Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Joe Neal: What Upland Sandpipers Say

There were two adult White Ibises and six Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (3 adults, 3 juveniles) at Frog Bayou WMA yesterday morning. The birds are feeding in a low, wet disked field with little vegetation and muddy in part. The ibises were constantly engaged in probing with their long decurved bills, usually up to their eyeballs, and wearing mud for shoes. I never could see for sure what they were finding, but so busy were they no one could fault them for lack of industry. Then they would pause, preen in a puddle, and return to mud, red face and pink bill all clean like new.

By comparison, the night-herons seemed mainly to stand around, watching with those bold, orange-reddish eyes, seemingly disengaged. Imperceptibly, they followed the mud, then all of a sudden, a crawfish was hauled up sideways, clamped in the heavy crab-crushing bill. Little Blue Herons, many in their patchy blue-whites, hung around with the night-herons, whereas Cattle Egrets came and went in strings and vees, 10-20 at a time. There were no Great Egrets in the moist field, but I counted 87 around a shallow pond nearby.

As I drove in at dawn, early morning singers included Bell’s Vireo, Field Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Northern Cardinal. I was surprised by all the song. Could it really be only a month ago that we took it for granted, that it would last forever? Upland Sandpipers were calling as soon as I got into the river bottoms, from across seemingly endless soybean fields.

I have been trying to figure out what Upland Sandpipers say during the Arkansas sojourn. Is it “Nice grass” or “Great grasshoppers” or some such? One says WERE WERE WIT! at first light, sun still bedded in the east. Then a flock of five, in early pink sky, flies low and directly over, calling WIDOW WIT! Soon I hear WIDA WIT! and PE R R WIT! and PERR PER WIT! And finally late in the morning, I manage to nail down a defining WIT IT! WIT IT! This from a bird unseen, gliding in grass.

The fields are surrounded by all kinds of voices, including some from the past. The present has its birds, whines of dogday cicadas, and steady roaring of gas well pumps all over the valley. And then there‘s my dad, Grover Ray Neal, who grew up in Van Buren just minutes east as a sandpiper flies. Gone almost 40 years, I nevertheless hear him along with gas pumps and Uplands. His voice is a native mix of western Arkansas twang and southern drawl, mediated by life as an enlisted sailor. An Upland’s voice recalls its native grass; my dad’s combines the valley of the Arkansas with the cultural brew of a Navy ship. Like Uplands, he sounds like where he‘s been.

The Uplands have much in common, but every call sounds just a bit different. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise. They are drawn from a vast nesting range, speaking various native grassland dialects. That’s what we hear during their sojourn in Arkansas. Besides that, some may just talk funny like those of us started life in Fort Smith, upriver from Frog Bayou. It could very well be that proper speech, not to mention grammar, is as optional among Upland Sandpipers as it was for us kids.

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