Winter’s frosty veil finally has lifted

A common grackle dressed as an oil spill.
By : 
Al Batt
For the Birds

I know that the variability of weather doesn’t disprove a trend, but I’m relieved that winter’s frosty veil has lifted or at least its frigid grip has loosened. Lawnmowers have been moved to the show floor and snow blowers moved to the back room. Deer coats lighten in color and overly cautious people shower in DEET. It becomes so windy, trees flower in plastic shopping bags.

I watched turkey vultures float on air. No flapping, no hurry. These peaceable recyclers rock in a teetering flight with limited wingbeats. I’m always looking for the silver lining in everything. Vulture wings offer silver linings to a birder.

A white-breasted nuthatch held a beakful of grass near a tree cavity. It was a male trying to interest a prospective mate in a nest site. Fox sparrows, reddish-brown beauties with gray cheeks, scratched the ground for food while not straying far from cover. 

While doing yardwork, I found a number of native lady beetles. They are the ladybugs of my childhood, often seen on sweatshirts, aprons or cookbooks.
Oklahoma ramblings

I visited northwest Oklahoma in April. I went to lek superior to have a look at displaying lesser prairie-chickens whose population has fallen 90 percent since the 1800s. Its current population of 33,000 is on 8 percent of its original range. There are approximately 33,000 lesser prairie-chickens in existence. I can attest to there being seven. That’s how many I saw. Seeing the birds was no small miracle. Prairie chickens don’t like trees, which are raptor perches. Nearly 700 acres a day of nesting habitat are lost to eastern red cedar trees without fires to suppress them. An avoidance of vertical structures, one cedar tree can keep a nesting prairie chicken away, applies to wind turbines, too, as the prairie chickens consider one another tree. A turbine means no nesting.

Prairie chickens fly into barbed wire fences, not turbines. Jay Pruett of the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy said that studies have shown that 3.4 bats and 2.3 birds are killed annually per turbine in North America. Not all animals have been studied, but grasshopper sparrows and mule deer avoid turbines. Elk, meadowlarks and Canada geese are unbothered. Grazing cows enjoy the shade turbines provide on hot summer days. I looked for Cassin’s sparrows, Townsend’s solitaires, roadrunners and scissor-tailed flycatchers. I visited a 14,000-acre ranch where meadowlarks were common. Donald Culross Peattie wrote, "The meadowlark is like the happy whistle of the wind through the grass."

The meadowlark was my background music while I was growing up. Its song is part of me.


Randy Chirpich of Fairmont sent a photo of a mallard in a tree and asked if they nest in trees.

Mallards nest on the ground in agricultural fields, backyards and flowerpots, but also nest in artificial nesting structures, floating mats of vegetation and occasionally in trees. 

“I saw a great blue heron rookery. How big are their nests?”

They are as large as 4 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep.

“How many species of butterflies are there in Minnesota?

There are roughly 146 species regularly occurring in the state and approximately 170 total. Iowa has 118 and Wisconsin around 150 species.

Jamie Tenneson of Clarks Grove saw a large number of dead American coots on a highway and wondered what happened to them.

Waterfowl sometimes land on wet pavement at night, mistaking it for a body of water. I suspect vehicles hit the mudhens.

“How late can I expect to see juncos in southern Minnesota?”

I’ve seen dark-eyed juncos in late May.

“What is a black swan event?”

It’s an event in human history that was unprecedented and unexpected at the time. The term originated from the belief that all swans were white. Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Australia in 1697. This was an unexpected event that changed zoology.

Echoes from the Loafers’ Club Meeting

Why are you limping? 

My knee is sore. What would you do if you had a bad knee? 

I’d probably limp, too.

Driving by Bruce's drive

I have a wonderful neighbor named Bruce. Whenever I pass his driveway, thoughts occur to me, such as: The weather report I heard while driving through Kansas made me want to break out the flying monkeys. I realize that a weatherman, if given a choice, would predict more bad weather than good. I can’t blame him for wanting to overpromise stormy weather. If he predicts adverse weather and we don’t get it, we are happy campers. If he predicts nice weather and we get a storm, we are peeved. 

My car’s tire strayed onto local rumble strips, producing a loud, but appropriate rumbling sound. I’d read about a different kind of rumble strips on a Dutch road that when hit at the certain speed — 60 kph — sing out the anthem of the Friesland region, a northern part of the Netherlands that has a distinct language and culture. Perhaps rumble strips playing “Highway to Hell” would lead to reduced speeds here.

The cafe chronicles 

A man entered the eatery early in the morning.

“How are you doing?” asked another.

“I’m still here,“ was the reply.

That seemed to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.

Flood preparedness

The cat woke me. She is a shedding alarm clock who tries to get her steps in by walking on me.

I’d been dreaming about my boyhood, around the time I was in the first grade. First graders were fresh meat to the older kids in school. School was a steep curve. When someone said ”Knock, knock,” I had to try to confine my answer to ”Who’s there?”

They were good days. There was always an animal named Blackie on our farm. Brownie and Whitey were numerous, too.

At home, my job was to eat whatever was on my plate, thank everyone for the food and then go outside. If I cleaned my plate and ate all of my pie, I could have more pie.

My mother bought my school clothes in August. By spring, I’d outgrown them. My pants had a long-distance relationship with my shoes. Skin showed between pants and socks when I sat down. My pants were high waters.

Be well

Lee Simpson of Kempton, Pennsylvania, told me I should eat rice cakes. I told her I wasn’t fond of rice cakes unless they were covered in gravy. She showed me chocolate-covered rice cakes as an encouragement. I replied that I eat most everything except rice cakes and chocolate. There’s just no pleasing some folks.

I got a flu shot. I haven’t been good at getting one. What inspired me to get a vaccination was reading about the 1918 flu pandemic that resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million (3 to 5 percent of the world's population). The total number of military and civilian deaths in World War I was lower, estimated at 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

Keeping score

A friend used a handheld device to change the numbers displayed on the digital scoreboard at the softball field. He’d made an error. I didn’t correct him. He was a teacher and I was raised to never correct a teacher. Someone else reminded him of his error. Someone who had been raised differently.

Shushing librarians

I wrote about being shushed by librarians. Librarians were my tour guides for my imagination. I don’t encounter shushing today, but I do hear the lovely sound of laughter. I appreciated the shushing and love the laughter. I heard from a number of librarians and patrons about this sanctuary of imagination and elucidation. Thank you for your stories.

Nature notes

Golden eagles and bald eagles are about the same size. Golden eagles typically soar or glide with wings lifted into a slight V and their wingtip feathers spread like fingers. They capture prey on or near the ground that they locate by soaring, flying low over the ground or hunting from a perch. Bald eagles are more common, widespread and gregarious than golden eagles. Bald eagles have larger heads and soar with their wings flat across, like a board. Adult golden eagles lack both the white mottling of immature bald eagles and the white heads and tails of adult bald eagles. Young golden eagles often have white patches under the wing and at the base of the tail, but it's always more clearly defined than the white mottling on the body and wings of immature bald eagles.

The guy from just down the road

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“Everything is nearly copacetic. I snore so loud, I wake myself. I’m going to have to start sleeping in separate bedrooms. I’ve got my garden all planned. I love radish sandwiches, but I’m not planting any radishes this year. No need. Radishes repeat. I can plant a garden in a flash. I used to be so fast, I was quicker than the eye. When I ran the 100-yard dash, the officials had to take my word for it. Things change. I went to the gym the other day and did nothing for an hour. It was my personal best.”

Meeting adjourned

Be in a hurry to be kind.

Thanks for stopping by

“What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” — A. A. Milne

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir


© Al Batt 2018