Rainfall in southern Saskatchewan has been plentiful during the previous two years. The ditches are overgrown with grasses such as Brome and Crested Wheat. They produce excellent livestock hay. It is more arid farther south, in the United States. Semi-trailers filled with bales are crossing the border to be exchanged for US dollars.
What occurred next was completely unexpected when I was nominated by proclamation to get out of the vehicle in which three of us were going and attempt to locate the Marsh Wren we had heard.
I serve as the gofer. My wife and Johnnie have seasoned eyes and ears. I merely follow orders. “Go east!” said the instruction as I approached adjacent Reed Canary Plant, a grass found in sloughs and damp bottoms. I needed to glance at the sun to regain my bearings since I was perplexed. I was walking towards the tall, heavy-headed grass towards the north. The cry of the Marsh Wren came from an alfalfa field to the southeast.
“Dickcissel!” said one of my colleagues.
The last time this tall prairie grass bird was seen in Saskatchewan was twenty years ago. We quickly discovered there were two birds in the field. A male with a conspicuous black patch on its breast and a female that flitted back and forth in the grass. The male spent a lot of time singing while sitting on the top of Curled Dock, an invasive plant.
While a male Dickcissel should never be confused for a Western Meadowlark, it does happen. And I did on that particular day. They were both on the same field. The two birds have similar colours and patterns. Male Dickcissels are substantially smaller than meadowlarks and have thicker, sparrow- or finch-like bills. The tail of the Dickcissel, on the other hand, is proportionally longer than that of the Western Meadowlark, which is stubby and short.
Four days later, thirty miles north of the initial report, two additional male Dickcissels were heard but not seen. The first was Smooth Brome Grass, and the second was golden Sweet Clover. These invasive plants are already spreading on their own and are often spotted in roadside ditches flooded by heavy rains.
When I went to this more northern spot a few days later, the birds were vanished. It turned revealed to be an instance of misidentification. I had once again mistaken the slow version of the Marsh Wren’s song with the Dickcissel’s cry. Two Marsh Wrens were seen near the rumoured Dickcissel’s singing perches. Dickcissels like to build their nests on alfalfa fields. The males are early risers, singing till nightfall from a position above the grass cover.
The male Dickcissel stays near to the nest, but he never assists with fledgling rearing or nest defence. The female, on the other hand, scurries about, staying close to the grass canopy and doing all of the activities required to rear a family deep in the grass or crop. Heavy rains plagued Saskatchewan throughout the month of June. At the start of July, the province was hit with even more rain. One community got more rain in half a day than it typically gets in a year. For a few days, the region was transformed into an inland lake. Under these circumstances, dickcissel and other grassland bird nests would normally be swept away.
While forecasting the breeding success of grassland songbirds is difficult, predicting that of ducks and geese should have been easy. When this year’s water birds were big enough to fly, it became clear what had occurred. They could walk out into the centre of lakes without worry at that time. Throughout the summer, they had remained concealed among the abnormally tall slough grasses and sedges.
Dickcissel’s initial site became a haven for the province’s “listers.” They took a gamble and arrived on the gravel road to see the alfalfa field. On one of those generally hot days that finish in thunderstorms, three birders spent many hours at the spot. By the end of the day, they had seen two guys and heard two more singing. A Government of Canada scientist who spotted and documented four males corroborated the observations a few days later. He believed he could have recorded two more songs. There was just one female confirmed.
The female Dickcissel was still sighted along the gravel road that ran parallel to the alfalfa field. She took out from the north and usually flew south, returning shortly. The male seemed to be a creature of habit as well. He like to perch on his favourite weed.
Dickcissels have had an erratic and transient presence in Saskatchewan. They were only present in significant numbers for two summers: 1933 and 1934. Nests were discovered in the grass at the edge of an aspen grove and in a spruce tree at the time. Saskatchewan was parched at the time. But not as dry as the devastating droughts that ravaged Texas, Oklahoma, and the other states in the “dust bowl.” These are ideal Dickcissel hunting grounds.
While Saskatchewan saw substantial rainfall during the summer of 2000, the central American plains experienced drought conditions throughout the spring months. The Dickcissels had another reason to move north, as they had done in the 1930s.
Dickcissels have been exceptionally common in the Valley City area of southeast North Dakota. The birds could fly on a diagonal for 350 to 400 miles from there to Weyburn. It is not an impossible trek since the weather makes its way up through North Dakota and into the Souris Valley, where Weyburn borders the Souris River.
Because Dickcissels thrive on invasive plant areas, one would think that southeast Saskatchewan would have become excellent Dickcissel breeding grounds by the turn of the century. But it hasn’t happened. Long grass is required in their environment for the birds to survive. While Dickcissel exist in the northern plains states and the southern parts of the prairie provinces, the unspoiled regions are characterised by short grass grassland.
The little flock of Dickcissels that discovered an alfalfa field in southeast Saskatchewan this year may have struck gold. It was a field full with leafcutter bees that would not be harmed before the plants went to seed. Despite the severe rains in June and July, a female Dickcissel had enough time to produce a brood of chicks by August. However, by late July, there was no sign of any young. Dickcissels were no longer seen or heard by August.
But there was a surprise: those Yellow Clover, Alfalfa, Crested Wheat, and Brome grassed ditches became the last resting place for one more American visitor. A huge, unusual fritillary butterfly was discovered in a roadside ditch bisecting a government field in the final week of July. The pasture was an area of undisturbed rangeland covering around a hundred square kilometres.
The Regal Fritillary is distinguished from the other big fritillaries by its black hind wing, which is crossed by rows of huge light or white dots. Butterflies rely on a specialised diet. The Regal Fritillary, for example, is thought to be reliant on members of the violet family. Where there is adequate moisture, a variety of violet species flourish. That is seldom the case on the short grass prairie, where shade is scarce and rain is uncommon. However, things have changed.
A Regal Fritillary, a butterfly in decline whose long grass prairie home is decreasing, finds its way outside its typical region to a new long grass field. It is the second to be mentioned here. Another one was discovered in the province two years ago, on July 26. It was once again gathered in alfalfa. This time, it was discovered in The Big Muddy beside Big Muddy Lake, an alkali slough that is unsuitable to drink in dry times.
Then there were the plants, which included Big and Little Bluestem grasses. Wet hillside grasses. Stands of Big and Little Bluestem grass, which are seldom seen on the short grass prairies, were discovered swinging on a mound generally populated by dry land survivors such as Blue and Side-oat gramma grasses.
And the ultimate opportunist: mushrooms—spores that move across the planet in the jet stream, raining down everywhere all the time. They will grow whenever and wherever the circumstances are favourable.
Morels are a cold, moist, forest fringe mushroom that appeared last year for the first time in a typically dry land prairie park—a gourmet’s pleasure.
Whatever the cause, birders and other naturalists should be on the lookout for ongoing shocks in their surroundings as life adjusts to changing weather and presumably altering ecosystem.
Martin Bailey writes a weekly nature column for the Weyburn, Saskatchewan newspaper. He has been involved in birding, banding birds of prey, and censusing endangered species for many years. He can be reached at [email protected].