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.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Birding The Apple Creek Wetlands

Went to the Apple Creek wetlands east of Bismarck on Sunday morning to bird with my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson. She is a budding photographer and quite a good birder in her own right. May was such a windy month here that we didn’t do much birding; hence, we missed many of the migrating birds that hurry north to the Arctic. But our time Sunday was rewarded with some good sightings.  Here are a few of the best of my daughter’s photos this week.

You can see more of her photography on Facebook on her “Wild Dakota Photos” page.

Later Sunday afternoon, I attended the (sadly) final “Conversation” at Bismarck State College, presented by President Larry Skogen and Clay S. Jenkinson. The topic was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

I’ve attended as many of these as I’ve been able and have learned so much from these scholars, and I know the room was filled with people who are very sorry that the program has come to an end (due to budget cuts). The crowd gave Clay a standing ovation. If you are interested in following Clay’s work, you can find more on his website and on the “Conversations” website.

The Red Oak House garden is exploding with irises and the air is filled with their delicate and sweet fragrance.  New ones this week were:

Spring and summer are such busy and happy times in North Dakota.

“It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez