Cranes bugling, longspurs skylarking, grouse and prairie-chickens lekking, and everywhere wildflowers – the prairie in spring. Birders don’t usually think of the prairie in springtime, their minds being pulled instead toward migrant hot spots. But it is just as rewarding of a destination as High Island, Point Pelee, and the like. And if you are unable to experience it yourself, the next best thing is to do so through the words of Pete Dunne.
In this narrative, Dunne chronicles a spring that he and his wife spent on America’s grasslands. The journey starts on Groundhog Day at the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeast Colorado. Obviously, that isn’t quite spring. In actuality, it is the halfway point of winter. It also doesn’t look or feel very much like spring yet, seeing as the ground is still covered by a thick blanket of snow. But it was important to the author that he be there at that time, to get a sense of the approaching season.
As spring unfolds, the Dunnes move about America’s heartland, stopping in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota. Birds, of course, figure prominently into the account, as many of the characteristic species of this region are encountered. However, unlike Dunne’s previous Feather Quest, it does not focus exclusively on birds. It encompasses the entire ecology, and even history, of the American prairie. Topics range from birds to buffalo, farms to fire, wildflowers to weather.
A typical person would wonder, “why the prairie?”. Indeed, most of us would rather see and visit the “impressive” parts of the country – the coasts, mountains, and the like. The prairie is merely a seemingly boring stretch of land to be driven through or flown over. That’s a shame. There is much to admire and discover in this ecosystem, as Dunne observes:
Grasslands are no drive-by environment, no place for windshield tourists. You won’t see a horned lizard at sixty-five miles an hour or be able to find spring flowers rising like the phoenix on its five hundredth or watch a Swainson’s hawk hunt, on foot at the edge of a burn, or listen to the plaintive, pure-toned song of Cassin’s sparrow.
You have to get out of the car and get out into it.
If you’ve read anything by Dunne, then you know what to expect here (and if you haven’t, start here; you don’t know what you’ve been missing). Humorous, insightful, educational, and just plain fun to read, his prose is amazing. I particularly enjoyed his analogy of a prairie-chicken lek and a baseball game. It seems a little weird, but it really worked. However, he stretches a bit too far at times, such as the conversation he had with a painted horse. It was just a little wide of the mark for me. But in most everything else, he was right on target.
Especially in one particular chapter.
I am a pretty fair wordsmith. With a little thought and flourish, I can usually come up with words that can convey an experience or at least suggest one to the mind of a reader. Here I’ve met my match.
With that understatement, Dunne prefaces his experience of watching Sandhill Cranes by the thousands descend upon the Platte River to roost. I was not present, and thus cannot accurately judge if he truly captured the essence of the moment. But I’m willing to wager that he was more than equal to the task, for those birds, a thousand miles and many months distant, had me completely enthralled.
I’m glad that Dunne found the words to describe that moment, along with the rest of his time on the prairie, and shared them here. The next time I see our grasslands, it will be with a new perspective.
Reviewed by Grant McCreary on February 23rd, 2009.
Disclosure: The item used to produce this review was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher.