Let me say at the outset: Costa Rica it’s not, but birding in a feedlot casts, well, if not charm, then at least, its own piquant “spell.”
To get to Feedlot Road (yes, there’s a road sign and everything), I drive two hundred miles across stunning, snow-capped mountains and veer south onto the nearly featureless western limit of the Great Plains.
Three hours later, at 8:30 a.m., I arrive at the feedlot—a small one, as far as feedlot operations in the West go. Through my binoculars, I watch a cowboy saddle his horse. Since I don’t want to be chased off what is probably private land, I plop on my goofy birding hat, a get-up calculated to ensure I’d be quickly dismissed by anybody who might wonder: Why is a Toyota highlander creeping along a dirt road at 5 mph in Ford pickup country?
Intent behind the steering wheel, I peer right and left for any possible bird movement. I listen, too, for soft cheeps and twips through an open window that also invites the uninterrupted breezes from across the plains. The dashboard gauge registers 28 degrees. Because of the cold, there is no manure smell, though cattle gather at the edge of a greenish-hued pond laced, no doubt, with nitrogen run-off. Recently, environmental scientists report “legacy nitrogen” has been contaminating lakes, rivers and ground water for 100 years. I scan the pond’s edge for migrating shorebirds. None, thankfully. Just dried-out cow pies.
I’m listening for longspurs. A chestnut-collared longspur is not totally out of the question, even in mid-March. They may not all have migrated yet for the Dakotas where they breed in summer. I could catch sight of one. I find myself making bargains, grasping for the straws of some amazing sighting. Whereas in reality, the only bargain a birder might make is this: pure gratitude in exchange for a glimpse of a wild bird or a snippet of its song. I open to the possibility of beauty. Frozen fog drapes the distant mesas. Then, the fluting melody of western meadow larks fills the highlander. In this big land are big, open-hearted sounds.
The road is rutted, but dry. I venture on. Ahead, a large holding tank is perched atop huge sawhorses. Stenciled across it in faded block letters is a single word: AMMONIA. It’s used to fertilize crops fed to cows. Past the tank, the highlander rocks one way, then the other, not unlike the weathered cedar fence posts that teeter along the roadside. Suddenly, a flock of starlings balloons above the lot and undulates in perfect synchronization, folding one way, then the other, finally settling back down onto a heap of …what? A heap of manure; a mound, really, a couple of stories high.
Fields are marked off in strict parallelograms. Miles of telephone wire meet at right angles. A driveway to a ranch house is straight as a compass needle. Two stunted, but symmetrical ponderosa pines mark the entrance. A “No Hunting Within ½ Mile” sign rusts in a tangle of downed barbed wire. No turkeys in sight. A meadowlark pops up on the roof of a dilapidated shed, its bright yellow chest the only spot of color.
Scarcely raising a whisper of dust, a pickup pulls up alongside the highlander. From inside the cab, a black cowboy hat nods and the side window slowly rolls down, “Everything okay, ma’m?” I point to the emblem of a sandhill crane on my birding cap: “Just birdwatching.” The cowboy nods again and the window slowly rolls up.
The highlander backs into last year’s dried sunflower stalks, jerks around. Up flutters a hundred horned larks. Like disturbed bees, they frantically climb air. Two killdeer dart out from a furrow of a newly plowed field, their strident didideeerr out of all proportion to any real bother they have suffered. Through the binocs, I spot a single canyon towhee, its usually rusty underside standing out as a miniature orange flag against the gray backdrop.
Dullness lulls and mesmerizes, and the highlander plods forward, heavy as a cow. I turn right and discover the road is petering out and descending onto the dark blackened ground of the feedlot itself. It’s getting mucky. I could get stuck in here. I glance around for someone to rescue me in the event I need rescuing. In fact, I’m looking for the cowboy I earlier shunned. No sign of him. I can only proceed forward, skirting the shitty muck as best I can.
The highlander leans into an embankment, and that’s when I sense a peculiar jabbing motion along the incline among last year’s broken stalks. Up and down, up and down, like a pump one sees out on the oil and gas fields. But this is no pump; this is a graceful bow of a bird’s beak, like a scythe but slicing vertically and smoothly through the stubble. I count one, two… eleven long-billed curlews, each probing for some delicious morsel hidden in the muck. The curlews are oblivious to my presence. But I note that they are searching for and finding something precious and praiseworthy. As am I.