On the northern edge of this ranch are a couple thousand acres of level grassland.
They are part of a larger open area known as Phiney Flat. The homesteaders of the late 18th and early 19th centuries took one look at the wild, level ground and imagined prosperous farms like those owned by the royals and wealthy landowners of their home countries—Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany, or Bohemia. To the immigrants, it looked like farm ground. They would work hard to turn this tall grass into something that they were more accustomed to. (They didn’t consider drought, punishing temperatures, and raw winds that brought reality down that first winter.)
I’m sure they stood in the middle of that flat and looked around them, like I often do. They might not have noticed that they were surrounded by a bird paradise, with perhaps 200 ground-nesting species, birds drawn by the same sea of grass that the immigrants were attracted to. In short order, most immigrants moved on, leaving the flat with spoiled soil and severely damaged habitat for those ground-nesting birds. Like thieves in the night, the would-be farmers slipped away, off to California, Washington, some bustling eastern city, or back home to Europe. They have never returned. That is one of the big differences between people and birds.
Most of the birds leave, but unlike the carpetbaggers, they return. And when they do, they are likely to find me standing in the middle of a regenerated grassland, waiting. After twenty-five years of effort, our portion of the flat is again covered with prairie grass, and that is what most of the birdlife is drawn to. Hopeful ground-nesters cap the fence posts and dot the sky during all seasons, day and night. I spend a lot of time watching them.
All summer long, nighthawks dive, twist, and turn in their frenetic aerial attacks on the flying insects produced from the grass below. Their flight is acrobatic, and their wings are long and bent like the wings of military airplanes. Those wings carry the nighthawks on the longest migration of any North American bird—over six thousand miles. They work in fading summer light, sometimes over the heads of another long-distance migrator.
I have seen over twenty Swainson’s hawks resting on fence posts or circling Phiney Flat. They are large raptors that can be mistaken for red-tailed hawks, and they come through on their way to Argentina, sometimes joining up with hundreds of other Swainson’s hawks on their way.
There are probably a thousand meadow larks that spend their summers on our ranch. They boil out of the grass with such regularity that after a while, you don’t even notice them. But that first neon-yellow male of spring, standing on a March snow drift claiming his territory is guaranteed to bring a smile to the most winter-weary face. I know he is newly arrived from some distant summer oasis, and I always ask him if he enjoyed his vacation.
Lark buntings are often the last birds to return to the flat in the spring. They are also among the first to head back to their wintering grounds hundreds of miles away in Mexico and beyond. In late summer, huge bunches cascade along the fence lines as they prepare to head south.
The burrowing owls, which eat mostly insects and breed deep in prairie dog holes, leave with the first killing frost. The cowbirds (which we call buffalo birds because they never saw a cow until the 19th century) roll in waves above the moving buffalo, who are scaring up thousands of insects that will replenish the birds’ fat reserves for the return trip to the panhandle of Texas, where they will have to rely on real cows to flush their dinner.
I always see the first merlin of the year around the first of September. They seem to come down from the Black Hills, probably to feed on the young birds of the flat. Or maybe they are trying to get away from the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The one I saw this morning was eating what looked like one of the young pipits that have been fattening up on grass seeds in the lush pastures.
The ducks, too, are beginning to fly again. Many hundreds are raised each year on local stock ponds, but the young have been sticking close to their molting and flightless parents. First, blue-winged teal whizz past in vees and heading south. Soon after, the widgeons, gadwalls, shovelers, mallards, and pintails will fill the sky. Grasshopper sparrows, chestnut-colored longspurs, and upland sandpipers pop up from the grass. It is all preamble for the drama of sandhill cranes, hundreds in a flock and thousands of feet above the prairie. They will fill the air with their eerie, whirring cries as they head for their stopover on the Platte River.
Even in the dead of winter, there are birds: shrikes, kestrels, and snow buntings who began their odyssey in the Artic, Ellesmere Island, and Alaska. There are redpolls, horned larks, and Lapland longspurs, come down to balmy Phiney Flat from their frozen breeding grounds.
And finally, it will be the snow and Canada geese, honking their way southward, careening high above the prairie, just in front of the black clouds of winter. I’ll look up in wonder, and I’ll wait, shivering in the center of Phiney Flat, for black specks fading in the southern sky.