Sunday, May 29, 2011

New pals and old friends

     Ever been to Nebraska? Doesn't sound like the most exotic locale, but I was there recently and I have to say it is a lovely place. Through work, I had an opportunity to attend a conference that was headlined as a "staff enrichment" experience. It wasn't devoted just to leadership training, or team-building, or operational functions, or just plain fun stuff--it was all of that combined and more. Choices of sessions abounded, from beginning ornithology (bird identification) to Outlook tips and tricks (how to better manage your e-mail) to, yes, leadership and team-building. Special sessions on our organization's work in the boreal forests in Canada and water management in Columbia were also included. It was a chance to meet new colleagues ("new pals") from all over the country, even the world, and to find out a bit more about our work in other places. It was, indeed, an enriching experience.
Lied Lodge

     This is the third year my employer has held this conference, and my first opportunity to attend. It has been held every year in a conference facility called Lied (pronounced LEE-ed) Lodge, on the outskirts of Nebraska City, NE. This area of southeast Nebraska is where Arbor Day originated. It's in the middle of what once was the Great Plains shortgrass prairie, a place of very few trees. So, when J. Sterling Morton showed up here in the 1860's as a pioneer settler and editor of the Nebraska News in Nebraska City, he saw a treeless plain and imagined what it would look like with the addition of trees. He soon developed a life-long interest in agriculture and horticulture, and promoted the planting of trees in the area. This became the precursor for the first National Arbor Day in 1872, where a national effort was made to plant trees across the country; it's an annual holiday that continues to this day.  The Arbor Day Foundation, too, is the founder of the Tree City program, of which my Town of Pinetop-Lakeside is a member. On a side note, Morton later became the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1893 through 1896, and promoted the restoration of forests and the planting of trees during his tenure.
Back of Lied Lodge
overlooking Arbor Day Farm

    Lied Lodge overlooks Arbor Day Farm, a farm open to the public that celebrates Arbor Day and its roots, and which showcases agricultural practices, particularly fruit orchards, grapes/vines, and some forms of vegetable gardening. Large stands of woods, no doubt in existence due to Morton's vision and tree-planting activities, line creeks and drainages, with trails interspersed among the trees.

A dose of spring; leafed-out mature oak
     It really was a beautiful place to be. The grass had greened up, the trees had leafed out--much sooner than what we have been experiencing in Arizona, so it was a breath of springtime right when I needed it.
     Most of our conference sessions were held inside the Lodge, which was built with a focus on "green" architecture and operations (no new sheets and towels every day unless requested, water conservation infrastructure). The intent of Lied Lodge is to cater to conservation-oriented groups and gatherings, and we fit that bill.

Inside Lied Lodge
     Our time was pretty much booked, so there wasn't a lot of opportunities to get out and wander around, other than maybe the half-hour before dinner or in the early morning. One afternoon was dedicated to your chosen field trip, and I chose to go with the group visiting a shortgrass prairie preserve. I was really looking forward to taking a few birdwatching walks whenever I could, as it had been decades since I've birded in the midwest in springtime. I started birdwatching in the late 1970's, while in high school in Minnesota. My early "lifers," or new birds observed, were then birds considered to be "eastern" U.S. birds. In the mid-1980's, I moved to Arizona, and most of my birding since then has either taken place in the Southwest, or on travels/vacations that were nowhere near the midwest. I knew that this conference would offer me an opportunity to see some of these birds I had not seen in decades--the "old friends" that the title of this entry pertains to.
Great Crested Flycatcher

    With binoculars in hand, I walked around the Lodge and Arbor Day Farm property as often as possible. Between my walks there, and on the shortgrass prairie preserve hike, I tallied a total of 26 species, with a number of memorable standouts. One of the first birds that took me completely by surprise was the Great Crested Flycatcher. Found hanging around the trees across the Lodge's parking lot making the distinctive flycatcher moves (perch, sally in the air for an insect, return to the same perch, repeat), I was amazed at how common this species was around here. My first sighting of this species occurred while slogging through a peat bog in northern Minnesota, with Mr. Peterson, our high school Conservation Club's field trip leader, being really excited to spot this particular bird. So, as I watched this old friend I hadn't seen in years, I recalled the smell and feel of walking through a bog, feet squishing on the soft peat below, while peering into gnarled cedar trees.

American Redstart
    While on the trail through the forested area of Arbor Day Farm, I would hear and see Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees, all familiar species of home. I then saw a flitting in the trees, and figured it was perhaps the chickadee I had just seen. Instead, I received a welcome surprise of an American Redstart, a warbler of the midwestern forests, and a species I simply did not anticipate. I watched it fan its tail, letting me see it in full color, and remembered early morning walks in Chester Woods just outside my home town of Rochester, MN.

Eastern Kingbird
    While on the field trip to the prairie preserve (where, ironically, most work entails getting RID of trees that are descendants of those planted by the very Arbor Day enthusiasts of the past), a number of birds welcomed me back to the midwest fold. Field sparrows were calling from some shrubs; a house wren sang from an old shed; American goldfinches flew in front of me, bright spots of lemon yellow along a brown and green background. At the beginning of our walk, an Eastern Kingbird (another species in the flycatcher family) perched on a goldenrod stalk. Its dark, slaty gray-blue back and head contrasted with its buffy white breast, and I recalled the numerous times walking in southeastern Minnesota oak savannahs, meadows, and farm fields observing this sweet little bird.

Indigo Bunting
At the top of a long hill, we stopped to catch our breath, take a drink of water, and enjoy the views of the Missouri river in the background. Scanning the tree tops and prairie below us, I came across an Indigo Bunting. My mind immediately went back to where I would see these beautiful deep-blue birds frequently in the fields around Shell Lake, Wisconsin, where our beloved lake cabin was located. I remembered the dewy mornings, walking along the road encircling the lake, and seeing these birds perching on sunflowers and tall grasses. 

     Old friends, these birds. Reminders of a great youth experiencing the outdoors, whether it be with school chums and our high school Conservation Club with Mr. Peterson hauling us hither and thither to peat bogs, savannahs, and wetlands, to lazy morning walks around Shell Lake with my father, pointing out birds, looking at bugs and frogs, and whatever may appear in our path.

     Coming back from our trip, the group retired to the Arbor Day Farm barn, where a great barbeque was held with these new acquaintances of mine, fellow conservationists from nearly every state. After dinner, a troupe of a half-dozen local country-western line dancers led us through some line-dancing, and a great time was had by all. Throughout the evening, as I conversed with these new pals, I'd look into the nearby trees and smile at my old friends, the cardinals, blue jays, redstarts, flycatchers, and chickadees, as they serenaded us with song. 


1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a really fun trip. I didn't know the history of Arbor Day and now I do. Did you take the bird pictures? Liz