It’s spring in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and, as of today, April 3, the mountain bluebirds have been here for about three weeks. Their winter home is in the southernmost west states of the U.S. (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) plus northern Mexico. But if you didn’t know where they were coming from, you would think pieces of the sky were indeed falling, for these birds are colored the most brilliant blue imaginable.
Mountain bluebirds (along with gardeners and farmers) are the
ultimate optimists. The day after I saw the first pair for the year, a blizzard
struck the plains about an hour to the east of us.
No, in the Dakotas, winter doesn’t give up easily. Today, we awoke to an inch-and-a-half of the white stuff on the ground (a bit more is on the way). With a diet comprised mainly of insects and spiders, mountain bluebirds have their work cut out for them. What self-respecting spider, wasp, beetle, grasshopper, or caterpillar is going to be doing loop-the-loops in the air or taking an upside-down stroll on the underside of a leaf? (especially since the leaves here have yet to emerge).
Yet, as you might imagine, there are still insects and spiders
outside, but they aren’t nearly as accessible or in as large numbers observed
Fortunately, mountain bluebirds have other places to look for six- and eight-legged prey. Currently, mountain bluebirds along our road spend a lot of time foraging in a large unmowed field where the dried stalks of grass and thatch provide shelter to over-wintering insects. Other places the birds may search include: tree cavities, under the eaves of buildings, in the leaf litter, or in galls. Other insects, like ants and termites (not really mountain bluebird food anyway), aren’t accessible, for they winter in the soil below the frost line; nor are the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies, who grow and thrive under winter’s blanket of frozen water.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. When spiders and insects are scarce, mountain bluebirds will resort to hackberries, grapes, currants, dogwoods, elderberries, and dried fruits of other plants for food. I can attest to the value of hackberry trees to songbirds in early spring: just last week in Pierre, SD, the neighborhood’s hackberry trees were dripping with robins and cedar waxwings as they devoured the trees’ berries (When I spent time in west Texas, I observed a goshawk nesting atop a hackberry’s main trunk, while in the vicinity, a pair of Bell’s vireos and several hummingbirds built their nests in some other hackberry trees’ branchtips).
Warmer weather in South Dakota will eventually prevail. And with it will come other birds, adorned in the spectacular palettes only nature can conjure. I look forward to the day when I see the first western tanager of the season. Black and bright yellow feathers color the wings and breast of this bird, while the fire of a sunset blazes atop their throats and crowns.
When that highly anticipated moment finally arrives and I hear the tanager’s characteristic upward tik-tik-tik declaration in the canopy of a pine tree, I’ll be the first to say:
When my husband Dan returned from his awesome cardio workout—a cross country ski through Cold Brook Canyon in Wind Cave National Park—he was dismayed to find our family’s efficient little Impreza disfigured by a hit and run. He frowned (and said a few choice words) as he studied the new four-inch long scratch and three-eighths of an inch deep crease in the car’s metal.
When your car gets marred and messed-with by someone else, you expect them to do what’s honest and right…
But alas, there was no note on the dash. No address, no name, no…nothing. But despite this lack of forthrightness, he found plenty of clues as to the perpetrator’s identity.
Cold Brook Canyon is a treasure-loaded trail situated in Wind Cave National Park. Following an old roadcut, in the summer it is a place for viewing such gems as lazuli buntings, rock and canyon wrens, numerous woodpeckers, Clark’s nutcrackers, swallows, eastern phoebes, and many other birds. The various seeps in the canyon provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians in the park, and, on one hiking occasion, we discovered an elk rack laying in a nearby drainage.
Wintertime in the Southern Black Hills oftentimes provides sporadic opportunities for cross country skiing. This year, we have been blessed with more white stuff than usual, so on this particular day, my husband decided to take advantage of this fact to get his heart pumping. He likes to brag that he’s put in around 50 ski days this winter so far (with a minimum of 30 minutes of actual ski time each episode). I like to brag right back that I’m at least at 75 ski days; there is a lot of Forest Service land in the Black Hills, and most are crisscrossed with logging roads—perfect for cross-country skiing (after you make your own tracks).
Because of their concern for damaging the park’s outstanding underground resources (Wind Cave), the park doesn’t salt their roads (they are worried about the chemicals seeping down and compromising cave resources). Consequently, any cars driving into the park function basically like salt blocks on wheels. Whenever a vehicle is parked for any length of time, bison and/or deer gravitate toward it and start licking the door panels, bumper, fenders—anywhere that might be splashed with salt.
And when several bison crowd around a single car, they tend to get a bit feisty to maintain their territory. Horns and head butts/swipes are common tactics used to tell competitors to back off.
And that’s what my husband speculates happened: a bison, crowded and annoyed by his buddies, tossed his head and, in the process scraped and dented our vehicle.
(Here’s the other part I didn’t tell you: when Dan returned to his car, there was a large male bison licking the car’s passenger side door. Bison are unpredictable; they can decide to lollygag in one place for hours on end. Dan didn’t have that kind of time, so he snuck over to the driver’s side, quickly opened the door, jumped in, put the car in reverse, and made a quick getaway. By then, people had driven into the parking lot and saw this entire ridiculous episode. They were laughing. I would be too, assuming everything went as planned).
Dan is 99% sure that our car’s damage was made by a bison.
But I know better. That lightning-shaped scar gives it away.
The real culprit was:
Voldemort (and I’m guessing he doesn’t carry car insurance)
As a child, every once in a great while, my parents would treat us kids with a box of Cracker Jack. For those of you not in the know, Cracker Jack is a type of caramel/molasses-coated popcorn, into which is added peanuts coated with a sweet glaze. Now, I must admit, I just remember the Surprise Inside…Guess What’s Inside? label in blue and white on the outside of the Cracker Jack box. I can’t really recall any of the prizes. But at the time, the best part was the moment when I discovered the prize amidst the mass of caramel corn crowding my fingers: a little red-and-white-striped package about the size of a postage stamp.
Having a bird feeder is a bit like indulging in that box of sweetness; when you look out the window on a dreary gray day and see an entire flock of goldfinches lighting up the entire tube, your eyes savor and absorb the wondrous sight. And, in the Black Hills, the other “caramel corn” commonly visiting the bird feeder include white and red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos. You enjoy watching the “peanuts”: the occasional blue jay, gray jay, hairy or downy woodpeckers stopping by, causing the feeder to swing from side to side as they wolf down one sunflower seed after the next.
And then that moment of excitement when you find the prize…
This strikingly-colored junco (above)—a bird like no other
Most dark-eyed juncos in the Black Hills are soot-colored birds that look like their bellies are dipped in snow, their wings lightly sprinkled with snowflakes. The bird in the top photo, however, is a zebra of different stripes.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are fifteen described races of dark-eyed juncos. These birds come in many different variations of color, but the following five are some of the more distinguishable ones: slate-colored, white-winged, Oregon, pink-sided, and gray-headed. The Oregon subspecies of dark-eyed junco is the most common one with a truly black head (vs. dark gray or light gray), but its wings tend toward brown than gray (unlike the bird in the photo, which has gray feathers). Perhaps the bird in the photo is a hybrid between Oregon and another subspecies, and touched with leucism?
The online Merriam Webster Dictionary defines leucism as an abnormal condition of reduced pigmentation affecting various animals (such as birds, mammals, and reptiles) that is marked by overall pale color or patches of reduced coloring and is caused by a genetic mutation which inhibits melanin and other pigments from being deposited in feathers, hair, or skin.
If a bird is affected by leucism, it will usually have paler or white feathers than other birds of the same species. This bird in the photo has a variety of things going on…there are patches of white where the feathers should be gray, or possibly black, which would support the leucism idea, but the bird in the top photo has pure black feathers on its crown plus gray feathers on its sides (the widespread gray is uncharacteristic of the Oregon subspecies), which suggests a possibly a hybrid amongst one or more of the junco subspecies…?
No matter what its genetic makeup, this dark-eyed junco is certainly a beautiful creature, a prize well beyond what I could hope to find in any box of snacks.
Wishing you joy as you go through your day, that you may find a delightful Surprise Inside.
…Who knows what it will be?
Dunn, J.L., and Alderfer, J., 2011. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society
The holidays brought us to the Denver area, where we visited family and took time each day to escape going to the wilder parts of the city. One amazing place is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 16,000 acre oasis in the midst of suburbia, where you can mine the quiet places in your mind and be still.
View from floating boardwalk on Lake Mary, where abnormally warm December temps have kept the ice thin. Chunks of ice atop the glassy surface are attributable to recreational ice breaking (a fun activity for kids and those who are kids-at-heart).
Geriatric black-footed ferrets (previously used in a captive-breeding program) are on display near the refuge’s visitor center. Wild versions of these members of the weasel-family love feasting on black-tailed prairie dogs and reside in the tunnels and homes of their prey.
Bison behind glass.
An eleven-mile loop around the refuge allows you to get up close and personal (from the safety of your car) to a small herd of bison that call the refuge home. These powerful animals can run up to 35 miles an hour.
Congratulations! This letter is to inform you that your company had the lowest bid for our lawn care project. No one—I mean, no one—could match your price quote of zero bucks to mow our lawn. And who doesn’t like to save money? (I get all doe-eyed thinking about all the green I’ll save using your company). I don’t know how you do it, though. Especially with that many mouths to feed. Not my worry, though, to figure out the logistics of your operation. Effective immediately, you will be the sole caretakers of our property.
I look forward to seeing your high-quality work in action.
Ira Te G’Ardener
I applaud you for your productivity: seven workers were on our lawn yesterday, mowing and fertilizing the yard at the same time. The same time!!! How ingenious! How avante garde!
As delighted as I am about your ingenuity; however, I must bring one matter to your attention: as a result of your ministrations our lawn looks rather, shall I say…disheveled. Grass blade heights are ragged; they look like they were cut with unsharpened implements. If you could talk to your mowers and have them try to even the grass to a standard two inches, I would really appreciate it.
Ira Te G’Ardener
Greetings on this fine summer day! Thank you for informing me that the flattened circles in the grass are only spots where your crew rested during lunchtime…I was freaking out, phone in hand to call the National Guard and tell them the woo-woo crop circles had expanded to people’s lawns. Phew! Dodged a bullet with that one (or should I say—aliens with bullets?).
Yesterday, my daughter tripped on the grass (God bless her, her name is not Grace). No, clumsiness is not the issue; guess what she stepped in? Oh gag (I’m gonna make a mess on this letter just thinking about it). And you know how hard it is to get suede clean after something like that? I “Shout”-ed the green smears. Yeah, right: to no avail. Only made a bigger mess on the shoes…not to mention—my comments, well, shall we say—sullied the airwaves. Good thing you weren’t around, else your big ears would be…well, they wouldn’t be able to flick toward the sound of the slightest coyote burp. (No, not a threat, just an observation). And the smell? Ple-eaze. Don’t give me the rhetoric that herbivores’ poop smells like hay and sunshine…Deer-puckey! And I won’t even go into your claims to be a herbivore—I’ve seen you sneaking bird’s eggs from junco’s nests—heard them crunch as if you were eating peanut shells.
No—the question whether you only eat plants vs. sneak an occasional hoeurs ‘d vore of eggs is not the issue. What pains me is that I’m out $160. Little Lil’s Purple Paradise shoes—ruined. Never going to be the same. I must, therefore, implore you to please try and spread out the fertilizer so unfortunate happenings like this don’t happen again.
Ira Te G’Ardener
How green’s the grass! Your fertilizer is working wonders! I applaud you for your company’s commitment to going (and staying) green! The only gas involved is the…well, you know…
With things going so well, I hate to bring it up…but the coneflowers and Liatris…they’ve vanished. I am exaggerating, just a smidge—actually, they’re not completely gone. But the flowers and main stems have disappeared. They’ve been clipped with abandon. Chopped—no, I should say chomped, all the way to the soil. Didn’t you see the signs? You know, the spade-shaped white tags planted alongside each plant from the nursery? If you had read them, you would’ve noticed the silhouette of a deer with a black slash through it. That’s the symbol for NO DEER!
No, you can’t blame the cottontails, they would’ve left a clean, surgical diagonal cut at the stem’s tops…their incisors, you know? So, too (gone), are the periwinkle asters (Twinkle, Twinkle, my blue yard—not any more…No blue flowers left:(!). And my favorite: the peach and pink-colored roses at the foot of the bottom steps. Mauled (a kind word for what they look like now—they say every rose has its thorns, but not these…no, not anymore…).
Those roses are your favorites, too? Oh deer—I’m biting my fist as I say this—$230 on perennials this year…down the tubes. Yes, I know you each have four stomachs to feed. But please…Please let your mowers know to keep their cutters ON THE GRASS ONLY. I have sprayed the remaining flowers with Deer BGone as an olfactory reminder to prevent such a mishap from recurring.
Ira Te G’Ardener
Yes, it was an untimely snow. In Custer, snow can happen anytime. And the upside of early white stuff is that it gives the flowers (what’s left of them anyway) something to cower under and avoid getting their heads lopped off.
But here’s the thing with the snow: apparently, you went dashing through it and crashed into our new fence. It’s now more wrinkled than time. I have several theories on what happened: you were tipsy; using the wire obstacles as hurdles for one of your deer games; or suffering from rut fever, perhaps? It is September, after all.
But you gave us a quote of zero bucks; what that says to me is that that rut fever thing shouldn’t be a problem. Do you have clandestine bucks on your crew, or not? If so, get rid of them: I demand that those antlered altercation-ists stay out of our lawn!
And I finally figured out where your money comes from. After shelling out fifty green ones to spray the flower beds, it’s clear you have stock in the Deer BGone company. Actually, come to think of it, I’m probably wrong about that. Something tells me that your company is actually the head (and tails and hooves) of the Deer BGone Company.
[sigh] Another $135 gone toward fencing. An entire day wasted re-installing it.
And now, the lawn is wired like Alcatraz. But there’s no way you are going to break through it. No, not this time.
Ira Te G’Ardener
The aspen trees are such a beautiful gold this time of year. The sound of their leaves dancing in the fall air is like massaging your soul, no? It’s a special kind of rustle that reminds you to covet the last warm days, before—yep, here comes winter, lurking around the corner. And you’ve seen its lurks before—yes, I noticed your change in uniform. I like it. Your light brown was spunky for summer, but winter needs a more solemn tone. Dark grey. Nice. It’s great you want to blend in with the surroundings, not appear pretentious for what surely will be hard times ahead.
It’s also possible that you didn’t want to be caught doing what you did to my aspen tree, to its smooth-skinned, avocado-colored bark. You know the one. Yellow sunshine dripped from its beautiful leaves. Now it’s crying. Sobbing, as a matter of fact. And its sap dropped on my hair (actually, it got on my hands and I ran my fingers through my hair, I was so distraught). One big mat on my (bleach) blondie locks. $125 at the hair salon and my stylist still had to cut out chunks.
You may think graffiti-ing trees with your antlers is something that feels good. Well, I’ll tell you…when you rub your antlers against their trunks, THE TREES DON’T LIKE IT! And you haven’t kept your promise of ZERO BUCKS.
A promise is a promise.
Ira Te G’Ardener
Yes, you are right. I’m sure part of the aspen trees’ beauty can be attributed to your herd’s faithfully fertilizing the yard around their long black roots.
And I know by using our yard as a place for nappy time does increase our property value—for you are pretty lawn ornaments (ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing, baby).
But the pumpkins you clambered up our deck and ate last night has Little Lil screaming a tantrum today—sent me to the clinic, she did; her racket made a headache that just wouldn’t quit and so finally I went to the doctor’s office. Another two hundred bucks. Gone. Worse than that, though, is that her dad had spent all day helping her carve a little pony (precious) into one of those pumpkins, and on the second squash, while trying to cut out an ice princess, his back Just Let Go. Even after visiting the clinic (another two hundred), he can’t walk now, not to mention carve another one of those lanterns for our Lil Punkin’. Had to be greedy and take both of them, didn’t you…how disappointing. Yeah, and while I’m tallying the black marks against you, those big-headed squash cost me fifteen bucks. Each (they were ghost-pumpkiny-special-hybrid-somethings-or-another).
What I want to know now is—How are you going to replace those organic symbols of holiday cheer, I ask you? I can’t afford to do it, let me tell you…I’m afraid to open my mailbox for fear of all the credit card bills haunting me. But Lil is gonna go batshi— if her pumpkins don’t reappear before Halloween.
Ira Te G’Ardener
It is with a heavy heart (and heavier freezer) to think that your landscaping business didn’t work out. At least, not for us. My pocketbook is over a thousand dollars lighter due to me accepting your free services (it’ll be higher, I’m sure since my husband has been eating painkillers like candy corn to dull his back pain).
Yep, I learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as free.
But no hard feelings. Not one to hold a grudge, I’m glad to know this isn’t the end of our relationship. Not for at least another year, for your backyard indulgences carried a lot of weight.
Thanks for joining me! My name is Anita Swanson, and I am a wildlife biologist who used to work in the field, but now I write novels and short stories about the connections between people and nature. Me and my family live in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a place, according to the natives, that doesn’t experience “real winter;” they are a hardy people, for in the ten-plus years we’ve lived here, October has been a month accompanied by a blizzard, nine-inch snowfalls, and subzero temps: I’m thinking I don’t need to know what a “real winter” looks like…
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” —Jane Goodall