April 15, 2006

Lonesome cowboy

79 eastern screech-owl
80 greater prairie-chicken
81 eastern meadowlark
82 Brewer's blackbird
83 brown thrasher
84 brown-headed cowbird

APRIL 9, HI LONESOME PRAIRIE, sunny, 40—I don't know a better prairie name anywhere. Located in southwestern Missouri's Osage Plains region, Hi Lonesome is one of the state's best tallgrass remnants. Apparently "hi, lonesome" is an old cowboy greeting, but I couldn't find it with Google, which asked if I meant "high lonesome." That name* may be even better.

Hi Lonesome is home to leks where prairie chickens court in spectacular fashion, no small thing given that only about a thousand birds are left in the state (go here for information). The always-romantic Audubon wrote in Birds of America that "Inspired by love, the male birds, before the first glimpse of day lightens the horizon, fly swiftly and singly from their grassy beds, to meet, to challenge, and to fight the various rivals led by the same impulse to the arena. The male is at this season attired in his full dress, and enacts his part in a manner not surpassed in pomposity by any other bird."

Thus we arrived before dawn (not a phrase I use often) and walked quickly and quietly uphill toward a high point. Shortly, two males rose above the grass in mid-fray, talons out. Unfortunately a harrier scattered the competitors, and that was the end of the love-inspired pomposity. For another hour prairie chickens called from the grass and bolted across the prairie singly and in small phalanxes.

The meadowlark problem I mentioned in February was solved several hundred times. They were everywhere on Hi Lonesome, singing eastern songs repeatedly and thrusting bold yellow and black breasts from perches.

For the rest of the morning's activities, simply refer to the section in the Sibley Guide to Birds beginning on page 472: "Sparrows and Their Allies." Hi Lonesome has prime birding: wet, brushy draws, ponds, thickets, a few large trees, and slope after grassland slope. We spent enough time puzzling out sparrows so that by the end of the outing I felt I knew them well, but it was a fleeting knowledge. The part of my brain reserved for sparrow identification is somewhat smaller than for motor control of my left little toe.

* A friend and manuscript specialist, Bill, points out that high lonesome is defined as "a drinking spree or binge, especially one indulged in alone." Possibly after referencing Sparrows and Their Allies repeatedly.


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