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

MICHAEL BOGERT: Photo Gallery — Down By The River

Grand Forks photographer Michael Bogert recently took a walk along the Red River and did his best to catch one of these great horned owls in flight but to no avail.