Sunday, May 8, 2016

Four major food groups

I stopped by the local food store this morning to pick up some -- big surprise -- some food. As I checked out the cute little high school checker said, "making pizza?"

Which was a pretty sure guess based on my purchases.

"Seems like a good day for pizza," I said.

"Nothing wrong with pizza," she opined.

'No," I said, "and it's one of the four major food groups."

She raised a curious eyebrow.

"Sure," I said. "Beer, pizza, doughnuts, and beer. I learned that in the navy."

Which caused her to laugh in delight. Or at least to laugh  in a simulation of delight, perhaps to get the goofy old guy the hell out of the store. I like the first possibility, but I'm fine with the second one.

This post really has nothing at all to do with the four major food groups. The working post title was "Prairie Flight," and it's probably a better title, but I wanted to share evidence of my clever wit and sophisticated repartee. And since there's not much of that to begin with...


Spring is a good time for bird watching. Migratory species are moving in or passing through, mating season prompts a lot of birdsong, color and courtship activity, followed inevitably and remarkably quickly by the arrival of the newest generation.

Let me preface the following with this disclaimer; I'm only describing what I observe on the EJE Ranch and across some of the surrounding territory. This amounts to a box roughly ten miles on a side, anchored by Interstate 80 on the north and Nebraska Highway 71 on the east.

Let me also add that I'm not an ornithologist, nor do I play one on the idjit box, nor do I stay at express chain motels. Furthermore, I'm not a birder, and neither do I make systematic observations. I see what I see as I'm doing my daily work, the wonders of modern technology allow me to capture and share images and video, and that's about it.

We've been fortunate this spring to see abundant precipitation in the form of rain and snow. At present we're something like 3-4 inches above average for the year to date, which is a pretty big deal when you consider that our long term average annual precipitation is just north of 16 inches.

When we have abundant precipitation falling atop saturated soils, the excess water runs downhill and collects in low areas called playas. These are ephemeral lakes, commonly called "ponds" by most folks in these here parts. Playas are by definition wetlands, even though they are nearly always dry. Over time they have evolved into very interesting micro-ecosystems. In most years, when rainfall timing and distribution is average, the playas will fill and retain standing water for a week or two. When precipitation is abundant the playas may contain standing water for as much as 60-90 days. In dry years, or even in average years when precipitation timing and distribution is unfavorable, the playas may collect no standing water at all.

When standing water is present in the playas in springtime local bird populations are more diverse. Standing water attracts migrating waterfowl and shore birds, and, unsurprisingly, attracts and concentrates more common species as well.

We have a good deal of standing water in the playas this spring, and as the water attracts birds, the bird activity attracts me. As I mentioned before, I'm not an ornithologist or a birder. I find the increased population diversity quite interesting, and I like to identify what I see, which is part of the enjoyment of the experience. But the thing that really floats my boat is the big picture, the holistic view of the shortgrass prairie over time. It's a robust and homeostatic ecosystem, and as best we can tell has remained unchanged for at least the last 13,000-15,000 years, or since approximately the end of the most recent glaciation.

Changelessness does not mean a lack of variation though. There's always been an ebb and flow to the annual prolifity of the prairie, and that ebb and flow is linked directly to precipitation. There are very dry years, and very wet years, and -- mostly -- very average years. Having been allowed to see all three over time, I'm filled with wonder and delight at the way this stuff works.


  1. Another good one Shaun.

    I too like amusing the young ladies with my old guy repartee. And birds of the feathery kind have often filled the odd moment with a sense of wonder.

    1. Thanks Sarge.

      As have birds of the English kind!

  2. Woodcock really do look like snipe. don't they?

    1. I can't tell most of the shore birds apart unless they're wearing name tags. Quite often the same species have a handful of phases or variations. It's all very confusing. But fun!