LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House: A Bird-y Essay At The Height Of Tomato Harvest

At Red Oak House we are birders. And foodies. And frugal.

On Monday at dawn I heard a bird strike a window just as I was stepping out to the patio to sip coffee and quietly read the morning newspaper. The signs of autumn migration are all around and we have a small birdbath that is critical water for the birds right now. We are doing lots of backyard birding while we harvest the vegetables, complete household projects and tend to life’s deadlines in general (like getting my mother’s sunflower bird feeder in Mandan filled).

I went looking for the likely dead bird and spotted it and determined quickly that it was not yet dead. Being a lifelong birder, my head was spinning on what to do and in what order. My phone was in my hand, so I snapped a photo while drawing upon my experience for the ID and determining it was not (yet) dead. I left it alone knowing it might just be stunned and would fly off given the time to recover and the opportunity. Then, I shot some video and went on with coffee and paper. About 45 minutes later, I looked and it had flown off for the rest of its bird life, a happy ending.

Meanwhile, I was using my birding apps Merlin and Audubon to ID it with my picture and correctly report the sighting to the folks at Cornell. I knew it was a warbler, but warblers are hard and most of my limited knowledge of warblers is centered on many long years in western North Dakota. I live in a migration corridor, where the habitat maps of eastern and western North America overlap — and accidentals happen. I yearn for authenticity and accuracy, and I embrace collaborative learning and decision-making, all elements that change over time.

Merlin said “Connecticut,” but I was dubious based on location and experience. I uploaded the Morning Wood Warbler video August 24, 2020 and started sharing it with my birding networks. As the day went on, I was consulting with my personal birding networks, sharing the video and my photo in a variety of ways (text, email, social media and so on). Friendly and knowledgeable fellow birders started to weigh in (carefully so as not to incorrectly ID the bird or overplay their hands). I was also checking my lifelist to see if this might be a life bird for me (warblers are hard!) without corrupting my data.

If I was John James Audubon, I would have steeled myself and collected it for confirmation, but I have a soft heart and an abiding sense of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations about this very thing. (Did you know my family’s deep commitment to following rules while also approaching these with some skepticism?) To not mention I take reasonable steps to avoid negative impacts on the bird population trends in as sensible a manner as I can (whoops, I just mentioned that) and I want no protected species investigations or violations on my record, for the record.

In my lifetime, I’ve worked and recreated with botanists, ornithologists, artists, photographers and more, both amateur and professional. I’ve helped with North American Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts and the annual Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association Bird Walk, and I’ve gone on countless bird walks led by experts where new friendships are made and expertise is both generous and analytical, where the gifts shared by all ages range from aural skills to visual to deep knowledge and appreciation of the natural world is a shared experience. Ask the young people in my life, kids and nieces and nephews, how many campfire programs I took them to over the years. Get my mother started on how many she has taken us to and prepare to enjoy a long conversation filled with a lifetime of happy memories, while keeping an eye on our backyard bird feeders. These are the things that inform our sense of place in the world.

Back to my morning story: all of this minidrama occurred while I watched with bemusement as the tomato harvest continues here and we figured out what to cook and eat and process for winter. Jim counts his tomato harvest (even the cherry tomatoes!) and shares his Legendary tomato juice with a fortunate few. I rib him about how much real estate the tomato plants take up in our urban yard and eat my fair share of tomatoes.

For some reason, my Dad wanted his tomatoes peeled (I believe it is because that is what his mother did when she prepared Mississippi-grown tomatoes for serving on the table, but I’m not confirming that at the moment). Wherever he lived in his long life, he made valiant efforts to grow tomatoes, including North Dakota and possibly even Okinawa.

On a shelf in the library is a collection of cookbooks and recipes including a large section of tomato recipes. My favorite tomato is Dagma’s Perfection. (What a perfect name.) Above is a food porn photo I took this morning with one of this year’s Dagma’s Perfection shown on a recipe that is a decadent treat at our house. (That is when I borrow my sister’s ice cream maker from her Mandan home.)

Back to the birds. By this morning, my friends in the birding world were confirming that, in fact, it is highly likely the warbler was a Mourning Warbler. Not Morning warbler but Mourning Warbler. I’m sure there are many explanations for that moniker.

A life bird for me (without losing my credibility in the birding world).

Morning bird chorus at Red Oak House before the pollinators arrive, in the habitat we maintain at our home. I’m a human mosquito and tick magnet. All my life my mother has said, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Hmmmmmm … maybe, just maybe, this is why I don’t like pickles, but I like sweets, and a sense of smell informs my life, too. Like the smell of a dead squirrel that led me to its carcass in the yard earlier this summer. (Lizzie was so nose-y that she usually took care of that task.) Or the time I called Montana-Dakota Utilities about a possible gas leak here that turned out to be fish guts in our garbage bin. (That was embarrassing, but they did find some needed maintenance so all’s well that ends well.)

Hope the neighborhood cat lovers don’t misinterpret this seemingly random paragraph, but cats and other pets have been in our conversations of late. It is true, my father put up with us bringing home lots of stray cats in our lives. Once when we took him to catch a plane for U.S. Army TDY in South Korea, my mother routed us home via the El Paso, Texas, animal shelter, and we brought home a cat. And yes, it is true that when I was in my early 20s, I adopted a stray cat we named Jack. How original.

Please don’t accuse me of being “catty” or thin-skinned. Once my mother brought me a newly homeless cat, post-Grand Forks flood, and I took it in until I realized that one of my daughters was clearly allergic to cats. Since then, I’ve been firm about no pet cats, and on this Jim and I clearly agree.

And finally, yes, the rumors are true that it took my daughters and me some time to adjust to the reality that Jim shoots prairie game birds (carefully, according to USWF and North Dakota Game and Fish regulations). And yes, we all enjoy eating that harvest in our omnivorous household. Simultaneously, we embrace all evidence that pets at various stages of our lives teach us responsibility and enhance our mental health — all in good balance, according to the rule of the household and community in which we live. (Get any of our friends telling yarns about the misadventures of the dogs and cats in our lives.)

Fortunately, we did not keep a spreadsheet of the cost of pets in our lives (well, I do have a file of receipts for Lizzie, our Springer Spaniel.) For fun, look at the etymology of the word “cat” in the history of English language here.  Research is “catnip” to an old librarian and English major.

Please attribute all photos and videos in this blog to moi. Any mistakes and bloopers are mine as well. Enjoy.

Oh, in the chess game of marriage, it is Jim’s week to cook, and I have to reset all the devices that allow me to write this blog and take these photos — well, my Mom or Dad must have taken these two old photos of me and one of our cats — and collaborate with my friends and family and fix my lunch.

I take some joy that my daughter rings me up now to go birding when her time permits. Her hobby of photography is blooming, and we teach each other lessons.

I’m humbled that TTW is my friend, something I never imagined when I was young.

A final word about my Dad in this essay: At his burial, I heard the clear song of the Western Meadowlark on the boundary of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.

I’ll let my friend Terry have the final word today while I listen to the jar lids pop signaling the tomato juice jars are sealed and ready to shuttle to the basement:

“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” — Terry Tempest Williams, “When Women Were Birds”

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