Friday, April 22, 2011

Fire is Its Own Reward

Prairie fire, east-central Kansas

“Takin’ pictures, huh?”
“What of?”
“Well, I …” and thus enabled, I launched into my litany of wanting to see and photograph a burn, to use the local terminology. Those of us not familiar with a burn might call it a prairie fire.
I had just stepped out of the Flint Hills Restaurant, Strong City, Kansas, having consumed more breakfast than two normal people might eat, all for less than $8, when a local cowboy leaning against his pickup spotted the arsenal of photo gear on my front seat.
“Well,” he said, looking skyward “ya might want to try north and east of Zerd. I come down that way this morning and they was burning something up there.”
I was excited. This was the best lead for seeing a fire that I had in days.
“Tell me, again, sir, where is Zerd? I don’t recall seeing that on the map.”
He looked at me, then over my shoulder as if I was hiding a troll, leaned forward a bit and said in a hushed tone usually reserved for revealing the true meaning of life, “It’s probably not on the map.”
Glancing to his left as if checking to be sure the sun was still in the right location, he said, “Go east on 50 here, about two mile. Turn north on the first road. That’s Zerd. If ya git ta Yerd you’ve gone too far. Turn around and come back.”
I thanked him and set off on my search for the Holy Grail. Almost to the inch on my GPS, a road heading north popped up at two miles. As I made the turn a road sign caught my eye: ZZ Rd.
Oh, ZZ road, not the mythical Land of Zerd. I zigged and zagged, following the billowing clouds of smoke. At one point I even crossed YY Rd, a bit disappointed there would be no Land Of Yerd, either.
The fire, like a slender bloody gash in the earth, six-inches tall, stretched across a pasture as far as I could see. It was a curious juxtaposition of towering white clouds rising from the interface of tiny flames and scorched land, into a cobalt sky. Above it all, Swainson’s Hawks hovered, dipped and danced on the 20 miles-per-hour wind. My cap went into my pocket before it could get into the flames.

After 15 minutes of making pictures, stoked by the excitement of hopping over small, fast-moving flames, which showed no respect for my presence, I jumped back onto the dirt road and headed for my car. An Oldsmobile one might expect to see in an antique car show rolled up next to me, window down, tattered elbow showing, a couple equal to the age of the car and land.
It was Mr. and Mrs. Moore. Out here, near the top of any conversation is an introduction. After the part about “Yer not from around here, are ya,” a statement, not a question, the conversation got pleasant, as if we were old friends.
When Mr. Moore said, “Well, I’ve lived here all my life. Well, that ain’t true since I ain’t dead, yet.” I looked over at Mrs. Moore, hands in lap, eyes assessing her muddy boots, a coquettish smile on her lips, a fringe of silver hair showing below the out-of-season red wool hat she wore. How many times had she heard that joke?
When he launched into how his grandfather had come to this place, right after the Civil War, the Mrs. (as he referred to her) was grinning and nodding. Another story, familiar in the retelling.
I was trying to do the mental math of how old he must be if he was third generation from a Civil War vet, when he said, “Well, enough about history. We’ll be gitting outta yer way young man.” And off they went, disappearing into the cloud that was the smoke-blanketed road.

Swainson's Hawk makes a close inspection of me

As I packed up the photo gear I saw two aberrations coming toward me from across the smoking field. Turned out to be Mr. Horton and his son, owners of the land. They walk the edges knocking down small fires that might want to jump the road, he explained. He kindly educated me, as if talking to nine-year-old kid, about fire and its beneficial purpose. Leaning on his all-metal rake handle, acting as if fire was not licking at his pant’s cuffs, he said, “We burnt about 3,000 acres this year, leaving the rest for next year.”
Again I was trying to do the mental math of how much pasture must burn in this one little spot of Kansas. I let it go to enjoy the moment.
We talked about the hawks circling above and I was pleased to be able to add to his storehouse of knowledge, that these were Swainson’s Hawks. Something he could pass on to the other ranchers.
Three of us, all grown men, stood there on an April morning, in a smoldering field, surrounded by smoke, watching birds do what they’ve done for eons. Finally, Mr. Horton kicked at a particularly stubborn patch of fire the size of a softball and said, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Swainson's Hawks work the edges of the fire

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why the Prairie

I checked my not-so-smart cell phone to see how much further I had to go. One small bar still showed, like a nasty smudge, in the upper left corner, telling me I’d gone far, but not far enough. Good. A bit further and what passes for civilization would be a fading image in my rearview mirror.
Kansas, a great place to go when just going is the goal. A place to get off the highway, where you can stand on a rise of land and see beyond your dreams; where the distinctive song of a meadowlark interrupts then overrides the fluttering of flags, where the best view does not have to compete with litter on a stick.
It’s a place where you can stand and look inside yourself when the outside you is not what it used to be.
It’s a place where you ask yourself if you’ve gone the right direction, then realize, it doesn’t matter. The choices you made would put you right where you are—all roads lead to where you stand.
And if you stand at the right spot in Chase County, as I did, listen to history that might be wind in the barbed wire, or maybe music coming from an open barn door, squint your eyes a bit, tilt your head and give free reign to your imagination, ghosts of the past in this western land might come into focus.

How a Slow Birding Day Picks Up Speed

Swainson's Hawk

It had been one of those days that if you judge it by unrealistic goals you set for yourself, would best be described as a flop. I’m currently in Kansas, trying to get some pictures of the spring fires intentionally set to burn off last year’s grass stubble, which renews the soil in the process. Sorry, that’s the layman’s unscientific explanation.
True to form, I’m about a week late. I did see some burning, too far out of camera range, or too small to look like anything more than a trash fire. One of the rangers at the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in Strong City explained that most burning is finished now because pasturemen have to wait a couple weeks before putting cattle onto burned pasture, and the cattlemen are anxious to get those beefies out there, now.
One thing I did observe is the way various raptors work the burned fields. Makes for easy pickins when rodents have no place to hide.
Late this afternoon I found a wide spot in the road where I could safely wait for a flock of Swainson’s Hawks to work their way over to me. I had never seen so many of this species at one time in one spot. I counted 35 birds all swooping and hover-hunting a burned pasture.
While my attention was focused on the hawks, a flurry of activity passed behind me and landed in the field on the other side of the highway in an unburned area. I could not believe my luck: More than a dozen Upland Sandpipers, a species we rarely get in Ohio, all in alternate plumage.
When I returned to watch the hawks, there one sat on the utility wire, watching me.
As Lance Armstrong says: There are no bad days; some are just better than others.

Upland Sandpipers, east-central Kansas

Friday, April 01, 2011

Ignore Reality, Find Deeper Truth

Wilson's Snipe

It was a dark and stormy night. I well remember my first snipe hunt. I was maybe a dozen years into my first-remembered incarnation, enjoying my first camping adventure as a Boy Scout, filled with the knowledge that I knew everything important enough to matter.
It was our first night in camp. One of the older scouts suggested a snipe hunt. It sounded like fun, dangerous, rewarding—all the things youth looks for in life.
Of course, we had to wait until it got dark. And it gets really dark in the woods. Dark enough to give one second thoughts about crawling around on the ground, armed with stealth, a paper bag and a multi-bladed knife.
The older guys dropped we fearless hunters at various posts around the perimeter of the camp’s parade ground. We were to keep hunting until we heard the “all clear” whistle, then run onto the parade ground with our sack filled with snipes.
The fact that we were never told how one actually captures and subdues these creatures, nor even how large they might be, didn’t seem to occur to us at the time.
If you ever want to know how long forever really is, I suggest you grab a paper bag, head out into the dark of night on your hands and knees, wait and hope for someone to blow a whistle that never happens.
Eventually you figure it out.
In my current incarnation as a birder I’ve learned the truth about snipe, Wilson’s Snipe in particular. While birding in the Big Island Wildlife Management Area (Marion County, Ohio) yesterday, Susan and I happened upon a nice flock of snipe making use of a puddle left behind by Ohio’s recent rains. As I watched them, I figured out the reason we young scouts were unable to catch any on that dark and stormy night more than a half century ago. I think the older guys dropped us in the wrong habitat.

Wilson’s Snipe Big Island Wildlife Management Area