Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Christmas Bird Counting on the Erstwhile Prairie
In the past three weeks I have had three opportunities to drive around the snowbound prairie in our trusty Caravan, scanning fields and shelterbelts for birds. As the compiler of the Craven/Lumsden Christmas Bird Count, I put on 125 kilometres or so mostly driving west and north of Lumsden on the roads toward Last Mountain Lake. On Boxing Day I did my duty for the Regina Christmas Bird Count both in the city and then out south and west of town, where I put on an additional 108 kilometres. Last week, a birder friend, Sandy Ayer was in town from Calgary so we took a drive to the north and east of the city to see what we could find. That was another 100 kilometre trip.
Anyone who winters at these latitudes knows how empty the landscape can seem: the wind scouring hard drifts of snow for mile after mile and nothing with a heartbeat in sight. Most grassland birds are migrants and so they are gone south, but there are one or two residents (sharp-tailed grouse) as well as some migrants that come here for the winter from farther north (snowy owls, snow buntings, redpolls). Then there are the chickadees and magpies that now inhabit areas that have sprouted woody growth in aspen bluffs and shelterbelts. I saw my share of these, particularly on the Craven CBC, but most of the birds I found during my 300-plus kilometres of touring the plains were non-native species.
The bleakest trip of all was the stretch south and west of Regina. The Regina Plains are very flat and open—no trees other than planted shelterbelts around the depot-like farmsteads, most of which are abandoned—and these features along with heavy clay soil have made them ideal for modern oil and cereal crop agriculture. Fields are seeded right to the road edge and there is no margin of weeds or grass anywhere. Only the odd slough is tolerated, and not a single acre of native grassland to be found. In fact, the roads seem to be about as attractive for habitat as anything between them. I came upon two coyotes belting down the road at full speed for two kilometres before they pulled into a natural gas pump station, which provided a habitat of sorts. The only native birds I found in three hours of driving those roads were two snow buntings picking grit from the road surface.
The largest flock of birds was more than 300 Rock Pigeons covering a grain pile dumped on a field by a farmer who had run out of bin storage. A smaller flock gathered at the base of a grain depot by a railyard where they were joined by 30 House Sparrows and a half dozen European Starlings. Two hundred metres away along the rail line I found 6 Gray Partridge, rounding out the quartet of non-natives that like our grainivorous approach to land.
What a world we have wrought: the birds that remain for winter on the prairie seem to be the ones that have so far been able to make a living on the leftovers of industrialized agriculture. As I watched the starlings, sparrows and pigeons pecking at the spilled grain in minus-25 Celsius air, it seemed to me that the life of the land itself for miles around had been extracted and gathered up into those bins. No wonder the only birds in the area were the ones we imported along with our unsustainable land ethic, and no wonder that they were all there fighting to get a share of its scant leavings.
Snow Bunting in winter plumage
On the other two trips, however, in much more varied habitat with scraps of pasture and some weeds on field edges and slough margins, I found snow buntings in larger numbers. This bird, for me is a grassland bird from arctic pastures, and its spirit has much in common with the prairie longspurs we have in summer. One flock I found on the Craven CBC was more than 500 birds. I stopped the van, jumped out and ran into the field to hear them better as they shifted from one patch of dock weed to another along a frozen slough. The soft twittering of such a large flock, so confiding and gentle, is one of the great delights of prairie bird-watching. I stood in a field where my boot prints were surrounded by millions of tracks the size of my fingernail--the snow was peppered with their tracks all the way to the horizon--and I thought of next summer and the birds that will be courting and nesting here while the snow buntings light up the tundra with their song.