Sitting quietly just above the floodplain of a prairie stream spilling from the foothills, birds dash in and out of willow – yellow warbler, gray flycatcher, little brown jobs (unidentified little birds flitting by), a spotted towhee screeching over my shoulder, red-tailed hawk floating on winds aloft. I have a 500mm lens on my lap, but my intention is simply to be still and uninterrupted in nature… then a pair of hummingbirds zoom past, too quick for me to ID. “I’d like to know hummingbirds better,” says the voice in my head. Just then, a gorgeous female Calliope’s hummingbird lands silently on an intertwined branch, against a deep green and dappled light background on the floodplain that shows off her gorgeous form and color. She too is still in this moment.
With the Coronavirus bearing down in early March, I began wandering on foot close to home again; the same thing I was doing when I started out with a Nikon film camera and 70-200mm lens around 30 years ago. That first camera rig changed how I interpret the world around me, how I see and communicate. My introduction to prairie came in wild vignettes on Denver’s edges, from urban refuges, cottonwood gallery forests, remnant prairie, and diverted water. In time, I was ready to tell a photo story and looked to Colorado’s shortgrass prairie from our backyard to the Nebraska/Kansas/Wyoming/Oklahoma borders, in part because people said “there’s nothing out there.” I didn’t know you could be a conservation photographer back then, but felt like I might have something to say, crisscrossed the Colorado prairie for four years, and wound up publishing Prairie Thunder in 2007, my first book. That prairie work led to a lasting friendship with Mike Forsberg and close to a decade in the Platte Basin Time-lapse community, our downstream friends.
On one of those early spring walks, my wife, Marla, and I discovered black-billed magpies constructing their intricate domed nest in the fork of a Russian olive tree, standing on the sloped edge of an offshoot of Croke Canal that’s sandwiched between an open equestrian area and quarter horse ranches established in 1970’s (then) rural Arvada, a west of Denver suburb not far from where the Great Plains collide with Rocky Mountain foothills.
Native to the Intermountain West, black-billed magpies thrive in habitat ranging from wilderness to the edges of Front Range suburbs. Over a period of weeks, I witnessed a magpie pair frenetically build their domed nest (upper LH corner of the frame) along the Croke Canal with precision. These corvids are among the world’s smartest birds and mesmerizing to watch over time. After all that work, they would abandon the nest around the end of April, most likely in favor of another site. Arvada, Colorado
I walked to the next three or four mornings a week to watch the nest construction, the comings and goings of the busy pair gathering sticks (not just any stick either), then mud dabs and catkins for the nest bowl, my perch at eye level with the nest from across the canal. I’d never had this intimate time with magpies before, their brilliance as one the world’s smartest birds on full display; and realized one morning in early April how getting lost in the life of common birds transcended the Covid-19 experience. For a little while, all of the world’s sickness and misery disappeared into bearing witness as birds offered hope in the rebirth of spring, normalcy in the precise timing of their arrivals and movements.
Common mergansers and mallards floated in the shallow canal that starts as a snowflake atop the Continental Divide, red-tailed hawks soared between cottonwood forests with roots deep in the canal system, great blue herons, blue jays, chickadees, and nuthatches took turns visiting my little corner along the suburban canal. Life wherever water flows. On April 29, I noted a single airplane in the pre-industrial age blue sky.
Spring unfolded in fits and starts as new arrivals came in April – suddenly western meadowlarks were singing from every yucca top, vesper sparrows burst from sketchy prairie, fuzzy great horned owlets just peeking over nest rim, raucous red-winged blackbirds chasing and defending in cattails lining a pond in the neighborhood park. One mid-day mountain bike ride led me through neighborhoods to ragged prairie on Spring Mesa just beyond suburbia’s western edge, where a female great horned owl was still sitting on eggs when other owls were close to fledging.
Western screech owls are masters of disguise, hidden in plain sight. Fortunately, my buddy Kim spotted this guy in a cottonwood cavity about a mile from home for me. I’ve witnessed quite a few sleepy moments with this owl, but on this particular evening the little owl moved up on the edge, exposing needle-like claws. He’d use those claws for hunting that evening – after turning to check out nearby mapies carrying on, looking up to an overhead croaking raven, he just floated silently past bike path and me to a spot in heavy cover along the little creek. Arvada, CO
Marla and I found a rhythm of bird walks, bike rides to the Spring Mesa owl nest, and quiet moments of just studying birds from our back patio – for a time when the world went silent it seemed red-tailed hawks had taken over, boldly diving for cottontails between homes. We dropped out of the cable news cycle, favoring birds as entertainment to cope with the heaviness of life as our species became the virus.
I worried about the mama owl up on the Mesa, exposed to wind, storms, and blistering sun before leaf out. Somewhere around 30 rides up the Mesa, yet another peek through pocket binoculars revealed two fuzzy white heads, quickly covered up by mom’s broad wings spanning the nest, when I excitedly exclaimed “she’s gonna pull it off.” On following excursions, white-tailed deer jumped the barbwire fence where I’d seen a coyote with a vole slip under, as western meadowlarks defending nest territories seemed to grow in volume each day. One morning, a squadron of four ravens circled the owl nest twice, and then flew on silently, perfectly choreographed. I’m sure there’s a biological reason why, but have come to expect these moments because prairie has her own ancient rhythms. A couple of peaceful purple dusk nights with Marla and the little owls are among the most meaningful moments of our Covid spring, now turned to summer.
On a high mesa past the last row of suburbs, a pair of recently hatched Great horned owlets have their first look around their prairie home against the foothills west of Denver. I watched the female sitting on this small nest in a poplar with little cover, hoping she’d pull off a brood late in the season. For about a week, she kept the pair under broad wings. This particular May 13 evening was the first time they were revealed, marled as their first look at their prairie home. It seemed they fledged in no time, as if they were never here at all. Arvada, Colorado
We’re sill very close to home for the most part, our time in suburban fringe prairie nature the only way to make sense of a world on fire, war on science in a pandemic, us versus them, the people rising up for Black Lives Matter. Through this defining time, I’m unable to even think about the idea of “returning to normal” as fast as possible, shortcutting respect for this moment and our responsibility to one another in community. Certainly normal will be markedly different and we’ll all be profoundly impacted when the virus is done with us. What does that look like?
Across the globe, many of us have turned to nature in this prolonged crisis, respite from our lives flipped suddenly on their heads; backyard birders getting to know our wild community, inspired by nature’s rebirth in spring and resilience when our anthropogenic world shut down for a time. What do we do with the knowledge that nature heals, and with just a little habitat and less human disturbance, or stillness, wild creatures can thrive next door? Does empathy and compassion for one another in this moment transfer to our wild neighbors? Will we rise up for our ailing planet? And where do we see ourselves in the community of living things?
Everything changed at the neighborhood pond in mid-April. Overnight, red-winged blackbirds, savannah sparrows, and mallards were the start of a burgeoning wild community in a man-made wetand lake. Red-winged blackbirds arrive on the scene hot, males chasing females and each other while females gather nesting materials in cattails, all at warp speed. And the soundscape is a range of otherwordly sounds, especially the metallic clinking sound blackbirds make. Here, a female lifts from a cattail stalk adding to her nest low in the cattail forest rimming the little pond. Arvada, Colorado
As I search for words to relate the meaning of personal experience, a partway journey with only uncertainty ahead, recounting tiny moments and witnessing wild wonders blocks from home… I’m mindful while witnessing birds and prairie returning to life, I had thought I was simply returning to my backyard prairie roots.
I was really learning stillness.