Tales of a transplanted Californian to the Heartland
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Our front porch looks directly westward offering a panoramic vista of rolling hills, planted fields, and broad skies which are always alive with activity. Each fall, we witness the movement of huge flocks of wildlife; fowl fleeing the oncoming cold season, headed in a southerly direction. We see smaller birds winging their way southward, too; in search of warmer weather and a friendlier climate. When spring arrives, in the month of April, the little birds reappear;
Barn Swallows and Purple Martins arrive; returning home to nest and rear their young ones. There is a mud nest nestled safely in the southeast corner of our porch ceiling , and the swallows 'come home each year to reclaim their safe haven here. All last spring and summer, we have watched their comings and goings while they built a sturdy mud and straw nest. Two toiling side by side; a couple, chirping as they worked. At first, they were weary of our presence and yet, they continued building what would be their permanent northern home.
Swallows stay for the warm seasons and leave when the weather begins to change. They lay eggs and rear chicks here. Several times last year we were lucky enough to see two successful hatchings right above our front door. The little ones grow quickly. At first, we just hear their tiny voices but soon, little tufts of fluff bob up and down, just at the nest’s edge. Each day, the fluffy heads emerge a little more until, at last, tiny beaks are visable which yawn wide open awaiting Mom and Dad who fly back and forth in an effort to feed the youngsters. Swallows are hard working birds, flying all day, nurturing their demanding young. This goes on for several weeks when, suddenly and to our delighted surprise, little miniature birds are seen craning their necks over the side of their straw home or balancing on the nest’s edge. Still, the parents fly tirelessly, searching for air born insects to feed the kids. In no time, the younger Swallows “fly the coop,” and take to the sky, soaring along side the older birds. Not long after, the little ones are gone, and the original mated pair begin, again, the activity of preparing for the next batch of baby birds. When fall arrives, the Swallows start to leave this happy home. This is a sad time for us and, for a while, a definite emptiness pervades our once bustling front porch. I believe these are my favorite birds. I’d never really viewed them so closely before, and had not gained the appreciation I now have.
This year in early May, our Barn Swallows returned. We had seem a few in town and knew, soon, ours would arrive. We talked about it daily, anticipating the beautiful Swallows with their buoyant agility, to appear on our farm. One morning, while having coffee on the front porch, I noticed a swift movement above us. Looking up, we immediately recognized our Swallows. When we realized that they were finally here, we were so excited and happy, ready to enjoy, again, a part of the beautiful Barn Swallow circle of life.
When the cold winter sets in there are few birds to be seen. There are “snow birds,“ tiny feathered things that amaze me. It is impossible to believe they can live here in the ice and cold. But they do. I see them from my kitchen window and through our front bay view, pecking in the frozen ground. It’s hard to imagine they thrive in this way; their small peeps can scarcely be heard as they search for sustenance.
When we first arrived, the fields and streams which surround us were teeming with Snow Geese. These grand birds fly in large numbers; sometimes it appears as if there are over a thousand birds above us, squawking as they traverse the sky. When in flight, they remind me of an M.C. Escher lithograph; an optical illusion of movement and light reflecting off their wings as they turn, duck and float overhead. As their formation adjusts to wind currents, they create an ever changing visual feast. Once darkened, then suddenly light as the sun illuminates white feathers; the Snow Geese are delightful to watch.
There is a pair of Blue Herons who reside in our larger pond and appear to have remained here all winter long. We’d see them from time to time, wondering how in the world they survive the bone chilling cold. On long, spindly legs, these graceful birds stand still in shallow water, awaiting the movement of an unsuspecting fish as it glides close by. Quickly, the Heron grabs his food, swallowing equally as rapidly while positioning himself in preparation for a second helping
The songbirds here are so much fun! Their chirps sound like greetings, name calling and chastising. I imagine one bird saying: “good to MEET you! Good to Meet you!” Another repeats one of my favorite S. F. Giants baseball players: “YorvEEt! YorvEEt!” Yet another appears to warn: “Don’t go there!” The Barn Swallows speak Urdu, I’m convinced of it! Their dialect seems to be quite complex with many ‘up’s and ‘down’s’ in tonal quality, long tweets and short ones, pauses and quick babbling, finished with a clicking sound. The two who are nesting under our front porch ceiling talk back and forth for minutes at a time, sounding as if they’re carrying on a very important conversation.
I had never taken notice of Martins and the other members of the Swallow family in flight. These birds are extremely stealth. They soar high in the air and very low to the ground; their movements swift and clean. They appear to glide more than flap their wings and they streak by so close to trees, limbs, and other outcroppings that I swear one will crash and burn. They never do! I imagine that military Stealth fighter planes were designed to replicate the movement of Barn Swallows and Purple Martins. I have seen no other bird so agile, quick and accurate in flight. These little birds, no larger than the average mans’ thumb to wrist, navigate beautifully and perfectly. At their peak, we are delighted to watch hundreds gather just down the road at the Jones’s house; where some farming activity attracts them or, perhaps, insects, which the Swallows catch in flight. This is another sight to behold. The Swallows soar and dart, grabbing mosquitoes and other flying insects. We, consequently, have not had a problem with these annoying pests, thanks to the lithe Barn Swallows.
Our yard is filled with courting birds this time of year. There are Orioles and Cardinals, Sparrows, Martins, Barn Swallows, Mocking Birds, Prairie Chickens, Meadow Larks, Doves, Owls and Robins - BIG ONES! and so many more whose names escape me. The Robins are huge in Kansas, just as are the Deer and mosquitoes. Cardinals are a bright, deep red with a tuft atop their head which lowers and raises. They are striking as they flit about the yard, landing nearby on low limbs. .(I’ve always been curious about the Cardinal as this is the symbol of my favorite baseball team’s lethal rival.) Orioles are very colorful, as well, with a bright yellow body accented with black markings on their wings; and white stripes. My friend, Sherrell’s 92 year old mother, who has lived in the Kansas country for many years, told me that I could attract more Orioles with fresh, ripe orange slices. I place these around the yard and watch as the Orioles come for this sweet treat. The “lonesome” cry of the Dove. Never before had I realized how true this saying is. Doves mate for life, I am told. I see one pair constantly in our back yard, close together, moving in unison as they look for worms. Their dusk cooing seems sorrowful; the tonal qualities are muted, softened. I love to hear the lonesome call of the Doves. Huge Barn Owls occupy our big barn; we see them enter and exit daily. When we open the small westward door, Owls flurry above and out the back hay drop until we vacate their domicile.
The songs and mating calls are wonderfully melodic. Early mornings are spent on the front porch with a warm cup of coffee and the wide view which spans north to south and westward endlessly. I hear nothing but the sounds of natural things. Wind in the tree tops, a distant lowing of a neighbor’s cow, the rustling of the corn in the fields to my right and left, and the songs of birds. Crisp and clear, not a note is missed because there is no human generated cacophony. Traffic is extremely sparse; the nearest ‘city’ sounds are 15 miles away. So, in the morning, and the afternoon and well into the evening, (except, of course, when the NOISE bugs <cicadas> arrive), all that is heard is the resonance of mother nature. As dusk settles in, crickets begin their courting clicks, Bull frogs croak from the nearest pond, and the night music begins.
When the weather is this nice, I sleep with every single upstairs windows open. I love the feel of the night breezes and the way the wind wails during stronger gusts, or whispers softly as it travels though the rooms. The sounds of the night come in, too. Creatures large and small, calling to one another. These are never disturbing and never disrupt my sleep. I find the evening ‘s voice comforting; as if it allows an intimate closeness to our true connection to this earth. This magic can be easily lost to us. Here, it is daily “surround sound” at it’s finest.
Nature is alive and well in SE Kansas. Unencumbered, unfettered and free. Such a beautiful thing. K Novelli