Friday, April 29, 2011

Awaiting the King

The light is just beginning to turn that wonderful honey amber color of early evening, right about six o'clock with maybe an hour of daylight left. It has been a wonderful spring day - temps in the high 60s, sunny and no wind. The days grow longer now, seemingly at a quickened pace.

A musical menagerie of bird songs and calls fills my ears as they resonate from all about - meadowlarks, robins, crows, mourning doves, turkeys, red-winged blackbirds, etc. Everyone appears to be applauding the day. Fitting how at sunset, life seems content to just celebrate itself - for its own sake.

Keeping me company with my thoughts is a group of eleven turkey hens busy feeding on the cracked corn that I throw out in an area of prairie grass and cottonwoods about thirty yards from the house - for their enjoyment and mine. I'm awaiting the arrival of the toms. They should be along soon as they are now at the peak of their display period. Already some of the hens have disappeared to begin building nests and laying eggs. Most of my turkey pictures come from this bunch as they all go about their business through the tall grasses and cottonwoods near the house.

This past winter brought change. During previous years the turkeys disappeared about early November despite my cracked corn meals and we didn't see them again until early March. This year they wintered with us as well, roosting in the tall cottonwoods nearby and staying plump on the corn. I have no idea what changed their pattern, but after a winter of daily feeding, they have become so habituated to me that I'm not sure I can call them wild turkeys anymore. I no longer use a blind to photograph them.

My attention is drawn back to the birds as I see the toms striding up and out of the creek draw. This bunch now includes four males, two large and mature ones along with two younger that were jakes or immature toms until this spring. Noticeably absent is the largest of the toms, one I call The King. Typically, he will make his entrance when all are present to observe.

The King is in fact one of the most photogenic toms I have ever seen - never a broken or missing feather in his fan, huge and stately with a bushy beard that literally drags on the ground when he feeds. Perfectly proportioned in every way, his display is nothing less than gorgeous. Each of the other toms falls off just a bit thought still making for nice images, but they are not this bird. And now that he has chosen to winter here, there is even less chance that a hunter will take him.

The young toms begin to display as they approach the feeding hens, showing smaller fans with the middle feathers standing taller and stubby beards. How they pale in comparison to The King. The older tom gobbles a bit, but soon all three birds are distracted by the corn and settle in with the hens for supper.

A loud and unmistakable gobble resonates from within the cottonwood trees, grabbing the attention of the birds before me. All three toms gobble back as I see movement coming through the tall grass. Enter His Arrogance, The King.

With typical flair and pomposity the great bird strides forth to greet his subjects, making the usual drumming sound as his secondary wing feathers drag across the ground. His huge fan turns one way and then the other as the lumpy folds of skin under his throat called a dewlap turn fire engine red and his head takes on a complex pattern of white and bluish-purple. The other toms step aside as this grandiose entrance is made. Elvis has entered the building.

(above & below) Two mature tom turkeys go into a full fan and display as they glide past one another in motions that are reminiscent of a ballet. The next several weeks will bring scenes like this one throughout the region.

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(above & right) Except for the tom's beard, an adult turkey replaces its entire plumage once a year with the molt taking place during summer when heat retention is not as important. The beard is actually a type of feather which rarely exceeds about 11 inches due to the wear they incur while dragging on the ground during feeding.

(right) In some respects the turkey's eyesight is superior to man's. They do not have to focus both eyes to see well, being able to look in opposite directions simultaneously. While birds in general cannot see as many color hues as mammals, turkeys are color sensitive as is proved by the way they react to the color changes in the head and neck of a gobbler.

(left) Despite Benjamin Franklin's well known preference for the turkey as our national symbol over the bald eagle, it's hard to imagine this profile having the same impact on the national seal.

(right) Like most ground nesting birds, the plumage is much more drab on the hen which suffers from much higher rates of predation because of the hazards of nesting and rearing poults.

(above) In spite of their weight, a turkey can shoot into the air from a complete standstill, moving away at 55 miles per hour. Their flight distances are short, however, maybe one-eighth of a mile before they fatigue quickly.

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(above & below) Gobbling is not so much intended as aggression between toms as it is the act of beckoning to the hens, "Here I am, here I am."

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(above & right) Winter makes frequent returns during spring on the high plains, even during the late days of April, but seems to have little effect on these birds' courtship activities as they will even strut and display in the falling snow.

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(left) The big tom continues his strut even as the day closes across the grasslands.

(above) As the final light of the day disappears, the turkeys fly one by one up into the tops of tall cottonwoods where they will roost for the night, free from the clutches of nighttime ground predators such as raccoons and bobcats.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Lingering Cautions

I could feel the fixed stare of several pairs of eyes as they closely followed me while I moved from the front end of my truck around to the back and even as I quickly climbed into the box. The stares remained set upon me for a couple more minutes while I readied my cameras for the morning's work. Completing my preparations, I turned one of the cameras around to study this wall of shaggy beasts firmly entrenched about 30 feet away.

The eyes belonged to a group of nervous bison cows, most of them mothers to calves no more than ten days old. Typically, the cows had encircled an area 20-30 feet wide in which were confined a half dozen of the little golden tykes - now mostly napping - to protect them from potential predators. As I panned my lens past each set of eyes, there could be little doubt as to the fate of any creature foolish enough to attempt entering this circle.

This procedure of "circling the wagons" has been in use by cows like these since the days of the last ice age, a time when North America was roamed by numerous and huge predators like the short-faced bear, saber-toothed cat and probably a cheetah as well, just to name a few. Nearly all of those ancient marauders became extinct during the close of that last ice epoch, leaving creatures like the wold and cougar as the only predatory threat to bison with most of that being confined to calves and sick or injured adults. And even that pressure has been severely reduced with wolves and cougars being mostly eliminated from habitats where bison are typically found nowadays.

But time has done little to dull a bison cow's instincts as is evident this morning with their lingering cautions, as they are still responsive to ghosts from the past. And I only have to recall my one negative encounter with a bison for further proof - the time I was chased by a new mother cow and ended up diving under an old fallen cottonwood tree to escape her wrath.

This morning will present to such danger however, as the cows relax and go about their business - caring for interacting with their young. And while seated safely in the box of my pickup truck, I can go about my business, which is creating images of the lives of these great creatures.

(above) After a nine month gestation, a cow usually goes off by herself to give birth and then keeps the calf protectively secluded for a couple of days while the two bond.

(left) The calves soon become restless from the seclusion and very curious of their surroundings, prompting the mothers to rejoin the herd with their newborn.

(above) As the calves join the herd with their mothers, they begin to form close ties with each other that also include the usual antics & play typical of all childhood.

(right) As is with most infants, everything becomes a plaything for a bison calf - even a dried stalk of grass from last summer.

(above) A bison herd is constantly on the move and the young calves quickly learn to keep pace with the rest as falling behind leaves them vulnerable to predators during their first weeks.

(left) This little bull calf stretches as he rises from a long morning nap taken within the safe confines of the circle of cows.

(above) Weighing about 60 pounds at birth, bison calves between now and the first snows of late autumn will gain about six times their current weight in preparation for winter survival.

(right) A worried mother cow steps in front of her calf to cast an eye of warning on the photographer as the curious youngster peeks from behind.

(above) With her recently born calf following along as best it can, this cow heads across the grasslands into the orange sky of a prairie sunset.

"What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected."

Chief Seattle



Friday, April 15, 2011

Strange Land

The light dusting of early morning snow has already diminished before an emerging afternoon sun that has quickly rubbed out one of winter's last attempts to hold off the inevitable. Once again the early spring sky is saturated with rich hues in the waning light of the day. Yet there is little warmth - only a swift, cold wind whipping across this lunar-like landscape, beating on the eerie rock formations like a blacksmith's hammer on his anvil.

Seated on top of a sandstone butte, I am waiting for the good light to return. Waiting is a big part of my job, one of the best parts I think. I get to sit and simply feel the character of places such as this one - Toadstool Park in the northwestern corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, set in the midst of the Oglala National Grasslands. Some call it the Nebraska Badlands.

The process that formed this haunting and surreal hinterland began about 30 million years ago. A broad shallow river washed over this region that - like much of early North America - existed in a tropical or greenhouse climate with high sea levels around the globe. Vegetation was widespread and lush. Huge conifers rose above a jungle of ferns, palms and other flowering plants. The stench of rotting plant matter was everywhere, smelling like a greenhouse at the peak of the growing season.

Then suddenly - on an evolutionary timetable - things changed.

The river, along with the tropical climate and vegetation, dried up and disappeared - leaving only ground water. Minerals carried by this ground water mixed with the sand and it became more resistant to the effects of constant wind erosion than the clays that lay beneath it. As this process continued over the eons, balls and plates of sandstone were left delicately balanced on the narrow pedestals, forming the "toadstools" and other startling rock formations that we see here today. Eventually, Nature would hew and sculpt herself a magnificent work of art.

And her work continues today. As mere humans with our limited scope and time reference, we tend to look at a phenomenon of nature and see it as something completed rather than the work in progress that it always is - and that we ourselves are too for that matter. A place like Toadstool Park dispels such a shallow notion. It is impossible to walk this naked, raw landscape and not sense the worlds that were here before ours - or not to imagine that other worlds will succeed ours. We are but a chapter in the story and life of Earth.

This park is astounding with its dreamlike panoramas and sandstone tops poised at seemingly impossible angles, like something that doesn't even belong on this planet. The isolation and loneliness of this land is actually its allure and causes no despair or loss of heart. Surely ancient people came here for reflection and reinvigoration - and so too can we.

Toadstool Park is a place for those in search of solitude. It is the stillness that is most engrossing, almost frightening. There is the slight sound of the wind amongst the pillars and through the valleys, but all else is still - like the Cambrian quiet that is "heard" in the Grand Canyon.

Such a strange land. I sometimes wonder why I am so attracted to places like this one - but then, I really know.

(above) Working with wind and ground water as her mallet and chisel, Nature began this work of sculpture eons ago during another time in the life of our Earth.

(right) The quality of light in Toadstool Park is stunning at any time of the day, but to fully appreciate it, one should especially experience the sunset. That amber light that concludes a day here gives an incomparable resolution to the gray, brown, yellow and green hues.

(above) The stark landscape and bizarre rock formations give Toadstool Park a look that is almost lunar, certainly more befitting of the moon's surface than what we usually see on this planet.

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"When I went to be alone at Djemila, there was wind and sun and a heavy, unbroken silence - something like a perfectly balanced pair of scales. And I would stand there, absorbed, confronted with stones and silence."

Albert Camus

"To have passed through life and never experienced solitude is to never have known oneself. To have never known oneself is to have never known anyone."

Joseph Wood Krutch

"Wilderness... The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit."

Edward Abbey

"I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion who was so companionable as solitude."

Henry David Thoreau


Friday, April 8, 2011

Grasslands Music

A trace of light steals across the broad prairie sky, emanating from a slight amber radiance growing slowly over the eastern horizon. The mantle of darkness lifts. Vague outlines of familiar forms - a distant tree against the eastern sky, the line of a far ridge - emerge from the dark's obscurity. Most things still remain enshrouded to the eye.

Laying my head back against the wall of my plywood blind I close my eyes and shut down my visual senses for the moment, drifting into the ongoing production.

The prairie is awake - and alive with a symphony of sound that is stereophonic as it broadcasts from the waning night. The song of a meadowlark here answers a chorus of howls from a coyote pack over there. The gobbling of a tom turkey mixes with the occasional bray of a wild burro in nearby Custer State Park. It is a time for the ears.

Muffled drumbeat-like sounds merged with others begin to dominate the predawn chorale, reverberating from the darkness just outside my wooden walls on this remote prairie ridge at the edge of South Dakota's southern Black Hills. "Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Coo-oo. Coo-oo. Coo-oo." The music seems to be growing.

Suddenly the piercing howl of a single coyote knifes through the darkness - this one much closer. Panic ensues. I hear the furious beat of many wings mixing with a more urgent version of "chuk-chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chuk" - all quickly fading into the night. Then.... Silence. Not even a meadowlark.

Knowing that the music will return, I shift my cramped feet out in front of me and go on sipping coffee from my plastic car cup. To get here I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and then hiked half a mile through the dark of a moonless night so I could be in this blind about an hour before sunrise. Why? - to watch and photograph the mating displays of the sharptail grouse.

One of the real treats of early spring across the grasslands of Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas is the opportunity to observe these very striking birds as they put on one of nature's most spectacular displays of courtship behavior, usually beginning in mid March and running through mid May.

During the first hours of the day, the cocks and hens gather on a prairie ground called a lek - typically the top of a knoll or hill with good visibility in all directions. Here the males perform a spring dance in which they extend their white-spotted wings and six inch tail feathers, inflate purplish neck sacks and stamp their feet at a speed of about 200 repetitions per minute. Their foot motion becomes a complete blur, causing the "fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit" automatic firearm sound, as they shoot back and forth across the ground like little powered toy cars - all to impress and gain favor with the hens. In other words - "pick me, pick me, I'm cooler than him." At times this competition becomes more than just display as the cocks go into fits of jealous rage, engaging in pitched battles as they jump on and even peck each other, sometimes even drawing blood.

In early May the hens begin nest building in areas with taller grass than what is generally found on the lek and, after a 24 day incubation period, hatch a brood in early June of 4-6 chicks. Soon after hatching the hen will move her brood back into areas of shorter grass where the youngsters will quickly grow and fledge on a diet of grasses, seeds and insects. As is with most ground nesting birds, the males play no role in raising the chicks.

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The silence that had fallen around the blind is cut once again by the familiar beat of wings as the birds return to the lek in resumption of their business. Once more the music grows. I hear the meadowlarks and of course...."Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Coo-oo. Coo-oo."

I can see color now in the eastern sky as well as silhouetted figures scurrying about in the grass before the front of the blind. There is the usual chill of a mid April dawn on the northern prairies and a slight breeze, but none of the heavy gusting spring winds that tend to cut down on the birds' activities. A good photo day is coming.

"Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk." Even if I fail to get a single usable image this morning, the time is well spent just listening to the music.

(above) As the dawn light spreads across the prairie, a sharptail grouse male puts on his best show for the hens during the annual courtship display of one of North America's most striking birds.

(right) As is typical with most ground nesting birds, the sharptail male possesses a much brighter colored and more ornate plumage than the hens with these features becoming very pronounced during courtship displays.

(left) The hen's plumage is much more drab, giving her a natural camouflage that allows her to blend into her prairie surroundings. This advantage helps her escape the notice of ever persistent predators like eagles, badgers & coyotes while she is nesting and raising chicks.

(above) With their tall & sharply pointed tails fully extended, hence their name, these two cocks strut about each other with "mad dogging" stares like a couple of junior high school kids egging each other on for a fight.

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(above, right & below)
At times these rites become much more intense than just display and showing off with the birds fighting, pecking each other and even drawing blood.

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(above, right & below)
Spring snows are common on the great plains where winter does not easily relinquish its grip. But as long as the cold is not extreme or bitter, the grouse will show up at the lek and even display in the snow.

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(left) As spring moves on into May, grouse activity on the lek begins to wane as fewer birds show up there or stay as long.

(right) The appearance of a hen now on the lek is rare as most of them are busy building nests for the eggs that will soon be coming.

(above) A cock walks among fresh spring grass that is already tall enough on the lek to nearly hide this bird from the dawn light creeping across the prairie. The spring dances are almost at an end.

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