doing the prairie chicken dance
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I left my comfort zone this weekend and spent it with a bunch of hard-core birders at the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma. Because I’m a wee bit of an idiot, I didn’t realize until I’d committed exactly how hard-core the event would be. It was the kind of event where I met people for whom seeing the prairie chickens dance was the culmination of a lifelong dream. No, really. Sometimes, I sat in on conversations in which I had no idea what people were saying. Imagine sitting in on chitchat with a bunch of rocket scientists. That’s what it was like, except the topic was birds.
I had to rally all my powers of interpretation every time Bird Chick (a k a Sharon Stiteler), the keynote speaker, talked about birds in casual conversation. Once, I just turned to her and said, “I have no idea what you just said,” which made her laugh and she explained. It had to do with banding raptors.
Artist and speaker Debby Kaspari, whose topic was sketching nature, was more my speed in some regards—art talk I understand—but she, too, knows more about birds than I know about anything. When she talked art, I was with her. When she talked birds, I was lost.
Fortunately, these were very nice people who never laughed at stupid questions and took the time during bird watching excursions to actually point out birds to me as I flailed around with my low-rent binoculars. If I asked, they let me peek through their real binoculars, and Bird Chick set up her scope for all to look through. Wow. Our guide also brought a scope, so from time to time I actually got to see what everyone was talking about, as opposed to the blurry silhouettes my binoculars provided.
For the most part, I walked around all weekend feeling kind of bumbling and clueless.
Which is OK, actually. Sometimes it’s good to get in over your head. It’s kind of like lifting weights. When your muscles start failing, that’s when the muscle building occurs. I learned a lot about birds this weekend. (And bees, actually, since Bird Chick also is a beekeeper. Really fascinating stuff. Bees lead complicated lives.) Plus, I enjoyed immersion in a subculture.
And most important, I got to see the dance of the endangered lesser prairie chicken.
This was my kind of bird watching, even though it involved getting up before dawn and sitting in tiny blind for hours. But you couldn’t miss the birds—as I so often do.
They were right there, just a few feet in front of us, doing their dance, singing their song, making every attempt to propagate their species. (I didn't even try to capture on film. Click through to Debby's and Sharon's sites to see images far better from anything I could have produced.) I found the whole thing genuinely moving. Dance, little chickens, dance. Stomp your little chicken feet and keep on keeping on!
Among the pressures on the fascinating little fellas’ survival are barbed wire and windmills--this was a close encounter, for me, with the implications we have to consider before we hoist T. Boone Pickens on our shoulders as the savior of the environment. Not that wind power is bad, but it needs study before we plunge right in.
And after we spent the morning watching the chickens dance, we spent some time tromping around on the glorious Oklahoma prairie, marking barbed wire fences to help the chickens out, which just involves clipping little pieces of plastic onto the fences. Evidently, dead prairie chickens are rarely found on fences that have been marked, unlike unmarked fences. Good enough for me.
Dance for your lives, little prairie chickens. There are a bunch of people who care whether or not you survive. And, entirely by accident, I’m now among them.
texas travel (and beyond)
Sunday, November 16, 2008
All is Calm
Soothing getaways in Texas and neighboring states
For all the joys of the holidays, they’re stressful, too. So much running and buying and cooking and partying and chattering and singing and overeating and overdrinking and over-everything… What you need most for the holidays may be some peace and quiet.
Let us help with some suggestions for places to go where you can calm the clamor in your head and recalibrate.
Back to the womb
If you’re in charge of decking all halls and cooking all figgy puddings, relinquish control to Watsu Aquatic Massage therapist at The Crossings spa in Austin. Done in a private pool kept at body temperature, Watsu massage requires putting yourself completely into the hands of the therapist, who manipulates you through the water, gently encouraging you to make like seaweed and drift, folding and unfolding you and then keeping you perfectly still, suspended in the water, for a mind-altering interval of total peace. (50 minutes/$120; 877-944-3003)
Neither here nor there
You know those picnic areas you blast past on your way to grandmother’s house? Not just the rest areas—we all stop there when nature calls. But even those spots with nothing but picnic tables and views can help take the edge off your drive.
When the kids are whining and your hands are locking into claws around the steering wheel and the car is trashed as a frat house the morning after, try one. They’re intentionally built in pretty spots and offer a break from the road to let the kids blow off steam, stretch your legs, and appreciate the scenery without a dashboard between you and the view. Actual picnicking is optional.
Tub on the range
Slip into the outdoor hot tub at the Wildcatter Ranch Resort and try to decide which is more soothing—the hot water or the long view of rolling hills. This is among the premier hot tub sites in Texas. To enjoy it, book into the Wildcatter, a 1,500-acre property near Graham, Texas. The ranch recently added to its luxury suites, opening a hotel with 19 additional rooms. (940-549-3500 or 888-462-9277; rooms from $109)
Padre Island National Seashore is sea and shore and grass and sky and birds and little else. This is the largest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. Push south, past Malaquite Beach, and find a stretch of primitive shore to stroll while you let the wind (and there will be one) blow the clutter from your mind.
For nature less raw, splurge on a tank of gas and head for the Matagorda Bay RV Park, inside Matagorda Bay Nature Park. This pretty 70-site park is on the gulf, within walking distance of the beach, Colorado River, and fishing piers. ($25 a night; reservations through Texas State Parks at 512-389-8900; for information 979-863-7120)
Basic maintenance enhanced
Sure, you can get a quick mani-pedi at your favorite strip center nail salon. But better to take a much-needed pause with a mani-pedi at the San Saba Spa at Lakeway Resort in Austin. Here, the chairs all face a wall of window overlooking pool and lake. Order a cocktail if you like, and fix your gaze out past the pool, past the terrace restaurant, to the calming waters of Lake Travis. (512-261-6600 , manicures from $40, pedicures from $65)
Calm after the storm
The San Luis Resort, Spa and Conference Center on Seawall Boulevard survived Hurricane Ike relatively unscathed and did its part housing relief workers. Now it's ready to welcome you back. Splurge on a stylish ocean-view room on the newly renovated 10th floor, called Club Ten. After a hot toddy by the fire pit at H2O, the resort's snazzy new poolside bar, retreat to the hush of your spacious room and indulge in all the amenities today's luxury standards require, from king beds to continental breakfast. (409-744-1500; Club Ten doubles from $269)
Where the wind comes sweeping
It’s rush hour traffic at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska when the bison cross the road. This 39,000-acre preserve is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie on Earth, Most of this Nature Conservancy site is drive-through, but a couple of hiking trails lead out to the middle of the gently rustling sea of grass. In winter, look for migrating raptors such as bald eagles, rough-legged owls and short-eared owls. (Open daily dawn to dusk, free)
Lay down your head for the night high over nearby Bartlesville, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s circa 1956 cantilevered skyscraper. The Inn at Price Tower occupies floors seven to 14 of Wright’s tree-inspired building. (877-424-2424; from $145 double)
If petting a house cat lowers stress, imagine what petting a Eurasian lynx can do. The Little River Zoo in Norman, 60 wooded acres, is a rescue operation (though they don’t like that word), adopting lab monkeys whose jobs are done, exotic pets whose owners couldn’t keep them and animals from other zoos, for sundry reasons. Pop in on Christmas Day to bless the beasts. They’ll be waiting for you.(405-366-7229; Open 10-5 every day, tours are 90 minutes, $7 adults, $4 children, $5 seniors, free for under age 3)
Sounds of silence
Rent a pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis from a local outfitter such Alpine Sports, near the Santa Fe Plaza (121 Sandoval St., $15/day) and drive about 13 miles into the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the Aspen Vista Trail, a wide, groomed 12-mile trail through the hushed, snowy forest.
The recently renovated La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa is six intimate acres laced with paths among gardens and adobe casitas. Tuck yourself into a room or suite with a fireplace (some gas, some wood-burning) and you’ll feel a million miles from the bustle of Santa Fe Plaza, just a couple of blocks away. Put in a few hours of holiday shopping then retire to your room, open a bottle of wine, and gaze into the fire. (866-331-ROCK or 505-986-0000, fireplace doubles from $297)
Going to the chapel
Thorncrown Chapel is a glass chapel in the woods, tucked into the Ozark Mountains by Eureka Springs. The 48-foot tall wooden structure is all windows onto nature. Designed by E. Fay Jones, the building is fourth on the list of the American Institute of Architects’ top buildings of the 20th century. (479-253-7401; Sunday service at 11 a.m. in Nov. and Dec., call or check the Web site for visiting hours.)
Garvan Woodland Gardens, in Hot Springs, is a getaway in its own right and has a chapel of the same soaring design, built by Mr. Jones’ architectural firm. To avoid crowds, visit in daytime because the gardens have an enormous and popular holiday lights show. (800-366-4664 or 501-262-9300; adults, $8, seniors $7, children $4, age 5 and under free)
Tell it on the mountain
Nothing stands atop Arkansas’ tallest peak but the Lodge at Mount Magazine. Rooms in the lodge all have views, but we suggest renting a one-, two- or three-bedroom cabin for a hot tub on the wraparound porch. No need to leave the mountain unless you want to; cabins have kitchens or dine by the giant stone fireplace in the lodge restaurant. (1-877-665-6343; cabins from $199)
Into the woods
By design, you might not encounter anyone at all except the people you’re with at Little River Bluffs, a nature reserve and retreat of three cabins on the Little Tchefuncte River (great for swimming in summertime). All three cabins have fireplaces and the Meadow Cabin has central heating as well. Explore the woods of the 50-acre property in St. Tammany Parish (some consider it New Orleans north), then retire to your cabin and cuddle. (985-796-5257; rates from $195 for two weeknights.)
Dig the swamp
Laid back McGee’s Landing, in Henderson, La., has decks right on the Henderson swamp. When celebs such as Robert Plant and Paul Simon want Cajun cooking without fanfare, they come here. Pop in for some alligator or gar balls or hunker down for a few days in cabin floating on the Atchafalaya. (Is it a houseboat if it doesn’t go anywhere?) No phone, no TV, just a screened-in porch—and heat, fridge, microwave and coffee maker. (337-228-2384; cabins from $100/night with a two night minimum.)
feet du jour
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Like my new shoes? Oh, those? That's Jackson, the blind kangaroo, at the Little River Zoo in Norman, Oklahoma. (Very cool place. See here.)
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