Western toad painting by Carl Dennis Buell

Birding and other pleasures and aggravations, in Berkeley and beyond, by Ron Sullivan.

LoginRegisterMember List

Recent comments

Recent posts

Baker Prairie, Arkansas

One stop during our whirlwind tour of northwest Arkansas was Baker Prairie, in or near Harrison. This involved the usual couple of U-turns and retracings, as there are some arcana of intersection markings in Arkansas that I am slow to decipher. When I stopped kicking myself about that, we both had a better time.

So you go through Harrison after a very nice sandwich in a cafe on the town square whose name escapes me, and turn onto Goblin Lane. I’d like to do a tripbook someday to research just how many Bible Belt school mascots are goblins (only a few, and I think it shows some imagination) or demons or devils. People used to have more of a sense of humor about those, I suspect. Harrison’s are the Golden Goblins, and the highschool is on this road. We parked in the school’s empty parking lot (it was a weekend) and walked across the road to the Baker Prairie sign, on what was not much more than a vacant lot, a couple acres if that.

The photo doesn’t do it justice. We were knee-high in grasses and mostly flowers of a dozen kinds, only a few of which we’ve keyed down so far. Tradescantia (most of the blue ones in the pic) and white camas and red paintbrush and lupine and wild indigo (which is white, not blue) and penstemon and buttercup and some nifty multiheaded shooting star and pale coneflower (with narrow drooping rays) and prairie parsley (tall yellow umbellifer) and some small sunflower, maybe oxeye. And more that I don’t know the names of yet, that little white thing that fills the aesthetic niche of our local linaria, and other small yellow things, something pink, more blues (rather a lot of blues, in fact) and oh yes, a prairie rose, low and pink. There were sassafrass seedlings and a short row of trees, in which a cardinal and a dickcissel, goldfinch and meadowlark sang and zipped about. Several butterfly species—both spicebush and pipevine were in range, and we kept seeing red-spotted purples that week to further complicate ID matters. And I have no clue what the grasses were, except that there seemed to be more than one kind.

Yes, a vacant lot—strategically vacant, vacant and unabused for sufficient time to make it a remnant tallgrass prairie. Across the road was the ever-expanding school complex, with a shiny new building surrounded by the usual piles of scraped dirt. Over the hill was the Pepsi (Coke? I forget which religion rules here) bottling plant, and a couple other light-industrial buildings, all surrounded by acres and acres of plain green turfgrass lawns, one being mowed by someone on a minitractor as we watched.

In fact, mowing grass seems to be a major industry in the Midwest. Probably much of the country; I’d forgotten. Seems like everywhere we went we saw grass being mowed, often with riding mowers or things just this side of a John Deere combine. I’m told it’s a matter of pride to a lot of people, having the greenest flattest plainest lawn. And all they’d have to do to have something like the glorious assemblage we were standing in—whose flower show, the books say, changes to a new one every couple of weeks—is, well, practically nothing, once the thing’s installed. Mow once a year, or rent a cow. Baker Prairie gets a controlled burn every two or three years, period.

I’m assuming that it’s difficult to rent a bison, for several obvious reasons.

I don’t take lightly the amount of work that can go into prairie restoration in the first place. A well-tended controlled burn takes planning, savvy, and lots of crew. But for a lot less work in the aggregate and certainly less money for fertilizer, weedkiller, supplementary seed, and fuel, people could have something as splendid as this on their incidental acreage.

And those birds and butterflies too.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Absence of Blackbirds

It’s unusual that Joe and I go out to the world and come back feeling no better than we started, but Friday came damned close. We went over to Briones Park to get in a little stroll before the weekend crowds.

Last year we’d seen an Alameda whipsnake there—black and yellow ribbon-striped, elegant and lean, like a snake greyhound, gliding very fast with head up; in fact, they’re sight-hunters. Gave us a good long look, too, and looked us in the eye before sliding off into the rough. It was right in the fenced picnic field by the archery range, where a horde of Boy Scouts had left not 15 minutes before.

This year, instead of the Boy Scouts, we got a tree crew with chainsaws and chipper. As happens, I’m an arborist myself, and bad cuts hurt me physically to look at. Honest. So the klutzy trail-edge clearing didn’t help my mood, and neither did the racket, and neither did our chancing on the crew on the way back as they cut down a perfectly healthy—though definitely leaning—big madrone from over the trail. Frankly, the chances of its falling on anyone were vanishingly small, and we’ve been dusted by enough of the Boy Scouts’ support vehicles—clueless daddies in spotless SUVs, usually driving too damned fast on a dry dirt road with walkers on it—to generally not wish the lot of them well. Of course, a tree across the road would block those vehicles and the rugged scions of suburbia might not get their Gatorade on time.

Do I sound grumpy? Well, I am. We’ve actually had these barely sentient uniformed lumps sneer at us loudly for having the nerve to watch birds. Evidently they have some mass rally there every year about the time the lazuli buntings show up. What was that Mark Twain line about the barrel with the bunghole?

But I digress. When the racket died down and the crew moved on from that same field, we did get to see the lazuli buntings we were hoping for, and the ash-throated flycatchers too. Every time I see those birds they surprise me; this time they were singing, sort of. Certainly musical for a flycatcher, sort of a gravelly whistled doodly tune of a few short notes. Last time, they were dustbathing and snatching bugs—I guess—from the side of the road. I’d never seen one on the ground before that.

A few violet-green swallows came through, and redtails, TVs, assorted finches, both local towhees, acorn woodpeckers, flickers, the usual suspects.But one thing was missing.

There’s a swatch of green weeds—hemlock, thistle, that sort of thing—in a swale that comes down a hill across from that field. It stays green long after the grass browns off (and that’s far advanced already, so early) and it’s usually full of red-winged blackbirds, a couple dozen at least. They seem to be on territory, nesting there every year.

Not a one this year. The weeds were still green; everything else seemed as usual, but no blackbirds. I wonder what happened, where (to be optimistic) the flock went.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Boyle Park in May

Boyle Park is within the Little Rock, Arkansas city limits. It’s long and narrow and basically follows the course of a creek and a road, mostly mixed oak-and-friends forest. It’s right over the hill from where Joe’s folks used to live, and we’d retreat there for some um not quite solitude… duotude? and strolling and birding, when we were visiting. This means we’ve been in and out of the place sporadically since 1980.

Back in the ‘80s, there were more woodpeckers, redheaded and pileated both. Those seem harder to find now, though there are still plenty of red-bellies and downies and yellow-shafted flickers. We didn’t see northern waterthrush on either of our days there this time but we had yellowthroats mostly by ear, along with the usual cardinals, bluejays, robins, vireos, wrens, common grackles, fish crows, kingfishers, green heron… I’ll have to dig up Joe’s list, as it’s late and I’ve misplaced my nouns again.

The Mississippi kites were still there—incredible (to me) to be seeing this hawk within city limits, but there they were, evidently courting, dancing around way up in the blue, dashing down to treetop level. They eat bugs, of all things; it’s like having a hypercrafted Japanese sword to slice radishes—forget all that Nature-has-to-be-perfectly-efficient stuff. And I’m not knocking the result. I’ve heard of naturalists tossing cicadas for them to catch on the wing, and maybe in 17 years I’ll get to try that myself.

The stream was full of fish—shiners, minnows, suckers, sunfish (maybe those were stocked), bass and trout (certainly stocked). And red-eared and some other sliders, a softshell turtle, bullfrogs—nice to see this stuff where it belongs. And snakes! We saw two species of water snake: yellow-bellied (four or six, in different locations) and a diamondback water snake. All nonvenomous, a couple of feet long, very active and very elegant swimming along with their heads raised out of the water, evidently sight-hunters.  We saw the diamondback and a yellow-belly encounter each other, stop and flick tongues inquisitively (not quite face-to-face, more like amidships) and then move on in opposite directions. The diamondback was a bit bigger.

All this snake stuff was on a day with brief squalls of rain and a few thunderclaps. Maybe the activity was weather-related; neither of us had ever seen either of these species before, in all the trips we’d made to the park over 24 years.

Flowers were blooming all over too: blue tradescantia, red buckeye saplings, a different blue-eyed grass from ours here, Queen Anne’s lace, some elegant tiny white thing I still haven’t figured out, just for example.

And, pace the local warnings, we didn’t get mugged. Neither, as far as I know, did the little fambly groups or the art class or the napping schoolbus drivers or the folks fishing in the pond.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Carrion Baggage and Personable Longings

Joe and I spent most of the past two weeks in Arkansas, visiting relatives and handling some family-connected business and playing tourist. I’ll be writing about that over the next few days.

We flew. That is, we got onto a great big jet airliner and got flown, got thrown, got stuffed shoved and blown, sitting over the wing most of the time and straining to see the landscape from Oakland to Houston and Houston to Little Rock. This time, at least, we didn’t get frisked.

We did pretty much the same trip in February, when we took Joe’s mother back to bury her in her hometown, Alma. That time we did get frisked coming and going, allegedly/supposedly because we’d bought the tickets so close to flight time, though the airline took the necessary data and gave us the “bereavement” discount fare. You’d think that any reason that’s strong enough to get accepted for a discount—something that costs the airline actual money—would suffice to establish one’s bona fides wrt blowing things up or whatever we were being frisked about, but hey. At that point we were already stressed enough not to care much: Yeah yeah, get it over with, g’bye, haveaniceday.

We flew over the Sierra, already losing its snowmantle; over the deserts all ripply and brown and white and red and yellow; over farmland with those center-pivot irrigation patterns, circles and three-quarter circles and half-circles inside squares, assorted arrangements of greens and tans and browns. After seeing the quilt pattern books at the Ozark Folk Center, I know deep in my flinty old heart that there are quilts somewhere on this continent with patterns like that. If there are Drunkard’s Path quilts and Wild Geese Flying quilts and Log Cabin quilts and Courthouse Square quilts, there must be Fly-Over-the-Farms quilts. Or maybe it has to be Airliner-Over-Agribiz; these places seem pretty large in scale.

There are a number of deeply disturbing details to airline flying, and none of them involved merely “defying” gravity. There’s the cattle-chute treatment, of course, and the weird foodstuffs (we flew Continental, which still serves meals—and parts of those were even edible) and the Forbidded Words and Accessories. I lost my mini-Leatherman keychain tool to a security snoop, who was muttering something about a corkscrew seen on Xray as he got more and more flustered. (I was behaving myself, I promise; not even scowling. I have a policy of being nice to flunkies and frontline workers, having been one often enough myself.) After we got there, I realized that he’d taken an accidental decoy, that I’d forgotten my Swiss Army knife in the bottom of my satchel, and that does have a corkscrew. As it’s the model with the hand lens on it, pricey and hard to find, it would have been a greater loss. It came back in our checked bag, where it’s legal so far.

Airline magazines leave me feeling like a visitor from the wrong planet, and that Skymall catalog—what the hell is that stuff FOR?? An electrically heated WHAT? Automatic WHICH?? One does have to respect the human imagination, rather the way one has to respect a really silly dog breed.

Houston has lots of water around it. This makes the air bumpy. It also has grackles and cattle egrets and I do believe I had a flock of white ibis under us—they flew in tight diamond formation, wings pointed. The airport’s too damned big: lots of suspense in the trek from Big Terminal to Shuttle Terminal. Aerobic, OK, but much of it’s by buslet or trainlet and not under one’s control.

Little Rock has a nice, small, civilized airport by the river, with more grackles and waterfowl to greet us. We touched down with relief. I love actual flying, but there are too many chances for people to screw things up in airports and airlines.

Then we rented a little shitpot Suzuki Somethingorother and drove around the city and the mountains for the next ten days.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Chimney Rock

Since we’ve passed the official whale season, when you can’t just drive out to Point Reyes Lighthouse or Chimney Rock but have to mess around with a shuttlebus, and since we hated the idea of missing the whole wildflower season there, we dragged ourselves out yesterday. Good thing, too.

Iris and blue-eyed grass seemed most plentiful, with linanthus and goldfields and that funny Calochortus tolmei and paintbrush, several lupines, still a little of the white wallflower, mule ears, um, um… flowers galore, anyway.

Man, it was hot, even right there on the ocean, barely a breeze. A couple more of the old Monterey cypresses near the ranger’s residence were down or splintered. It’s hard to see them go, whether they’re supposed to be there or not, mostly because they’re refugia for the lost landbirds and the resident owls. There was a Eurasian goldfinch hanging out there last fall with the local goldfinches. Jumpy, aggressive little bugger, as I recall.

Someone was seeing whales—someone claimed to have a blue. Never caught up with those, but the elephant seals were still on that beach just south of The Willows (this is birder jargon, sorry) and a handful more were snoozing on one of the little beaches under the cliffs that the path skirts. I believe we’re seeing a range increase here.

There were Pacific loons migrating north, all slim and elegant flying over the point; a couple of common loons all dressed up for breeding; a red-necked grebe in breeding plumage, an outfit we hadn’t seen since, probably, 1980 in the Midwest.

And one of those crises of, well, credibility rather than conscience: There was a kingbird on the wire by the parking lot. “Have you ever seen a kingbird here before?” asked Joe. Come to think of it, no. And a kingbird with no white at all on its tail, in April, among other oddities, and a soft, non-nasal, non-harsh muttered song.

A tropical kingbird. Now this was worth calling in to the hotline.

However, it moved up the wire (giving us a good look; still no white on the tailfeathers) and chased… an identical bird. TWO tropical kingbirds. Riiiiight.

So they didn’t get reported, though we’re both sure of what we saw and heard. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the cross-examination.

Nice birds, though, and we hadn’t seen those in a few years either.

dingbatPosted by Ron Sullivan | Comments are closed

Page 158 of 159 pages « First  <  156 157 158 159 >