Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From North-Central North America - A Bird and a Rugged Flower, Given from Year to Year

Just a week or two ago spring hadn't come so nearly nose to nose with summer. We needed our jackets and the grass was greening only where it had absorbed the most water. Green had not overtaken the height of the woods apart from the somber evergreens but could be seen below on all kinds of shoots. My memory of those couple weeks or so of early to mid-May seems to have knit like a tapestry of a spring countryside that I'd lately felt I might miss ever witnessing like this, phase by phase, because a new regime of climate would have dried and baked these border-region lands the way we saw happen two years ago, or I'd have been situated too far into a city or suburb.

For three weeks or so this rainy May we were visited by an assortment of sparrows, some kinds come to stay and nest in meadow margins or woods, and some on their way as far as the 'land of little sticks' verging on the tundra. White-crowned sparrows are subarctic-nesting songbirds known to North Americans who pay attention to migratory sparrows from coast to coast. I recall them as ground-gleaners under our bird feeders in central Indiana through the freezing months of the 1970s, on snow or bald ground, and knew their short song, with melodious notes withering into husky ones higher on the scale, like the shredding tops of herbage tattered in the frost. But in Minnesota we are central enough on the continent to also see the Harris' sparrow in spring or fall, a temporary regular coming and going from breeding territory on the tundras, through the prairies to their south. Where I grew up, between Indiana and Ontario at Lake Superior's eastern end, we were too far east for the Harris'.

They foraged all around the house on the soggy lawn last week and the week before, a big sparrow with grey cheeks and pink bill, the face, throat and top of the head splotched black as if someone has thrown a bottleful of black ink head-on at the bird, yet it just goes about its seed-plucking at ground level in the knowledge that for now nothing else matters. I would hear the song, which will always seem like the first line of a song without a finish, from low in the shade of spruces that form a northern wind-break.

To the south in a patch of mixed woods, second-growth like so much woods, low with pooling rain and meltwater beneath the aspens and firs, I found a stubby few specimens of a flower like an aster or fleabane, just getting started with a tuft of drab florets having a greenish eye hidden in whitish. Stiff little leaves angled out from the stem like leather, each cured on top with a lustre of green. I thought: I've seen this plant in a photo in one of the handbooks. Five minutes later the name surfaced out of some botanical photo or other I had seen in years of paging back and forth among similar wild plants: coltsfoot. There are four kinds of coltsfoot, or Petasites, included in Britton and Brown's three-volume An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, so that I'd have to wait for large basal leaves to emerge alongside the wands after they had gotten taller and mostly finished their flowering. Yesterday was the day to wander back over there in rubber boots, since the snowmelt and ooze from the saturated soils lingers in the open and under the trees, nurturing a whirl of mosquitoes not to mention a busy crop of ticks. What we have is what I'd suspected: Arrowleaf Sweet Coltsfoot or Petasites sagittatus.

Open country today is so often overrun by introduced weeds including things at one time seen as useful in the garden or for livestock forage, yet our native specialist plants still hold out in their traditional ranges, not always on public land but on private land like that down the road, in far-flung rural tracts over-browsed by the deer whose numbers once were checked by wolves or pumas or grizzlies in an era of greater plant and animal diversity. The multitudinous flowering plants have been losing out to a degree little known as a result of so much grazing.

In a landscape that some call wilderness, depopulated a generation or so ago, there will be a non-human community trying via each species' own life cycle to find its way into an inclusive balance. Walking and wheeling my way through this part of St. Louis County I've been surprised both by what I do and don't find. Probably I haven't covered enough acres yet. But in commemoration of this majestic spring amid the swamps I decided I would put two hallmark finds, a visitor or bird of passage and a wild native lurker from the plant world, into one design in my usual mixed-media, primarily watercolor. This will be on stationery soon, nameless to the sender and recipient unless they care to look it up, but storied if they'd like to ask for a story or two.


Unfinished hand-illustration of Harris' sparrow and the arrowleaf coltsfoot. To see related work please go to

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Newest Questing Bird - Finding the Garganey, a Stray from Asia

In my art it's been the longest-sought birds, special to a kind of habitat, that I've wanted to paint--because I went all that distance on all those forays to try and find the bird, and on finding it had to linger indefinitely to see its most obvious, its subtle and tucked-away markings, all that I could see in the time I had. Sometimes too I did birds I had never expected to see even if the habitat where I found them was theirs. The drawing and detailing of that bird was the thrill of discovery, through eyes and ears, all pulled out on paper, in wet and dry media in a blended effect that seemed best for bringing back that bird in a setting as true as I could conjure. But what I'd make of the garganey, seen on April 27th at the first corner off the main route leading north from the Crex Meadows Visitor Center outside Grantsburg, Wisconsin is less likely to be a painting, though I wouldn't say absolutely it won't be.

The garganey is a Eurasian teal like our blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal in North America. The teal are small ducks of creeks, puddles and shallow lakes. The garganey in North America is a repeated vagrant that courts and shares feeding ground, as this one did in Wisconsin, with native teal like the blue-winged.

When I drove southward from Minnesota last wet and blustery Sunday to find this garganey, a species entirely new to me, I knew I would encounter a lot of other birders. As I drove, the little car entered ever more rain and slued about in the winds of mid-continent and of neighboring, much bigger vehicles. I was impatient with excitement. At Crex Meadows conditions were of the harshest kind found in spring, with the exception of spring snowstorms, for viewing birds; we all stayed in our cars unless a certain bird ID could only be made by stepping out. I rolled to and fro over the same stretches of hardpan road gone to muck, wondering at a clunk-clunk-clunk sounding from the right rear tire. The wipers churned, raindrops rolled on the glass, and as I kept turning around in pull-outs or U turns I grew increasingly dizzy. I blamed a coffee and an American-style frosted cinnamon roll for that discomfort, like a kind of motion sickness.

A man I had met once before was staked out in his little car just a few steps above what's termed the Erickson Flowage, one of the diked canals that the state of Wisconsin maintains for aquatic wildlife; there, he said, was where the garganey had been earlier this morning, foraging with a couple of blue-winged teal. In an hour or so the garganey flew in with two or more blue-winged teal companions and afforded intimate looks, while it drifted seemingly unbothered by the nearness of stopped cars with drivers discreetly sheltered and enclosed. I stole out and around to the trunk of my car to bring out my spotting scope and beamed it on the bird. Because the vertigo by then was attempting a take-over I may have looked a little drunken to the other drivers, even as the shivers were getting hold of me. I wished I had worn something with a hood and was glad of a pair of knit gloves that live year-round in the car.

Not much later I vomited out the door of the car onto the road, a first vomit in twenty or so years. I found it rather rich to be throwing up at the scene of a life bird species still calmly about its business in the waterway below. Having seen the exquisite body markings of the garganey through the scope I craved a look at its open wings but dared not spoil the scene for others including the ducks by any approach on foot. When the ducks eventually rose to fly on their own they were facing all of us, so I got a glimpse of pale grey wing surface high up on the outer side. By now I was so dizzy I could hardly bear to sit up in the driver's seat. Grantsburg, I thought, had an urgent care but I wasn't precise on how to find it. For lack of any better idea, not in my sharpest state of mind, I called 911 for assistance rather than trouble any of the other parked birders. On two calls to 911 I asked for an escort if possible rather than an actual ambulance, though in the next few minutes accepted my first-ever ambulance ride, since an escort seemed unheard-of when I asked the first responder for one. I might if allowed have flopped fish-like on my own onto the gurney but was helped aboard by my rescuers. All kinds of recent events have taught me to be in awe of emergency responders, who are a varied lot of individuals just as artists are and no doubt include some artists. Trained rescuers have their protocols. I've yet to receive the bill for the deductible but expect it will include a sum for my little ride of two to three miles.

I was checked out that night as a healthy adult female with norovirus. I got sick again, much more dramatically, inside the van of the emergency-care nurse who drove me the couple of blocks to the Wood River Motel for the night. But that night's sleep, Zofran gels and a delicious can of 7-Up quelled the symptoms for the time being and I was by next morning back out to the T of two roads where the old Prius had stayed parked for the night. I was kindly given a ride there by the motel proprietor. The same poor visibility reigned in that ongoing tempest of a winter that does not want to let go its hold on this north central region; it lambasted the few cars of Monday morning birders hoping for a sighting to start the week. Few to no ducks dabbled within seeing range and I thought better than to step forth into that wet cold again.

There had been little to no poetry to this particular quest, but rather determination, surmise and restraint rewarded by luck. So I do not feel a painting being born of the two-day escapade, but look at it with a half-and-half mixture of satisfaction plus regret that I could not sit up and await an opportunity to see my quarry lift off in the opposite direction and show me his beautiful silver and green wings. That would have made the experience whole. But as other birders worthy of the utmost respect have said, that's birding, which at its best includes common courtesy. Maybe the garganey will do a spring sojourn at Crex and I will get by there again en route to the big city.