Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Coteau du Missouri in 35mm B/W

Somewhere northeast of Bismarck, North Dakota. The scale is deceiving - notice any clues?
If you've not been to the prairies - that portion of the prairie region that still grows grass and wildflowers, ducks and pheasants, you should go. I had the opportunity to visit the area with a group of Ducks Unlimited staff and donors in May, 2006. It was one of many great trips I've enjoyed in my life, but it was most noticeable because it was the last time I shot a 35mm camera. Since then (literally, upon returning home from that trip) I have gone completely digital, other than occasional dalliances with lomography and our three old medium format cameras. At the time, I was smart enough to have the photo lab burn a CD of my black & white prints. Until last week, I was not smart enough to make a backup copy of these photographs. I thought I might share them.

Cinnamon Teal flee a cattle watering hole in central North Dakota.
The Missouri Coteau - a gigantic regional scar full of potholes and glacial soils - is responsible for the production of anywhere from 5-25% of North America's ducks in any given year. This is all dependent upon snowmelt, spring rains, and the whims of north-flying ducks, so the number varies widely each year. Conservation groups focused on migratory birds - notably Ducks Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and Delta Waterfowl - are all highly engaged in research, restoration, and the protection of this area for future generations of wildlife (and people).
Black and white may seem like an odd choice for this trip - visiting a land of green and sunshine, full of well-camoflauged wildlife. Well, what can I say - I'm an odd bird. I hope you enjoy these photos.

This windmill was used to power a cattle watering facility. It was built by the Aermotor Company of Chicago, which surprisingly still exists.
As you may know, I come from a part of the United States that was settled by Europeans over 400 years ago, and is yet constantly redeveloped. This leads to a very dynamic human-driven landscape. This mindset - which many of you on the east coast would likely share, consciously or not, makes a visit to the prairies quite odd. If you discount the amount of prairie that has been converted from native grass to corn, then the landscape of the region didn't change appreciably between the end of the last ice age, and say, the arrival of the railroads in the late 1800s. I'd also argue that the landscape hasn't changed significantly between 1930 and 2010. In fact, there are fewer people in North Dakota now than there were in 1930. Wrap your head around that.
Nest of duck eggs - very poorly camoflauged

Nest of duck eggs, very well camoflauged

Abandoned homestead from ca. 1930
If any of you are politically inclined, you certainly understand that a vacuum of citizens + open land = land change decisions led by remote government and business interests. The state's economy is dominated by agriculture, and any attempt to change that has been met with resistance. Last year, a North Dakota county government did the unthinkable in a conservative state by blocking a private land sale that would protect 429 acres of prairie and wetlands. Their fear? That some additional acres, currently under row crops, might be converted back to prairie and wetlands also, decreasing the county's agricultural production (and of course, County tax revenues). Sadly, this story is being replayed this year in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin. People are so opposed to lower tax revenues that they do not want to allow people to sell their land for conservation. Short term thinkers get short term results. The last 10 years (if not the last 100 years) has taught us that.

13-lined Ground Squirrel - first one I'd ever seen
The prairies are facing a variety of other conflicts these days, rooted in the ones I've described above. Proposals to grow corn-based ethanol threaten to break remaining portions of virgin (and restored) prairie. Simultaneously, proposals for wind farm development (each one spanning, say, 100 miles north and east) could have a literally unknown effect of migrating birds in the seasons when they fly at night. These are real world conflicts that our generation - and the next generation - are going to have to deal with very quickly. When (if) the choice is a permanent reduction in waterfowl populations vs. a reduced dependence on fossil fuels, what will we - or our childrens' generation - choose? It will be interesting to see.

Even with absolutely poor cover, these mallards seem to blend quite well.

Canada Goose nest

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