My field notes from autumns past are much the same as they are today. Yet, while many of the things I noted 40 years ago are the same, there are other things that are never seen in my later field notes. I still go out in the fall and gather some native prairie seed just like I did then. Over the years, the native prairie remnants have become more and more scarce and many of the places I used to collect seed are gone.
I remember the many flocks of Canada geeseómany with several hundred birdsóand day after day the Snow and Blue geese would pass through southwestern Wisconsin. Most any time during an autumn day, you could look up to see a large flock of wild ducks passing over. Today I rarely see any ducks at all and almost never see the Snow geese.
Some of my notes from around 40 years ago are of watching Marsh hawks or Short-eared owls as they glided over the tall grass. Watching these skillful hunters was one of my favorite things to do on a fall evening. Many times in my early years I would come across a flock of owls while on my walks through the marsh. Usually roosting in a small stand of pople, willow or alders during the day, a flock of ten to twenty migrating Short-eared owls would all fly up around me at once. I always felt bad about disturbing them but it was always a sight to remember. I never thought then that there would come a day when I would never see one again, and I havenít for many years.
The loss of native habitat and species had been resounding in my lifetime and Iím sadly reminded of those losses as I reminisce through my field notes. There are lots of good memories as well. Thereís always an entry in my past notes that puts things into perspective. My how things have changed.
Monday evening I took a walk through several acres of tall grass prairie and I was reminded that I couldnít have done that so close to home 40 years ago. Back then there really wasnít a movement to restore native grasslands. What prairie there was left was mostly along a roadside or a railroad right of way. Today, through the efforts of people like Gary Eldred of the Prairie Enthusiasts, native prairie landscapes are popping up everywhere.
There is something that always stirs my spirit when Iím standing in a field of Big bluestem and Indian grasses that sway in the breeze at eye level. In the autumn the prairie turns from green to yellow-gold, soft browns, beige, pinks and purplesóbeautiful fall colors like you canít see anywhere else. Itís like the prairie plants are saying, ďIím not dead or dying. Iím just slowly going to sleep.Ē
The beautiful prairie flowers of summer have gone and their remaining heads and pods are also lovely works of art. Inside these dried flower heads and seedpods are the hope for sustaining the future and the past. A prairie is forever.
At the edge of the woods, a juvenile Red-tailed hawk sits high in a maple tree and surveys the surroundings. The long brown, barred tail that says sheís a first-year bird is plain to see. Soon she will migrate south for the winter, like most first-year Red-tails do, and her adult parents will spend the winter here.
The wind came Tuesday, after a hard rain in the night and early morning. It was the kind of wind that blows branches into the yard and rattles the windows. It blew hard enough to blow the hat right off my head, and did, three times. The roar the trees make as they wave together in the strong wind. Iím surround by trees and the sound they make in a strong wind can be soothing at times but when the wind gusts to 45 mph, I get a little edgy. For two days and nights, the trees made the sound of waves and the gray clouds blocked out the sun. Life goes on as always and the birds had no trouble adjusting their flights. They know how to deal with the wind but I think it does wear on them. Imagine what it must be like to try to sleep while holding on to a small branch that is whipping around in the wind. Itís hard to perch on anything but the ground when the wind blows so hard. Three eagles spent most of the day on the ground, standing in the open space of a pasture near the creek. They no doubt had to grip the grassy ground with their powerful talons to keep from blowing over. The wildlife take the wind as it comes and they are able to make the instinctive adjustments needed to cope. Unlike humans, the wild ones have made peace with the wind.
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