwest and to the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival, my visit to one of my oldest friend’s home in Tucson and my daughter Chelsea’s adventure to Colorado for vocational training (it is good to have her home). A little thing in the year was a revelation to one of my best friends my secret ingredient for marinara, a resolution to not hold on to such silly things anymore. And how could I not include the total solar eclipse in Wyoming!

I am a shy and reticent person, an introvert and too old to even want to change this about me. Writing this blog has been a huge step for me, and the universe has answered me back with more blessings than I could ever have dreamed. Jim cheers me on every day, and I love him for that.

And that is the truth.

“And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done.” — Ranier Maria Rilke

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Some weeks ago, my dear friend, Ken, loaned me a gem of a book, one he had enjoyed and he knew that I would like it too, entitled “As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds,” by Alex Preston and Neil Gower, an exploration of birds in literature.

I started it very soon after that day, but then the library alerted me that a book I’d requested, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, was being held for me and Chernow’s more than 1,000-page book diverted me for many weeks.

When Ken brought me his book, I told him that another close friend of mine considers the kingfisher to be her totem bird. This is how birders talk, gentle reader. We are all a wee bit bonkers about birds. The Red Oak House library holds many different books on birds we’ve accumulated over the years.

But back to the book in hand. Each chapter is devoted to one species of bird, and the first page is a remarkable illustration of the bird subject. Although just as I struggle to identify my favorite bird species, it is difficult to decide which chapter I liked the most.

Preston interweaves stories about the bird with various poems and prose. T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and many others make an appearance. The writer lives in England, and he works from his lifelong collection of notes on the topic, citing hundreds of books, leading me, the reader, on a path to even more books I wish to read.

Sunday morning, as I was in my home office, there was a hairy woodpecker and red-breasted nuthatch on the suet feeder.

One of the books Preston writes about is “The Christmas Robin,” a book my children and I have read dozens of times over the years. Soon when I decorate the house for Christmas, I will find this book.

The book ends with a chapter on nightingales, a bird I’ve not seen nor heard. So I looked up the song and listened.  It is particularly beautiful and I hope to hear it someday in the wild.

He writes “I wanted the nightingale to be the last chapter in this book precisely because the bird seems to be live trapped, trembling, between the page and the sky. Poets have broken themselves, and their language, trying to express in words the eternal moment, always dissolving, of the nightingale’s song. There is a nobility in this struggle, to make new a creature that has become a trope, more fable than bird. In our age of great lies and slippery truths, attempting the accurate expression of something as pure, as unpartisan, as a nightingale’s song is a political act.” (page 174)

Serendipitously, this past couple of days the folks of the ND-Birds world (a listserv that shares sightings for those in North Dakota who are interested in birds), have posted notices of the sighting at Lake Tschida, south of Glen Ullin, of an “accidental” (the word for a bird that is not normally in a location) red-throated loon.

I finished this delightful book just as Jim was home from running errands and told him that I’d like to make the road trip, so we did. While I drove, he looked up the loon in the Audubon app on his phone, reading the details to me, including that this bird is almost always seen on the coastline, in the ocean.

Shortly after we arrived, two other birders joined us, and they had with them the bonus of a spotting scope. And we added a new species to my life list on a cold and windy day. A red-throated loon. Hurray! We also watched a bald eagle fishing on the lake.

Below is a photograph of my trusty field guide  where I’ve noted details on each species, the sighting location, and date. I started keeping track in 1982. The red-throated loon brings me to a life total of 419 species.