Friday, March 27, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:
"Lifting the Veil"

Photo courtesy of Saskatchewan Watershed Authority

In this chapter of Grass, Sky, Song, I talk about the piping plovers that once nested on a sand spit in a lake just north of our land. Most people would think of the piping plover as more of a wetland bird than a grassland bird, but with prairie shorebirds the line gets blurry. No matter which group we place the piping plover in, the prairie population breeds typically along bodies of water that are in the grassland zone. I think of it as one of the characteristic birds of the rolling knob and kettle lands of the Missouri Coteau, where some of our largest expanses of native grassland survive.

This chapter, "Lifting the Veil," introduce two of the prairie's most fervent and steadfast naturalists, Mary and Stuart Houston of Saskatoon. The Houstons have fostered a love for prairie birds in dozens of young people over the last sixty years, inspiring generations of naturalists, bird banders and biologists now living and working across Canada.

Reading Stuart's articles and books was part of what first led me to consider the intersection of human history and ecology here on the northern Great Plains. He became a friend and mentor to me in the 1990s, and in 2005 he sent me a letter suggesting I consider writing something about John Macoun on the 125th anniversary of his trek onto the southern plains of Canada--the expedition that many historians say sealed the fate of our grasslands.

image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

I suggested that he and Mary join me in a retracing of Macoun's 1880 journey as we looked for grassland birds 125 years after the decision to settle the open prairie. Along the way, I recorded our conversations to turn it into a radio documentary for CBC Ideas. A two-hour show, entitled Pastures Unsung, aired in 2006 and the documentary is available as a CD set on the CBC Ideas website. Here is the web page for Pastures Unsung.

In this part of the book, I also mention Macoun's bird collector, William Spreadborough, who spent some time here in the Indian Head area studying and collecting birds in the 1890s. I could not find a photo of him, but thanks to Bill Waiser, one of our greatest historians, there is a fine tribute to William Spreadbourough in The Beaver.

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