Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Colors for the 4th of July

Yesterday was a comparatively cool day for July. I went for a three-hour hike around the Pheasant Branch Prairie. I was looking to take advantage of the good lighting for photography while she was more interested in just getting some fresh air and exercise. Wildflowers rendered the landscape like splattered paint against a green and blue canvas. Only a short distance from the parking lot, we were greeted and amused by a gregarious Sedge Wren’s call to morning...proclaiming its existence into the sun's warming rays.

It's summer and Dickcissels are curiously the most ubiquitous bird of Pheasant Branch Prairie. There has been some discussion on the Wisconsin Bird Network about this being an irruptive year for them. This is the fourth year Dickcissels have nested at the prairie but numbers have been generally low in the past – perhaps fewer than a dozen individuals and then only in the west field. This summer they are all over the place...there must be over 30 of them in the west field alone, and also in every field adjacent to the hill. Additionally, I’m hearing their songs as I drive along most country roads north of Middleton. Others have reported them in the northernmost regions of Wisconsin including Door and Bayfield counties.

I have great respect for the birder who studies and admires a single species at length. There's an astute listener on the Wisconsin Birding Network who has noted as many as four varieties of Dickcissel song. I've also observed that the birds of Pheasant Branch possess much variation in song pattern and tone – ranging from buzzy insect-like vocalizations to others with more a flute-like chirp quality. It's uplifting to be able to appreciate these birds on habitat that will not be disturbed.

Pretty pictures and flashy field guides simply fail to portray the essence of the bird. Well, they're not really meant to do anything beyond, as such. But how beautiful these birds are when perched against, not white paper, but summer's deepest green in brilliant morning sun. Or how dutifully the males defend their territory chasing away Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds and American Goldfinches. Nor can they accurately convey the concerned expression of a female Dickcissel that briefly perches above dense forbs to survey the situation for danger. But she quickly goes back to work and I don’t stay long, though I'd like to remain there the entire day.

"We are as often injured as benefited by our systems, for, to speak the truth, no human system is a true one, and a name is at most a mere convenience and carries no information with it. As soon as I begin to be aware of the life of any creature, I at once forget its name. To know the names of creatures is only a convenience to us at first, but so soon as we have learned to distinguish them, the sooner we forget their names the better, so far as any true appreciation of them is concerned."

- Henry David Thoreau

I think there's an added sense in Thoreau's notion that by studying the habits of one bird species, we advance our appreciation and knowledge of all birds and all habitats, even nature on a whole. I could spend the remainder of summer returning to the prairie just to watch the Dickcissels. The beauty is that they are not alone and there's so much else going on – it's overwhelming to me that it's not just some empty field to drive's entirely alive with endless and most colorful forms. The wildflowers, the insects, Sedge Wrens, Clay-colored Sparrows and Eastern Kingbirds have an equally compelling story to tell.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

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