Jun 24, 2006

Luncheon At Chez' Irrelephant

It's where all the glamourous diners go, where the menu is filled with the finest that the field can offer, it's the place to see and be seen, ample dining area and the finest in haute insect cuisine.

Yes, it's bushhogging time again boys and girls. Get used to it, I'm already to the point of having to cut twice a month, and anything that occupies four hours of my weekend every other weekend is going to be blog fodder whether you agree or not.

Today was, however, the first day that the cowbirds made a big showing. Yes, I know that "Cattle Egret" is a cooler name, but I've thought of them as cowbirds ever since I knew what cows and birds were and how to tell the two apart. See, living in a fully agricultural area like I do, you see lots of cows, and where you have lots of cows you have lots of Cattle Egrets. To be proper. They often follow in the wake of livestock eating bugs, but they've also gotten very smart living in our modern, mechanized society and have realised that tractors, especially those pulling bushhogs or plows are just great big noisy cows, and have adapted their behaviour and diets accordingly. Around here it's nothing to see hundreds of them flying behind the big eight-wheel drive John Deeres, steadily gorging themselves on insects and worms, and it's always a field day when the state mows the right-of-way.

So there I am this morning, sweating like a port whore during Navy shore leave, piloting the old tractor around, stirring up dust and bugs and oil fumes, and the egrets appeared, as they always do, sort of out of the blue. I make a pass down one long side, and the field is empty. I turn at the end, and suddenly there's fifteen of them carefully wading through the mown grass, heads bobbing and stabbing at bugs.

"I do like the decor a great deal, but do we seat ourselves or is the maitre'd coming along?"

That's the only cool part of mowing the field for me. The clouds of egrets that always show up. I've seen as few as none out there with me, and one record-breaking summer a few years ago I counted over 125, all wading through the freshly shorn grass like diners at an open buffet.

"Oh look, Frank, they have black AND brown crickets!"
"Yes m'dear, I told you this was a nice place. Do try some of the katydids, they're quite fresh."

This morning was an average sort of day. Plenty of heat, I cut for about an hour before anyone showed up, and then there was a flutter, a flash of orange leg and yellow bill, and then the sudden appearance of a dozen or so birds, all standing neatly along the cut edge of the field, staring carefully into the tall grass for signs of delectables.

"Oh I say, we're here early!"

"Find us good seats, will you? I've just got to try some of this locust."

As I cut, and as the heat of the day increased the white and buff long-legged/long-billed population increased with it, much to my pleasure. And me being an old hat at this sort of thing, I started taking care to make sure that I made wide passes, slow turns, and if I was going to back up suddenly I did so slowly. See, there's three kinds of diners in the field while I'm cutting: the newcomers, the regulars, and the veterans.

"There's certainly some new faces around, isn't there?"
"Yes, a lot of vacationers here, down for breeding season I'd say."

The newcomers are always the frightened ones, the young birds that make their warbling danger calls every time I get within twenty feet of them. They're usually ignored by the regulars and the veterans, but they can certainly spook the rest of the newcomers. They seem to settle down when the numbers get up around twenty or so. Apparently there really is strength in numbers.

"Oh my god, we're going to get killed! Hey, you there, be careful! Oh lord lady, watch out for that noisy cow!"

The regulars are the birds that live on or near the bayou and recognise the sound of a tractor for miles. They're also the birds who know that the tractor and me are nothing more, in their opinion, than a strangely loud, wildly voracious, oddly fast-footed rust coloured cow that just happens to have "McCormick Farmall" stamped on either side of it's nose. These are the ones that, seeing that I've left them way behind, come flying straight at me as fast as they can, peeling off at the last second in a feather-ruffling five gee turn, then reversing suddenly so that they land immediately behind the effluvia slinging out of the bushhog. Right, as it happens, where the best bugs are still trying to figure out where their hiding place went.

"Hey Pete, I didn't know you were here!"
"Oh hey there, Mark! Yeah, I just got hit by a big chunk of jimson weed. Man, I love eating here, their bugs are the best, and lively? It doesn't get any better than this!"
"Yeah Pete, I know what you mean. Hey, watch that bit of ant-mound. Comin' atcha!"

Then there are the old-timers, the birds who have followed me around the field more times than I've had hot meals. These are the birds who I always see eyeball deep in the tall grass right in FRONT of the tractor.

"See honey, I told you, there's no sense lining up at the salad bar when all the best dishes are right here in the kitchen."

"Oh Horace, you're always so clever."
"Look there, a lovely fat moth. Quickly now dear!"

They stand in front of the tractor because, with the wisdom of their kind they've learned two very important things about me:

  • I would likely kill myself before hitting one of them, and
  • All the BEST best bugs are startled into running in front of, not behind the tractor, plus
  • There's no worry about being hit by a clump of freshly-cut ragweed being flung at you from the ejector.

So, these wily old birds are always wading out of the grass mere feet in front of my wheels, taking that sort of exaggerated care that old men take when crossing a busy intersection, secure in the knowledge that everyone sees them and nobody would dare hit them. All they need is walking canes and tophats and they'd be New York theater goers, out for an evening on Broadway, right down to the slow, stilted walk.

"Rest assured, Bobby has two tickets for 'Cats' at the ticket booth for us, he owes me a big favor. Don't mind the rusty cow, he wouldn't DARE hit us. Oh look, a plump grasshopper, my favourite!"

"Reginald, you look absolutely dapper in your white tux and tail. I do so like the honey-coloured cummerbund and hat. Want to father my eggs?"

And so another morning went by, filled with flying dirt, grass clippings, seeds, and birds. As the heat came up and tummies filled the egrets started lingering in the shade of the oak trees more, and I wanted to also, but I still had cutting to complete. And right about the time I wrapped up I started noticing my forty-odd diners taking wing back to shaded trees overhanging the bayou, where they could, perhaps, enjoy a nice snifter of brandy and a cigar before their noontime naps.

Sounds like a darn good idea to me, actually.

"Matilda, be a dear and bring me a snifter of the '42 and a Cohiba?"


Nancy Dancehall said...

I LOVE this post! Now that's magic. I love the way they line up, as if they WERE in a buffet line. They are beautiful birds. What do they sound like?

Irrelephant said...

Why thank you! I'm pretty proud of it myself. Best hour and a half I've spent in a long time at this computer. I guess I need to start a "best of" post list on the sidebar. It'd be pretty short.

What's funny is that today they REALLY lined up, that's what made this entire post arrive in my mind, full blown. There were dozens of them standing around staring into the tall grass, and one bird made a stab at a bug and came up with a beakfull of cut grass and a bug, and I could just HEAR it saying "Wow, a big katydid AND a salad! How cool is that?" The rest arrived full-blown.

What's sad, in a way, is that as beautiful as they are, their only cries are either a sort of hoarse caw or a kind of harsh warbling sound they make when they're scared. Funny? It took me almost ten years to hear it, because the tractor is SOOOO loud you can only see their throats moving. I took the pictures years ago, and at several points actually stopped and turned it off so I could get a steady frame, and I heard them for the first time.

Rather a let-down, actually. *lol*