"It's over Johnny." Cinephiles on top of their games may recall this movie line spoken by Col. Trautmann (Richard Crenna) to John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a drifting Vietnam veteran in the 1982 film, First Blood. It's also the line used by a fellow birder and me every year when Connecticut warblers finally show up in late spring. Except we aren't referencing dark corners of a PTSD-troubled mind. Instead, we are simply tapping into a pop culture meme to denote the end of spring bird migration
It's been many years since I was awake over a 24-hour period. Despite the occasional long work day or demanding schedule I have inevitably crashed to sleep before reaching that limit. To the best of my memory it's been nearly 20 years. So it was with some trepidation that I considered an offer by a young and ambitious birder to attempt a North Dakota Big Day this spring.
We had just finished walking back to my vehicle from a wooded area north of West Fargo a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine and I heard it simultaneously; the deep-down, throaty call from a common raven. Despite its name this is a bird quite uncommon in Cass County. We had been on a short walk looking for early seasonal migrants; the raven was an unexpected treat. We never saw the bird, but its call is unmistakable and quite unlike the unmusical "caw" of an American crow.
At exactly noon on May 1, 2017, the painted wooden tripod augured into the ice on Alaska's Tanana River near Fairbanks toppled, signaling spring ice breakup and paying out $267,444 to a lucky few bettors. Since the tradition began in 1917, the Nenana Ice Classic has distributed nearly $14 million to the person or persons guessing the closest moment of ice breakup every spring.
During the long dead of winter it can be challenging for bird watchers to find motivation, not to mention birds. The few hardy resident species that stay here can become--dare I say it?--kinda boring for some of us. Thus the idea of moving farther outside our normal circles begins to take on a certain appeal. A handful of times every winter I find myself driving miles of empty county roads. In part, it's a simple relief from nagging cabin fever but it's also to explore the broader region in search of birds that may not be found in the metro area.
Through the slowly thickening coat of frost oozing across your spare room window you glimpse your bundled-up neighbor trudging out to her car to attempt a start. The layer of snow that fell last night crunches loudly under her heavy boots. It's crisp and clear, 'at least the sun is shining,' you tell yourself, 'it's not all that bad.'
It was likely during one of the annual family automobile treks to the Pacific Northwest to visit relatives that I first encountered the sign, "trailhead." Even as a kid I was intrigued. I didn't see them back home in the Red River Valley. No, these signs were reserved for rugged, forested areas, places that leant themselves to hiking, real hiking. Elevation stuff.
It's empty now, exposed to the elements and slowly deteriorating. It's assuming the look of unkempt hair, messy, scraggly, loose pieces swaying to the whimsical breeze. I see it every morning when I open the kitchen blinds; about 10 feet above ground, it sits atop a lateral branch stemming from my neighbor's crabapple. It doesn't seem that long ago when this delicate structure was the hub of bustling activity. The American robins that raised a family here are gone. But their nest remains, an ephemeral monument to those precious few frantic weeks.
Among the more frequent questions I get asked regarding birds is what and how to feed them. Before taking a look into this area, let's begin by stating that artificially feeding animals is not a universally accepted practice. Moreover, it's one often planted with public relations landmines.
Jonathan Weiner's book, The Beak of the Finch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for general non-fiction. It wasn't like I avoided it all these years; there were just too many other reading projects that always seemed to get in the way I guess. I finally picked it up and finished it.