Male and female killdeer
Quiet early spring days on the prairie are a rare, elusive beauty.
Probably everyone has his, or her, favorite visual nature spot. For many, it's the mountains or the seashore, areas that offer sharp contrasts, like jagged peaks reaching up to the sky or land meeting water.
And everyone has a favorite time of the year: fall with the changing leaves, early summer with its still refreshing and gentle warmth, winter and a soft snowfall.
The splendor of the prairie on a spring day is subtle, and may revolve around something as simple as a blossoming flower, or a big, cloudless sky, or a single bird song.
An hour before sunrise recently, and it was absolutely still outside. Not a breath of wind, not a sound, nada. So quiet even the dog was spooked.
Then a lone killdeer started its plaintive "kill-dee, kill-dee" cry.
Killdeer are the most widespread and common of the North American plovers. They are also easy to recognize, running along the ground with their double breast band, singing their eponymous song.
They are also one of the first birds to return to the prairie each spring for nesting, joining the western meadowlark and, a little later, the snipe.
Of course that predawn killdeer I heard was made more prominent by the lack of wind.
Wind. On the prairie, it’s the force of nature whose name we dare not mention.
For folks who live on the Great Plains, wind is a constant companion, sometimes gentle, sometimes sordid.
With the possible exception of some seashores, the wind on the Great Plains consistently blows harder than any other place in the lower 48 states.
Which brings to mind the apocryphal story of the western ranch visitor asking the cowboy, "Does the wind blow this way here all the time?"
To which the cowboy replied: "No, mister. It’ll maybe blow this way for a week or 10 days, and then it’ll change and blow like hell for a while."
East of the Rocky Mountains our winters are made bearable by chinooks, warming winter winds that sweep down from the mountains and spill onto the prairie, eating away the snow in front of it.
Western Montana folks sometimes turn up their noses at our wind. To windy over there, they say. Yet wind brings us blue skies, something uncommon in the western mountain valleys during the winter.
Of course, wind can bring unbearable weather in the form of blizzards in the winter and dust storms in the summer.
So the absence of wind can be nice, but there are times it's welcome.
Like in early spring, when anglers want the remaining ice to melt off area lakes and reservoirs. Then, a warm and windy day is better than just a warm day.
And like in mosquito season, when a windy day can keep those pests off our arms and legs.
So, while a calm bird sonata at dawn is nice, that force of nature whose name we dare not mention can be a good thing, too.