Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Bluebird Day on the Prairie

Wednesday, June 23, 2010.

A morning stroll, a bluebird day on the prairie. Cows have been moved in, still pregnant—Paul is calving even later this year. For the last three years, he has been keeping calves of the year through the winter and selling them as yearlings. A nearly essential element of Montana ranching lore is the bitter-cold middle-of-the-night February calving: Our ranch manager on the West Boulder had built a little sled on which he could pull a half-frozen newborn from some distant pasture to the warmth of a barn. June and July calving abolishes that, and I say bravo.

Modest changes to the flora. The death-camas is the most abundant I’ve ever seen it, and taller than I’ve ever seen it. Most of the helianthella, the little sunflower, is gone, as is the sweetvetch. Newly in bloom:

Potentilla diversifolia: varileaf cinquefoil
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum lanceolatum: lanceleaf stonecrop
Castilleja sp.: Indian paintbrush, dark pink with yellow-tipped petals
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower (only a single flower)
Orobanche fasciculata: clustered broomrape
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia

The godwits and curlews are much more abundant, thank God, though not nearly so plentiful as last year. They are as outraged as ever by my presence in their nesting habitat. The godwits in particular are almost scary, flying straight at me at high speed and shrieking, only to veer off about twenty feet out. I love these birds.

Along a pasture fence, a pair of very blond coyotes were sniffing eagerly at something. They ran away as soon as they saw me, of course, and what the object of their interest was turned out to be one of the grossest sights I’ve ever seen—a cow placenta, so fresh it was practically breathing; bloody, glistening, big.

There was a buck antelope coughing chuff chuff at me on a rise, with his little herd of three does. Then as I dropped into a coulee I almost jumped out of my skin, so loud was the roary bark of what must have been another antelope, very close. I climbed quickly to the point of a steep moraine and could see for a good mile—and not a tree—and no antelope. I don’t know how they do this, but they do it. Maybe they find these little folds in the landscape that somehow they know keep them below most observers’—in particular, predators’—possible sightlines?

High, high above the butte, an eagle. That bird at that moment could doubtless see several hundred antelope here and there across the prairie, including many fawns; but would never dare trying to snatch even the newest-born: Not only the strutting, shiftless males have horns; the moms can use theirs to deadly effect.

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