Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Nesting in Montana; the Field Naturalist and the Great Swarm of Bees

After two summers of climatic cruelty--2011 flood, 2012 drought--and a winter threatening a dry forever, an ordinary Montana spring has set in: rain machine-gunning the metal roof all night, wind lashing the house like Paul Bunyan's ox-whip, low gray days when the mercury struggles toward fifty degrees and gives up, nights like last night from which the Crazies awake blinding white with fresh snow down to timberline and past it, under blue-defining blue.

Cat Isabel, not yet two years old--wherever that puts her in terms of maturity (youth, I can say that much)--after two and a half days enduring without complaint confinement in her kennel in the thrumming M3 and two nights in motel rooms (Elko, then Bozeman) reeking of chemical solvents and artificial fabrics, is as happy as that sky is blue.  We play Race to the Face, in which I place my chin on the corner post of the pole fence while she trots as fast as she can from the farther corner to touch her cold nose to mine.  She charges up cottonwoods to about ten feet of altitude, just for the feel of it in her claws and for the challenge of balancing on fragile little branches and finding her way down.  (Before long she'll go farther up and have to be serious about descending.)  She sproings across the lawn and into the higher grass beyond in pursuit of phantom prey.  She sits regally erect on the porch and surveys her demesne.  When I return from the creek, she bounds toward me with her front legs spread wide with each bound in what looks like a gesture of embrace--much like the gesture she used to make when she was a kitten that said, Pick me up--and when she arrives at my feet, in fact, she curls and curvets in her more mature way of suggesting the same.  Then we walk in the driveway together and she grovels in the gravel--Graveling, I call it--rubbing herself till she's thoroughly dusty, grainy, her white feet tan, in what's actually a kind of bath.

On the prairie the long-billed curlews and marbled godwits are nesting, and dive-bomb the intruder with shrieks of annoyance.  The curlews' alarm call is a relatively melodious frederique, frederique, and their warning flights are long graceful circles that often end with the funny-looking creature (what a schnoz!) in profile not far away giving one the eyeball--the whole routine lovely and comical (not to the bird, presumably).  The godwits take everything more seriously.  Sometimes they will fly straight at you, which can be rather unsettling until you know that they always do veer away.  Their call is harsh and unmistakably upset.  Neither of them ever gives a clue to the location of their nests, and I've never seen one.

I walked out as far as a flooding irrigation ditch and was still city-prissy enough that I didn't want to get my feet wet, so I was about to turn around when I heard a monumental buzzing, inconceivably loud.  It must have been a hundred thousand bees, I thought, maybe a million, maybe ten million, some sort of epochal swarm.  At first I said to myself, Well, turning around is a good idea anyhow, do I want to get caught up in the thing and stung to death?  And then I thought, Oh, hell, something like this has got to be once in a lifetime, I bet they don't pay attention to you at all, I've got to see it.  So I waded on across, and suddenly the immense sound was all behind me.  How could that be?  It made no sense.  Well, duh.  It turns out that the hundred thousand or ten million were in fact about two hundred, and they were all zooming around a patch of half-drowned crummy little mustard plants, the kind that grow in the beat-uppest, stomped-onnest dirt road beds, except that these were half under water so that only their flowers were showing, and these little bees, sweat bees was what we used to call them when I was growing up in Memphis, were going totally apeshit over them and making the most amazing amount of noise while doing so.  I waded right through them and they paid absolutely no attention to me.

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