What was the catalyst that brought you to appreciate prairies?
So much of what we come to love and appreciate occurs by happenstance. I happened to be born in Colorado City, Texas, which is out in a nowhere of flat land, big skies, and long views. Years later, it finally dawned on me that the accident of my birthplace spun me into a big-sky, long-view person. I love a good tramp in the forest, but I’m most at home—breathe easiest—in open country, which is what prairies are. A series of other lovely happenstances sealed my fate as a prairie lover. One of the most important was meeting a soil scientist in Minnesota named Kathy Bolin, who taught me the first imperative of getting to know (and love) a prairie—walk slowly, look down. Ambling in this way through a prairie is the terrestrial equivalent of snorkeling in a coral reef.
You’ve been watching birds for many years. How do you merge your love of birds with your love of grasslands?
For me, watching birds is like the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song—love the one you’re with. A bobolink gurgling and tumbling in mid-air over my beloved Hayden Prairie is a gift more valuable than a hundred new life birds. (I’ve never been much of a lister or chaser of rare birds, I suppose because I’m pathetically uncompetitive.) The joy of grassland birding is definitely about the music— call it prairie chatter or prairie symphony—the bzzzz of grasshopper sparrows, the tick-tick-tick of sedge wrens, the fluting of upland sandpipers, the deep-throated trumpeting of sandhill cranes. Then, of course, prairies in the glacial Midwest are often associated with wetlands, so there’s the avian extravaganza during migration of ducks, geese, swans, sandpipers, curlews, stilts, avocets. The thought of it makes me swoon.
What are your favorite natural areas in the Midwest?
Not an easy question to answer. There are dozens of Iowa’s pocket-sized prairies I love. I’m partial to prairies with a river view—so that would include the prairies in the Loess Hills overlooking the Missouri River in western Iowa and the goat prairies perched above the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. I’m terribly sentimental (some would say maudlin) about cemetery prairies—something about the poignancy of the departed sharing space with a last gasp of native prairie. And, then, my prejudice for certain prairies is connected to time of day and who I’m with. I love all the prairies I’ve visited at sunset in the company of my husband, David, and a few dear friends. These places and moments are often commemorated with a bottle of champagne.
Suzanne Winckler, author, Prairie: A North American Guide