Pawnee Grasslands

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Years ago while on a bird walk in New Jersey, I had asked world class birder Pete Dunne, what some of his favorite birding places were in this country. Without hesitation he replied the Pawnee Grasslands in Colorado. I had never heard of it before. But I made a note and when my niece announced her wedding in Ft. Collins, Colorado many years later, we headed to the Pawnee Grasslands prior to the wedding.

The Grasslands are nearly 200,000 acres of public and private land in northeastern Colorado. It is flat prairie with occasional rocky buttes. The countryside is grass and more grass, and there are very few community establishments. You see ranch properties or houses, with a few trees growing around them, and an occasional open flamed natural gas outlet.

 

I love prairies.  The spaciousness, the open sky, the gentle rustling grass, burbling meadow bird songs…it all relaxes me.  In North America there are grasslands in the center corridor of the United States and Canada.  It began with an upwelling (later called the Rocky Mountains) that created a shadow killing the trees.  Glaciers moved through, then retreated about 10,000 years ago depositing an accumulation of silt that created grasslands. Grasslands are identified by the type of grass they bear, the Pawnee Grasslands are short grass.

 

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting

We were there in June, took a self-guided Auto Tour one day, then proceeded to West Pawnee Ranch, our accommodation for the next few days.  While staying there we went with ranch owner Paul Timm on bird trips all over his property as well as public roads in the area. Meals were skillfully prepared by his wife Louanne, accompanied by pleasant and entertaining conversation.  One night after dinner we watched a thunderstorm roll in that was more awesome than fireworks.

 

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

We enjoyed many prairie birds like the Lark Bunting, Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, as well as numerous other birds including blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, and hawks. Western kingbirds were nesting outside our room.

My favorite part of the trip was the day Paul had to go to some distant part of the ranch to check on a calf that had recently been born. It was our “off” time; the other B&B guests were out exploring the nearby Pawnee Buttes, my partner and I were outside our room birding. He asked, in a beautiful slow drawl, if we wanted to come with him to check on the calf.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

In his Ford pick-up truck, we drove slowly over the prairie dog holes, around the cottonwood-flanked streams, and further and further back toward the buttes. His cattle were grazing beside the windmill, so he got out and inspected the windmill to make sure it was working, and described the mechanics of it. We saw numerous pronghorns running and grazing, watched a coyote checking out a pronghorn, and dozens of birds flew overhead and perched on fenceposts. As he drove past the different cattle, he gave us a brief history of who had been born recently.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

We told him we had been on the auto tour all day yesterday and never did find a longspur, so he drove us to the place where he liked to watch longspurs. On 9,000 acres of vast directionless pasture, he somehow took us to his favorite spot. It was all slow driving because there were deep ruts and it was very bumpy. I said, “A flat tire would be a pretty big headache, wouldn’t it?”

He replied, “Yep.”

We got to this patch of grass, dotted with wildflowers, and he turned off the engine. A longspur magically appeared before us. They have an undulating flight and aerial display that is mesmerizing to watch. So there we three contentedly sat in that roomy old Ford pick-up, each with a set of binoculars admiring the grace and wonder of this prairie passerine fluttering before us.

West Pawnee Ranch B&B

West Pawnee Ranch B&B

Quiet acres of grasslands under eternal skies, wild roaming antelope, cattle and ranchers, with a backdrop to the west of the Rocky Mountains…heaven on earth.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Advertisements

The Joy of a Robin

American Robin

American Robin

Having grown up in America, I have been fortunate to have had the American Robin in sight my whole life.  It gave me a smile, then, to witness a British birding couple experiencing it for the first time.

 

It is a bright orange-breasted ten inch bird, not too hard to miss.  They don’t zoom like hummingbirds or soar majestically like hawks.  They don’t flit around in 200 foot high canopies, impossible to see.  Robins usually forage close to the ground and move in short and steady hops, giggling loudly or better yet, singing melodiously.  Furthermore, many Americans are taught from the age of two to recognize the Robin, that’s how we learned what “R” was.  That illustration of the robin tugging a worm out of the earth is burned into our little brains.  It is one of the most recognizable and easily identified birds in our world.

 

I was literally focusing on a different bird, binoculars to my eyes.  Then in a sing-song voice I heard a woman enthusiastically proclaim, “Why, I do believe it’s an American Raw-bin!”

 

This made me curious.  I removed my binoculars, saw a petite woman standing beside a man I assumed was her husband, and they were both intently studying the robin through their binoculars.  This bird, I realized, was exotic to them.  I found their excitement endearing.

 

Even though that short incident happened over five years ago, I can still hear that British woman in my mind, appreciate her fresh enthusiasm and genuine pleasure.  Every creature, I am reminded, is special.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

The Cockatoo in Kakadu

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo

We spent a week in the “Top End” (the Northern Territory) of Australia and had a really fun time in Kakadu National Park.  While we enjoyed incredible river cruises and hikes, some of our best times were every night in a bus parking lot. 

 

On this vast expanse of nearly 8,000 square miles, we were staying at the only lodge inside the park (Gagudju Lodge Cooinda).  Towns, establishments, and human dwellings were few and far between.  During the midday it was so incredibly hot, even the birds stayed hidden.  Of our five days in the Park, all were in the high 90s by 9:30 a.m., and by noon it was over 110 degrees (F.).  We adjusted to this (quickly) by leaving as close to dawn as possible, birding in the shade (sometimes from the air conditioned car), and returning to the room before noon.  Most afternoons were spent at the swimming pool with a regular trip to the gift shop for ice cream bars. 

 

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos

Every night after dinner, after it had cooled down to the 80s, we walked around outside looking for you-know-what.  We made friends with two college students who approached us one night.  They thought we might be “twitchers” (birders) and had some good birds to show us.  I’m not sure how they knew we were birders, perhaps because we were wandering around fully clothed in stifling heat (mosquitoes were fierce), our necks and chests covered with binoculars and cameras.  To the rest of the campers inside their mosquito nets enjoying “coldies,” I suppose we were quite a sight.  And yet nobody cared, so Australia.  

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

One night after the students had moved on to their next destination, my partner and I became familiar with a bus parking lot adjacent to the campground.  There were few buses in the lot and it was a great place for birding because it was surrounded by empty fields of scraggly grass and scrub brush.  Honeyeaters were attracted to the red spiky flowers of the bottle-brush trees.  It was a virtual wasteland to most folks, who were barbequing sausages on their portable grills and getting rowdier as the night grew on.  To us it was an oasis of honeyeaters, imperial pigeons, songbirds, and cockatoos and we looked forward to it at the end of each hot and sweaty day. 

 

We’d been enjoying cockatoos already on this trip, some were red-tailed blacks, some were the sulphur-crested.  Cockatoos are great fun for people who live outside of Australia because they’re big (about 20 inches in length) and beautiful and fairly easy to identify.  No more tiny white eyebrows on a skulking brown bird.  I’m talking about a riot of colors on parrots the size of a cat who are vocal and raucous.  They’re smart birds, quirky, and are known to aggravate residents for the crop and property damage they do.  But for us non-residents they are great fun.

That night in the parking lot we saw a strange thing, couldn’t figure it out at first.  There was a water pipe about four feet high, T-shaped, and it had two outlets.  It looked like something a fire department would hook up to their hose, though it wasn’t what we in the U.S. identify as a typical fire hydrant.  Curiously, walking the top of it was a sulphur-crested cockatoo; walking back and forth, and back and forth.

 

As we watched further we saw that he would bend his head down and open his big beak, sip a few droplets that had gathered from the dripping pipe.  Then he would straighten up, straight-backed and militaristic, waddle eight paces to the other end, bend over, take a drink.  The “cocky” was systematic and regimented in this process, drinking the drips of clean fresh water over and over and over again. He was mesmerizing to watch and I always thought something different would happen, but it never did.

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

After each day of fish eagles and crocodiles, mosquitoes galore, and searing temperatures not really appropriate for humans, we came back to the bus parking lot.  And there he was, our friend the Cockatoo of Kakadu getting his nightly drink from the drippy fire hydrant.  Cockatoos in the wild live 20-40 years.  I like to think he’s still there enjoying his drink while the campers enjoy theirs. 

 

Rainbows and Blessings

Glacier Nat'l. Park, Montana

Glacier Nat’l. Park, Montana

I give you these rainbows for St. Patrick’s Day.  This first one is a double, and I know it radiates with good luck because an hour earlier I could have been dead.

We were driving on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana.  It was a road that was clinging to the side of 8,000+ foot peaks on one side, and very steep dropoffs on the other.  Because these glacial mountains were so high and vast, there were hairpin turns and switchbacks in every mile.  It was breathtaking and we drove along in awe.  Then for some reason the car in front of us was stopped, so we stopped.  It wasn’t a good place to stop, so we craned our necks, annoyed, trying to see what the delay was.

Then we saw.  The car in front of us had come to a halt because minutes earlier there had just been a huge landslide that now blocked both lanes of the road.  The mountainside had loosened and tumbled across the road and down into the canyon.  The air was still a cloud of particles and debris, and small pebbles rained down.  While the red Toyota in front of us sat, the two people safe but in disbelief, we backed up, turned around, and high-tailed out of there.

It was a 50 mile road that we had almost reached the end of (it took two hours), and now we had no choice but to turn around and go all the way back.  It was nearly dark and this road wasn’t going to be cleared or opened for at least a day, if not more.  As we drove we counted our lucky stars that we hadn’t been driving in that spot five minutes earlier when the mountain gave way.

Then a huge storm blew through the canyon.  It was a spectacular show of lightning accompanied by trembling thunder and a deluge of rain.  The drive back was incredibly treacherous, but we had the marvel of these rainbows, and the lightning show was glorious.

Maui, Hawaii

Maui, Hawaii

After we were safely back to our lodge we could celebrate our fortune in making it back in one piece.

These other two rainbows are from Maui.  If you’ve ever been to any of the Hawaiian Islands, you know that it rains a lot, in short tropical bursts.  And rainbows pop up often.

I believe we have to all be our own leprechauns.  Sometimes luck is with us.  We didn’t get swept off the side of the road and swallowed up in the canyon.  But sometimes we have to conjure our luck by counting our blessings, moving on to the next thing, and celebrating all the adventures we encounter along our path.

Maui, Hawaii

Maui, Hawaii

Egyptian Cobra

Egyptian Cobra, Botswana, Africa

Egyptian Cobra, Botswana, Africa

We had the rare pleasure of seeing this Egyptian Cobra on a safari game drive in Botswana.  Our fearless guide whisked the cobra out from underneath a scrubby bush and gave us a natural history lesson.  I had never before seen a creature simultaneously hiss and shimmer (the snake, not the guide).

On that note:  have a wild and wonderful weekend!

Studmuffin Iguana

Green Iguana, Belize

Green Iguana, Belize

 

We found this beauty while birding at the edge of an abandoned housing development in Belize City, Belize.  He was nestled in a thicket of trees flanking a river, soaking up the sun.  You can find the Iguana iguana here in its native territory just about anywhere in Belize, but surprisingly, they blend in. 

 

This male was over four feet long, weighed at least eight pounds.  As a cold-blooded reptile, they need the sunlight to raise their internal body temperature for metabolism stimulation.  Light is so important to this reptile that they have the ability to see ultraviolet rays.  They need the sun’s ultraviolet rays to manufacture Vitamin D which aids in absorbing calcium from the intestines.  In addition, the green iguana has a photosensory organ called a parietal eye on the top of its head.  It is sensitive to light changes and can detect movement, used as a protective mechanism for sensing predators. 

 

Yesterday it was chilly out, here at home in the northern hemisphere.  I stepped outside for a moment and found a patch of sun and turned my back to it and let it soak through me, and I thought of my friend the green iguana.