“Ten Birds” Part 1

NOTE: These posts are listed under my name but written by Steve. We had a hell of a time getting them posted….technical difficulties! MATT

Recently Darren introduced me to the meme “Ten Beautifully Interesting Birds”. I was challenged!

Being as I am a hard- core Bird Guy, there is no way I can pick only ten birds– I could probably pick ten lists of ten! But I am going to initially pick ten non- passerines and later may do ten songbirds, or ten of some other classification, or just Ten More.

We each change the reasons for picking our choices a bit, and this list will be no exception. I am attempting to choose birds that are both meaningful to me– I have seen every one, mostly in the wild– and that are intrinsically interesting as well. I will split them into three groups as Darren did, so as not to give poor Blogger fits.

( credit Nate Johnson)

First, the Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis. From my book Querencia:

“And suddenly the air was full of wings and trumpet shrieks as the dogs ran in maddened circles beneath fifty rising sandhill cranes. They curved back over my head in the wind, almost low enough to touch, flying crucifixes as tall as men. I had never seen them so close; the storm had made them feel that the open field close to the house was safer than the coyote-haunted groves beside the big river. I felt like New Mexico was giving me a good-bye present, an offering to insure my return”

I like it that the cranes inhabit some of my favorite places. They breed from 1000 miles inside Siberia all the way to Idaho, winter from Nebraska and New Mexico to Chihuahua. They traverse the Bering Straits. Their rolling call, produced in a French horn concealed in their breastbones, rains down from winter skies and haunts my dreams.

The Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersi), of the high mountain valleys of Central Asia, is probably the rarest bird I have ever seen, but my friends in Kazakhstan walked me straight to it.

This spectacular wader is the only species in its genus, and lives only in stony stream beds in such places as the Himalayas and the Tian Shan, where I saw it south of Almaty.

Andrey Kovalenko, who also bred my dog Kyran, is an ornithologist. He and photographer- climber Oleg Belyalov intended to show us the bird, but we didn’t know. When I saw the habitat we were entering at about 9000 feet I thought, “This looks like the background of every photo of an Ibisbill I have ever seen”. So when Andrey set up his spotting scope and then whispered “Eebeesbeel!” (the only English words he uttered that day) I won’t say I was shocked– just delighted. Here I am studying the bird through Andrey’s scope:

American Woodcock, Scolopax minor. (Here are two flushing in a nice drypoint by the old New England artist A. Lassell Ripley, exactly as I remember them).

I love their mating wing “song”, I love hunting them, I love eating them. I love it that their huge eyes are behind their ears, and that they can open the very tip of their bills underground to grasp worms. In the spring in New England, we would sit in little damp openings in the second- growth woods amidst the buzz of early mosquitos and the chirps of late spring peepers listening for the “Peent!” of a male Woodcock on the ground. If you imitated it (say the word in a high- pitched voice while holding your nose) they would approach closely, on foot. Finally a male would take to the air and circle above, wings whistling, then dive to the ground while making a cascade of liquid notes, improbably not with its vocal chords but with its primary flight feathers.

On my last extended New England visit (1986)I shot and froze several limits of Woodcock and cooked a dinner for me and Jesuit scholar- scientist- big game hunter Anderson Bakewell in Santa Fe. I adapted the recipe from Angus Cameron’s L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook (curiously, currently listed in Amazon under the name of co- author Judith Jones, though Angus was the chief author).

Bear in mind, rather than using the liver from the Woodcock, a hard- core Woodcock eater (like me) might use chicken livers for the paste and NOT GUT THE COCK. ‘Cock and Snipe void as they fly and are therefore clean, and are cooked intact but for plucking, heads on (tucked back) and all. Angus in fact did so, though not here! Also, the recipe– adapted perhaps from one for the huge Old- world species– recommends cooking for a half an hour. I have NEVER cooked a Woodcock or Snipe for more than 15 minutes! If you do, to paraphrase fellow Woodock aficionado Guy de la Valdene, why not just boil them in Pepto Bismol overnight?

So:

Saute 4 chicken livers (for four Woodcock) in a couple of tablespoons of butter until just cooked– pink in the middle. Mash coarsely with (fresh if you have it ) tarragon and salt, moistening with a bit of red wine. Set aside, covered.

Take a thick slice of white French or Italian bread for each bird, spread with butter or even bacon fat, and toast in the oven. Remove and keep warm.

In a saucepan, warm 3/4 cup sour cream mixed with 1/2 cup sweet cream with a tablespoon of butter. Stir until smooth.

Heat oven to 425 F. Put in the birds, salted, for no more than 15 minutes. Remove. Spread the toasts with the liver paste, and put a bird on top. Serve the cream sauce from a sauceboat on the side, to be poured over to one’s taste.

To be continued!

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