Black birds by the side of the road

I have spent a lot of time in the car and, as a result, see lots of roadside birds.  Many of them are black.

Starlings are still with me – I have seen starlings every day of my trip and that includes Starlings hopping round near bison.

Larger than a Starling but similarly iridescent when seen really well, is the Common Grackle.  The males have characteristically shaped tails – kell-shaped in flight – and I think I have seen them every day too.

Brown-headed Cowbirds are mostly black, and you only see the brown heads of the males when up close.  These are of similar size to Starlings and often form small flocks.  They are nest parasites and are thought to have played a part in the declines of many American woodland species as forests became fragmented and access to those forests became easier for cowbirds.   They follow grazing animals to catch insects stirred up by the animal’s passage and I have now seen flocks of cowbirds under a bison’s feet.

Red-winged Blackbirdsare black too – with spectacular yellow and red shoulder patches in the males.  Andre Dhondt, at Cornell, pointed out to me that the males can hide their red wing patches when they feed in groups around bird feeders – as if to say ‘I’m not looking for a fight’.  These birds are often by the side of the road and only when they fly do I realise from the wing-patch which species is involved.

So, there are four regular black birds to keep the birder-motorist guessing right across the continent.  But a few days ago, around the 100th meridian in the South Dakota prairie-land, I noticed another black bird.  This one feeds on the roadside and is a similar size to the others, and is often with the others, but has white wing patches.  A new black bird – what can it be?

This bird always seemed to fly directly away from the road without perching conveniently ona fence to give me a better look.  At first I laboured under the misapprehension that it might be a Tri-coloured Blackbird as they have white wing patches but once I got a good look at Sibley I realised how foolish that idea was as they don’t live in South Dakota and the white patches are very different – no points for that guess.

New birds on new continents are fun – but sometimes one spends ages looking in the wrong part of the book.  Eventually I realised that these were male Lark Buntings.  The white on the end of the tail isn’t nearly as obvious as Sibley suggests and that sent me the wrong way for a while.

The 100th meridian marks something of a watershed for western/Eastern American birds and I knew that I ought to be seeing another blackbird too.  So, yesterday, in the rain, but before the flat tire, I paid more attention to black birds by the road and after a while I saw the characteristic white eye ring of the Brewer’s Blackbird.

Must get that tire fixed so that I can see what black birds the road has in store.


Rainy day and a nice Highway Patrolman

Today I drove around the southern Black Hills of Dakota in the rain.  I saw a few Bison, I saw some birds and I had a nice day.

I also learned what I did, really, already know, that I really should check where the jack, wheelbrace, spare tire etc are just in case I get a flat after dark, in the rain, without a flashlight and far from help.  But I was very grateful to the Highway Patrolman who stopped and gave me a hand.

Tomorrow is a Public Holiday – Memorial Day – just as it is in the UK, and I will spend a good chunk of it trying to get roadworthy again – what are the odds on a bright sunny day?

So I may have plenty of time for blogging tomorrow.


Wounded knee (2)

Yesterday I wrote about Wounded Knee and today I bought Roger L. di Silvestro’s ‘In the Shadow of Wounded Knee’ which I will read properly but share these points from his book.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is almost the size of Connecticut and is home to 40,000 people whose median annual income is $2,600. There is about 90% unemployment. The teenage suicide rate is 3.5 times the national average, infant mortality is 4 times the national average, cervical cancer is 6 times the national average, tuberculosis and diabetes are both 9 times the national average. Average life expectancy is 45 years. At least 60% of Pine Ridge homes need to be burned to the ground because of infestations of a potentially fatal black mold. More than a third of homes lack basic water and sewage systems and 39% have no electricity. The school drop out rate is 70%.
Now I couldn’t see all that as I drove through, but it doesn’t surprise me based on what I did see.
And what do I, a tourist with a pair of binoculars, know about such complex issues? Obviously, not very much at all.
However, it strikes me that when the USA opened its arms, at Ellis Island, to the poor, the tired, the huddled masses arriving from the East it was turning its back on some of its own, out West.  And its back seems still to be turned.

Who is the more wounded?

I drove through the Badlands enjoying the scenery, the early morning coolness, the promise of another sunny day and the ubiquitous song of the Western Meadowlark.

Meadowlarks, Eastern and Western, are declining grassland birds who suffer from the earlier cutting of hay and silage these days.  They are the corncrakes of North America.  But with their yellow fronts and beautiful songs they are well worth holding onto.

Not many American birds, in my limited experience, have great songs.  Many are stunning to see – like the Mountain Bluebirds of yesterday and today (and by the way – no internet connection last night) – but apart from the orioles and the meadowlarks I have met few great songsters.

While travelling through the Badlands today I called in at Wounded Knee  – a small town in the poorest county in the USA in terms of per capita income, and within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Have you heard of Wounded Knee?  Perhaps you have read the book ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ or seen the film of the same name?  Or perhaps you know the story of the massacre of over 150 Lakota Sioux indians at the hands of the 7th Cavalry in December 1890?

This account of what happened is particularly poignant.

If you are keen to visit the site then you will have to make an effort – it’s not signposted at all.  And when you arrive there is precious little to tell you what happened there or what is its significance – a strange combination since the events here are widely regarded as having been the culmination of the war against the native American.

You can park in the dust and stroll up to the cemetery where a simple monument, inside a chain-link fence, marks the mass grave of the indian victims.  Forty-three names are inscribed on the monument – 21 of them have animals as part of their names and there are no women listed.

If you didn’t know it was here, you would drive past.  There is no sign to point you to the hilltop and no sign that America wants to mark its home-grown My Lai massacre of all those years ago.

I can see why the US would be ashamed of events here – past events perhaps but certainly the current poverty of the local people is no basis for pride today.  Thinly disguised begging and selling of trinkets to passing tourists, like myself, makes one wonder about the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And the Meadowlarks sing on over the prairies as they did in the time of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.  It’s as though the Meadowlarks remain hopeful despite their depleted numbers whilst man remains fickle in his kindness to his fellow man.  Have the native American indians lost hope or do their hearts still sing like Meadowlarks?


Not so bad lands

The Badlands National Park is 224,000 acres of scenery south of the I90 and it is stunningly beautiful. A prairie grassland with striking rock formations. And the sun shone all day.
I saw Bison and Pronghorn Antelope roaming the Plains, Bighorn Sheep on the rocks, Mule Deer in the valleys and Prairie Dogs in their townships. The bird list increased with Burrowing Owl living among the Prairie Dogs, stunning Mountain Bluebirds, Rock Wrens (which took me a while to work out) and others, including a Magpie.This was the type of day I came to the USA to enjoy and I got the most out of it – even watching the sun set in the direction of Yellowstone where I will be in a few days time.