I know, I know… it’s a Swainson’s

I can be… um… slightly hard-headed at times. I want very badly for this to be a Ferruginous Hawk. Not that I think it necessarily looks like one, just that I want it to be one, you know?

I went all the way to North Dakota and deserve to have seen a Ferruginous, don’t you think? I had my life Swainson’s Hawk in Cape May years ago and a textbook-looking one that Bill of the Birds showed us on my birthday on the first day of the Potholes and Prairie Festival.

Then, we surprised this hawk the following day in the hills of the Coteau Region. Tell me what makes this a Swainson’s… maybe I’ll take your word for it.


As an aside: I’d thought separating Eastern hawks was difficult. Pfft!

The Swainson’s has 3 age classes and is polymorphic (whatever the heck that means!) The Ferruginous has 2 ages classes and is also polymorphic. (I think!)

A portrait of memory

There’s something like a line of gold thread running through a man’s words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself.” ~John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994

Somewhere around here is a photo of my dad and I together on a regular day, not Christmas or Easter or anybody’s wedding day, but one of those normal days when nothing much of interest took place. It’s not a photo you’d ever be inclined to put into an album; we’re probably not dressed well or my dad hadn’t shaved that day. Maybe that explains why I can’t put my hands on it… it may not even exist, really, at least not as anything more than my imagination.

In this photo of my dad and I, you’d see a certain amount of ambivalence between us, but we clearly love each other. There’s a similar expression of bemusement in our eyes and an easy comfort together, but no obvious signs of warmth, at least not if the photo was taken after I turned 11 or so. Before then I might be seated on his knee or reaching a hand up to meet his as we walked together somewhere, maybe back to the car after ice-cream.

Mostly we stand awkwardly together, not sure what to do with our arms or our affection. It was always that way. Other than the customary goodnight kiss or the kiss on saying hello or goodbye, our family was very reserved with any outward display of feelings. Somewhere in life both of my brothers have become huggers, but that’s not anything we’d learned at home. Their hugs surprise me still, but I’m learning to like them. Maybe for them the hugs communicate some of what we’ve always been too embarrassed to really say to one another. It’s that way between brothers and their little sister, I guess. When I was a kid it was the “affectionate” flicks on the ear or the “friendly” swats on the back of the legs with a wet towel; now it’s hugs so strong they force the air out of my lungs. They still seem to take some perverse sort of pleasure in causing me pain, I think.

In a more recent photo of my dad and I, you’d see that our relationship had changed and grown into something else. In the time between when I’d moved out of his house and he moved into mine a few months before he died, we’d found something like a mutual deference to each other. Deference isn’t really the proper word for it; I would always be a bratty kid as far as he was concerned, but my dad and I discovered a way around his old-fashioned ideas about how kids should behave with their parents and which totally confounded my brothers, who thought I got away with the world. There’s something Garrison Keillor said to explain that once, but I can’t exactly remember it. Something about a father being a hostage to his daughter, like a pat of butter in a frying pan when she asks for his counsel.

I see that in my brothers now, with their daughters, and it’s a cause for joy… maybe now they’ll understand and will stop teasing me for being spoiled. I also see their easy affection with my nieces and I’m happy for those little girls growing up with dads who aren’t too formal or too preoccupied to love their daughters openly and affectionately.

There weren’t any photos of my dad and I from that time just before he died. I’m glad for that, glad there’s nothing to challenge my memories of him. I still see him self-important and angry at some injustice done to me. He’s still strong and ready to slay the monsters under my bed, still competent and able to rescue me or my brothers from some mistake of our own making. The mistrust and worry that had wrinkled his face with every adventure or new friend are gone as he stands proudly aside to watch us discover who we’ve become.

This photo in my memory is of us passing the hours together at the kitchen table, talking long into the night, the coffee pot on. Those gab sessions made up for our lack of touchy-feely-ness somehow. We talked about everything under the sun, at least twice. I see us there, smiling uncertainly at each other, not sure what to talk about next.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Memory is part make-believe anyway, isn’t it? We use what we remember and combine it with what we believe to be true, embellish it with what we wish for and what we need, and then stitch it all together into something that comforts us when a loved one is gone.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Everything you can imagine is real. I believe that.

Happy Father’s Day.

Other Father’s Day posts here and here.


The Juneberries are ready for picking…

The robins and their babies are happy.

Juneberry Pie

3 ½ c juneberries
¾ c sugar
2 T flour

2-crust pie shell:
2 c flour
¾ c Crisco
dash salt
5 T cold water

Mix flour, Crisco and salt in mixing bowl. Add cold water one tablespoon at a time, and do not overmix. Split dough into 2 pieces. Roll out first crust dough onto floured surface and place into pie pan. Mix filling in a mixing bowl and place into pie pan. Roll out your second crust and place on top of pie filling. Fold over crust edges, press with fork, and poke fork holes on top to allow pie to breathe. Sprinkle top with a bit of sugar and bake for one hour in preheated 400° oven. Cool for 2 hours and serve.

No pie for me this year; my juneberries have that rust… is it cedar-apple rust or juniper rust? Whatever… most of them look just awful. Birds are happy though.

Dakota Driving

I think the people behind Birding Drives Dakota must be pretty smart: they understand that those of us from more heavily trafficked parts of the world are awed and befuddled by the emptiness of the prairie pothole region. It’s as if they anticipate that we’ll bliss out with the scenery and forget that we might just need directions to find all those prairie specialties.

They’ve conveniently created a couple maps and a glossy brochure to lead the directionally-challenged (like me!) to the best birding spots. I’d imagine it easy for more left-brained folks to navigate the right-angle distances, but I found myself constantly distracted by something… a group of pelicans kettling overhead… a jackrabbit running through a farm field… a pleasing look at cattle at the roadside… you name it! North Dakota was made for daydreamers like me, I think.

That being said, I was glad for the maps detailing the more than 600 miles of birding possibilities in the Jamestown/Carrington area alone. They make it easy to wander at will at your own pace and on your own schedule, which is the way I prefer to bird. I can handle only so much time spent in a bus with strangers peering out through dirty windows. Sure, I did some of the planned events with the festival, but there was also lots of time spent exploring in solitude, wondering what might be found at the next “X” on the map.

I wonder about the rest of you that’ve had the opportunity to attend a birding festival or two: would you rather have every minute of your trip planned and scheduled for you or, like me, do you appreciate the chance to be a little more adventurous?

Love in a pothole

Western Grebes were the first *western* birds found on the adventure that was getting to North Dakota. A makeshift dinner beside a lake somewhere in Minnesota was accompanied by their whistling between dives for fish. They’re really striking birds – click on the pic for a better look at those red eyes!

Try as we might, we never picked out a Clark’s among the Western’s that populated the larger lakes and potholes. Nor was there much of their famous courtship display; they’re said to rise up and run across the water’s surface – might’ve been nice to see that! I like the suggestion of a heart in the space between their graceful long necks in this pic; maybe they were just beginning to think of love in that moment.

The breeding ducks were the biggest draw to the region, I think. There’d been more than a cold winter’s day or two spent searching the small local ponds and inlets in NJ for wintering ducks – to see Ruddies again; now with their ridiculously bright blue bills or a pair of Blue-winged Teal in every puddle and Canvasbacks and Shovelers and more Redheads than I’d really imagined possible – I’d felt lucky to find a single pair this winter – and now here they were, again, for our finding. The only real miss, in the breeding duck department, were Hoodies. I’m sure they were out there, we just didn’t find the right pothole.


Faking it

What’s that ahead in the road? That bird looks like it might be broken…

Have you ever seen a killdeer do its distraction display? To a car speeding along a dirt road in the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota?


The abundant killdeer taught an early lesson in exploring the prairie: slow down… look around… tread gently…

You never know what treasures you may find if you look closely enough.

For you non-bird folks: Killdeer and some other birds perform distraction or broken-wing displays to lure predators away from their nest or chicks. The adult bird fans its tail and drags a droopy wing along the ground so that you or I or a fox will think it an easy meal to catch. Soon enough, once the young are out of danger or forgotten, the parent flies off thumbing its nose for having faked you out. A great trick!

Why North Dakota?

I’ve always imagined the place we grow up to sink into our bones and set the course for where we feel most comfortable in life. For me, that’s meant the shore and the scent of a salt marsh at low tide… traffic and malls and lots of people. Something, though, has tugged at me to see a place where all the oceans are equally far away; a place where long stretches of land flow for miles unfettered by anything but my imagination.

Other places I’ve traveled to make the world feel small by comparison: the sky hemmed in by mountains or trees or buildings. The prairie is different. The landscape doesn’t shout out its beauty here, but entices you in small ways… the winnowing of snipe overhead, the soft huff of horses grazing in the predawn light, the starkness and loneliness of it, a velvet bowl of ink black sky so full of stars it makes you wonder what it might feel like to count so many, clouds that stumble across an unbelievably big sky, the long soft blur of sunset shadows that cross a patchwork of farm fields and prairie: where a few trees and a grain elevator are the only comfort for the eye in all that emptiness.

Maybe I like the challenge of finding beauty where others would see none… the black backbone of road and the faint lines of light at the horizon that mean there’s a town off the interstate, the nothing between me and a three wire barbed fence and a pasture of horses or bison, the wind that carries the grace notes of a meadowlark or a bobolink. This, this middle in the middle of nowhere, is a place of quiet where birdsong and the gentle whistle of wind are the only music and me the lonely audience.

There’s something here in the intersection of land and light, sky and the ever-present wind, the dark earth and the cerulean water in each and every pothole with its breeding ducks that communicates the language of this place; words of solitude translated by a yellow-headed blackbird hanging from cattails in a slough beside the road or the sight of ancient purple lilacs watching over deserted dooryards. There’s all of this and yet, sometimes, you need to bend close to the ground and pull the soft dusty green sage through your fingers or catch sight of prairie smoke blooming among the short grasses, with kingbirds squabbling on the fencerow behind you, to know that emptiness looks like this and that the place that one calls home need not be the only place a heart resides.

(Written mostly as a response to the cross-eyed glances of friends who wondered why I wouldn’t choose Hawaii as a vacation destination instead of the frozen land of North Dakota.)


More to come…

The skinny on rabbit poop (revisited)

Most housebunny owners are somewhat obsessive about bunny-poop. People surfing the internet looking for pictures of rabbit poop bring a lot of traffic by this blog. So I thought I’d repost this one from a coupe years ago.

Unless a rabbit has a physical problem, oftentimes the cause of less-than-perfect-pooties is a lack of fiber in the diet or too much starch. Rabbits need huge amounts of hay and very little of the other stuff that people like to feed bunnies. If there is a problem, you’ll notice your bunnies’ pooties getting smaller and smaller. It’s all about knowing what’s *normal* for a particular bunny. The photo at left shows a sample from the bunnies that live here. The pooties on the right are from the Flemmies and are marble-sized. All the way on the left are the pooties of a bunny that isn’t a good hay eater and it shows in her poops. A rabbit that eats a lot of very high-fiber hay, like oat hay, will have beautiful, light-colored flakey pooties. (Oh gosh, listen to me! – I am not obsessive!)

Many people who haven’t encountered a rabbit, outside of a backyard hutch rabbit, are surprised to learn that they can be litter-trained. In fact, most rabbits will train themselves to use a box, so long as you put the box where they want it. My bunny Dora was difficult in this regard, because she refused to use the litterboxes that were in her cage. She “held it” overnight and darted out of her cage to the corner litterbox first thing in the morning. She did the same thing while I was at work. Why she had this peculiar habit I don’t know, but she was proof positive that rabbits are “clean” animals. It’s the way that most people keep them that makes many think otherwise.

An important part of training a rabbit to use a litterbox is to set up the box in such a way that a bunny will like to go there. It has to be cleaned regularly. I set mine up with a pelleted-wood product for litter and fill it to the brim with hay. The bunnies will munch hay and poop at the same time. Most bunnies here also seem to find their box to be a convenient place for a nap or a snuggle-session. You can see Boomer and Cricket in one of their boxes with barely an inch to spare!

If you’re really interested in learning more about bunny poop, a good article (with photos!) is available here.