Friday, July 6, 2012

Joe Neal's June 5, 2012, prairie birding

When I took off for Maysville yesterday, my goal was Swainson's Hawk and home by noon. Instead, damn the heat/full speed ahead, I wound up prairie flower admiring, starting out with a remarkable display of purple gay feathers at Stump Prairie along highway 59 at Siloam Springs. At Gentry, walked Eagle Watch Nature Trail where I found a rare Terry Stanfill (1) and a less rare but also interesting Neotropic Cormorant (1; second Ozarks record) perched on a snag helpfully adjacent a Double-crested Cormorant.

A Swainson's Hawk flew over me just southwest of Maysville (OK side of state line). Come noon, I took a break under spreading black shade and refreshing light breeze at Maysville Cemetery. Being a practical person, I settled down for a mid-summer nap. I was not alone as a shade-seeker.

A Horned Lark northeast of Maysville flew from a bean field to stand in the only patch of shade for two miles. Grasshopper Sparrows were along roads in three places. One had young out of the nest, another was carrying a grasshopper in that big bill, and a third was singing from barbed wire -- in the shade. This singer exhibited prominent gold feathers in the front of the eyebrows (supraloral) and in the leading edge of the wing (alula, primary coverts). Usually I see and hear them a long ways away, in bright sun of an open field. I couldn't decide if it had more color than most, or if shade and hence less sun glare pumped up the color.

Despite my best efforts, I was wilted by yesterday's onslaught of 102 degrees and drought. But, according two stalwarts of former prairies of western Benton County, compass plant and gay feather, you either embrace the heat or get out of the kitchen. Even if we have modified and ecologically ruined most of their habitat, wilt is not the game for compass plant, gay feather, and certainly not Dickcissels, singing all the day in full song. Bring it on, full speed ahead.

These creatures are visual placeholders for an entire prairie ecosystem, much of it now missing from northwest Arkansas. In our race for the good life, we've given up our natives. Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, we have lost many parts. How many can we do without? How many do we need? We've given up Greater Prairie-Chickens that once lived where today we see patches of flowering gay feathers. Do we become impoverished because we won't or we can't accommodate anything that isn't a cow or a giant chicken house? It has to do with scale and the balance required in order to move forward in an ecological sense.

On the way back , just when I'd given all hope for human beings: an unattended vegetable stand in a patch of shade along highway 12 near Eagle Watch, in sight of flowering gay feathers. Remarkably, it runs on the honor system. Tomatoes, $4, put money in the box. It doesn't make a difference if you are D or R, black or white, left or right, gay or straight, care or don't care about earth's ultimate fate. All you have to believe in is vine-ripened tomatoes. 

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