May 012015
 

Prairie dogs are to the prairie what krill is to the ocean. Without them, that sea of grass is a dead zone. Mark Seth Lender visited a prairie dog colony in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. What impressed him the most was not their value, but their bravery:
20130822_102951_2

Hero

Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Dog on Guard does a jump-up bark, jump-up bark again. And all over Prairie Dog Town all the other dog guards jump-up back: below that ridge; up on the knoll; across, in the open, below the shadow of the mesa that rises like a wall. Must’ve seen some thing, some one. Got them started like the tattoo on a child’s tin drum. Could have been a hawk rolling on silent wing in the bright morning air. Could have been coyote, hungry enough, prowling the prairie on a daytime walk. Coulda been prairie rattlesnake sliding across the sunlit road with her rattle in the air. But our eyes are pretty much as good as any Dog of the Prairie, and I haven’t seen a thing round here. Perhaps they only jump-up bark to say: “I’m at my post, I am on guard, I’ve got your back.”

And the prairie dogs not on guard go about their business:

Dog, lying low.

Three dogs standing up.

Dog chewing on a blade of grass like some old farmer.

Young dog all stretched out on the black earth to cool herself…

20130827_085735_6694

But now Dog on Guard crouches like a spring held in place by the thickness of a hair. And it’s jump-up bark nose in the air mouth in a howling shape. This time quite clear what he sees:

MAN!

COMES!

TOWARDS!

ME!

20130822_102125_2

Three nights ago badger came here on a raid. Tore the hell out of that mound over there like a steam shovel on a bad-drunk-day. Claw marks in the soft dry dirt, square and long and straight (and sharp as a cut nail rake). And, on the parched clay where water puddled in the rains (the cracked landscape laid out like tiles on some abandoned floor) there are skulls. A jawbone, incisors pointing up like tusks. A skeleton where a ferruginous hawk made a kill, bones laid out in perfect parallels

20130827_101805_6933

Prairie dog nightmares. And us, our kind, the very worst of them:

10 yards –

5 yards –

10 feet –

The closer I get the faster that guard dog barks, clipped and tight, the tone ascending:

White-tailed doe crosses the road at a run.

- Dog on Guard does not move.

Burrowing owl tucks out of sight.

- Dog on Guard just stares.

Big Bison Bull resting on his side, raises his great head, down in the arroyo way down there…

- Dog on Guard stands firm, until the last dog is safely underground all over Prairie Dog Town.

Red moon rising on the red prairie, full as a rising prairie sun. When day comes it all begins again: Dog on Guard. Just like the day before (and the day before that) if he survives the night.

Mark Seth Lender’s guide in Grasslands was Wes Olson. Support for Mark’s fieldwork was provided by Tourism Saskatchewan.

Share this
Feb 152015
 

20101205_134907_0507

Mallardy
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

For the mallards who migrate and for those who stay behind, life is not easy. Much of the habitat on which they depend has been taken from them. Every year, I do what I can to make up for it.

Mallards are gathering.  Hungry, complaining, up before sunrise and nothing in the belly. They stir the surface and wait. One calls. A loud descending voice like an old man railing against condition and age. The others mumble under their breath. Annoyed, querulous. Impatient for the food that has not arrived. Anxious for the giver to come yet mistrustful. A cry goes up and they fly a distance when they see him. Even though they know him.

They are wise not to trust.

Soon they will separate: Drakes to the one side, former fathers former sons molting together into winter iridescence (depending on the angle of view, night sky blue or brilliant green fire). Hens to the other side, former mothers former daughters drab in the brown that hides them but for that flash of purple deep as a welder’s arc and a final daub of white (almost hidden except when they take flight). Soon they will leave, these two drawn lots, on different days weeks apart but not toward a different route or result. They will be shot with equanimity all along the way, in great number, on their endless perilous journey seeking south.

But while they are here, I provide: I stand in place of the estuary that has been rerouted, water grass that was drowned, wild rice turned under, beaches walled off deep of the high tide mark and the sound of empty shells rolling in the back wash. I am the Source now, come stumbling and blurry as the cold ground fog laid down on the earth. I come every day. As if their lives depend on it.  As if my life depends on it.

And it does.  And it does.

For more Mallard photos click here

 February 15, 2015  Birds No Responses »
Sep 142013
 

Broad-billed Hummingbird Sipping Nectar


Intolerance

Like a bee with a buzz with a twist like a top with a sweep with a lunge with a LOUD then stops, right there: Hovering; (Covering); Defending a ground that is Flower that is Food that is Air.

His beak is a lance his wings are a shout: Beware! Of me! Hummingbird!

All of an ounce of anger charges, headlong – Chases everyone away. Even the females of his kind. Sometimes, in a rage he will drive her down, to the dust and leave her spent. And fluttering. Aerodynamics sets the only limits. His right has no respite, has no bounds. Darts and dives and chitters. Intolerance is his nature, his nature, in a crowd? Never calm.

Herons and Egrets with great piercing bills; falcons with talons that crush; the terrible saw-toothed beaks of sea birds; the raking feet and spurs of the great birds of the ground – all of them strive against their own but almost always at a distance. They pretend. Noh drama of no-touch. Balinese shadow-play. And when the curtain falls? All grievances are over, and done with.

For Hummingbird, the size of a leaf the density of a folded pocket-handkerchief the stage is a World and the World is War. Black-chin puffs up the tiny feathers that give him his name into electric purple defiance. Broad-bill all sapphire and emerald brilliant (even his body glares). Broad-tail bringing up the rear – 3grams, no fear.

Only Magnificent Hummingbird ignores the worrying by all these others – by weight, and size, and the rumbling spread of his wings. His starlight-turquoise throat glittering in the leafy morning light, he alone owns peace.

So there it is: Size matters. I am reminded of that barroom adage (a barroom adage on the wing): Big guy knock you down, but a little guy will cut you!


Black-Chinned Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Mark Seth Lender reading Intolerance on Living on Earth (PRI):

Audio MP3

Field Note:
Madera Canyon, Arizona is famous for its great variety of hummingbirds – if you know exactly where to look. I had the good fortune to be guided by local expert Bill Forbes and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Bill designed and now manufactures a high-speed camera trigger called a Phototrap and with the aid of that device and his expertise in flash setups I was able to take the photographs you see here. The birds of course are stunningly beautiful and I was delighted by the sound of their wings. Less delightful (though they were remarkably tolerant of human presence) was their intolerance of each other. Almost every encounter between species and even among members of the same species resulted in conflict. Shawnee Riplog-Peterson is the keeper of the hummingbird house at the Sonora Desert Museum. She tells me that males will sometimes drive an adversary right into the ground – leaving them exhausted to the point where they are unable to fly – and that they will even do this with females of their own species. Why? Hard to say. Perhaps at up to 2000 wing-beats a minute, the energy requirements are so great that every found flower needs to be guarded like a treasure. Perhaps, with their brilliant scales and fierce dark eyes, the hummingbirds think themselves dragons. Or maybe they are dragons…

Magnificent Hummingbird, Madera Canyon, Arizona

Hummingbird Slideshow
Here’s a slideshow I made of a broad-billed male sipping nectar at a cactus flower. The sound track was recorded using a parabolic microphone, at the same time and place but contains, inevitably, the sounds of other hummingbirds, both wing sound and their high, rather angry calls.

 

Hummingbirds Humming
One last treat. Here is 12 minute long recording of hummingbirds feeding, hovering and alas, giving each other grief. Play for as long or as little as you like.

Audio MP3

Broad-billed Hummingbird in Flight, Madera Canyon, Arizona

 

 September 14, 2013  Birds, General No Responses »