January 26, 2006

Bad bird!

41 bald eagle

On my way to Knob Noster State Park to help with a prescribed burn, I saw a bald eagle soaring above a valley, white tail and head lit by the sun.

He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

At least that's what Benjamin Franklin thought. Happy 300th!

January 21, 2006

Two-Mile Farm

35 snow goose
36 Savannah sparrow
37 northern bobwhite
38 song sparrow
39 white-throated sparrow
40 common grackle

JAN. 21, BRADFORD FARM, cloudy, 30—Four or five thousand grackles, zero short-eared owls. A quail covey bursting practically from under me. No sun to get good looks at the LBBs (little brown birds). Cold, wet feet. Hundreds of nervous snow geese. That's an impressionistic view of my morning at Bradford farm, the University of Missouri research farm just east of Columbia.

Bradford sits on the old Two-Mile Prairie, once a tallgrass finger reaching down into this Ozark border country. Our party of 13, most local Auduboners, were there to help Brad Jacobs with his monthly bird survey of the property. An ecologist with the state conservation department, Brad is such a good birder he can squeeze identifications out of momentary sightings or calls. He's also author of the flagship state bird book, Birds in Missouri. I stuck fairly close to him to learn how he distinguished sparrows, separated cackling (once a subspecies) from Canada geese, or picked other blackbirds out of huge clouds of flocking grackles.

I met some other excellent birders—I knew they were excellent because they carried no field guides. Oh, they had their National Geographics and Sibleys back home for occasional deep study, but they knew field marks well enough to fly blind. Janice, for example, had been to Attu in Alaska's Aleutian chain, a destination only for the Coast Guard and ultra-serious birders, who go there for Asian birds drifted off course. I'll have a couple more chances to see short-eared owls and longspurs before they return north.

January 15, 2006

Ducks not in a row

26 horned lark
27 mallard
28 northern shoveler
29 mute swan
30 American coot
31 gadwall
32 northern pintail
33 northern harrier
34 American kestrel

JAN. 15, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 50Off to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, an artificial wetland created for migratory waterfowl. Though you mainly drive gravel roads among gated pools and flooded fields, the scenery is tremendous. The area lies in a mile-wide floodplain bordered on the east by 200-foot bluffs and on the west by the Missouri River.

A horned lark in a dry, bare field welcomes me to the area. Then I hit the pools, where mallards are the rule but a few shovelers weave through. I locate gadwalls also, my birding pleasure increasing with every species new to my list even if they're easy additions. In fact, for an ambitious list I don't have a single decent bird so far this year. But the competitive aspect is a bonus; ordinary outings are still fun.

I have a spotting scope because this is car-birding. You can't remotely begin to approach ducks on footthey're far too wary. So I stay in the car, put my eye against the 22x eyepiece, and search for anything that isn't a mallard. Among 700 mallards in a flooded cornfield are 20 or so shovelers and elegant pintails, with a few coot clusters. Most of the ducks are buttoned down, bill sheathed in feathers, against the wind.

My scope sweeps past a bird of prey sitting atop a small mound on a flat island. It's far enough away that I have trouble with the ID, but find enough good clues: even streaking on breast, owl-like face, habitat and behaviora northern harrier. (I don't do well with raptors, sparrows, and swallowsor sandpipers and gulls. Besides these and a few other problem areas, I'm quite good at woodpeckers.)

I also walk in the woods along the Missouri River, across from the tiny town of Lupus. I can see the house of a work colleague and friend. His house, like many in town, was raised on pilings after the 1993 flood. Driving out of the area at the end of my birding day, I brake hard to watch a kestrel tear apart a rodent on a gatepost.

January 07, 2006

Fresh paint, fresh burn

22 eastern bluebird
23 yellow-rumped warbler
24 rock pigeon
25 mourning dove

JAN. 7, TUCKER PRAIRIE, mostly sunny, 45I've ruled that discussion of the weather is too dull to includeotherwise I'd mention how warm it is. This is my first visit to Tucker prairie in more than a year. Tucker is a half-hour east of Columbia, irritatingly positioned next to Interstate-70. Fortunately in the woods and draws and southern half of the prairie it's easy to forget the noise. First birds of the morning are an eastern bluebird pair and flicker. Third observation is that the field station is newly painted to cover up a thorough graffiti job, which included walls, windows, sign, even the utility pole and gatepost.

Not much stirs in the grassland, a large area of which is blackened from a recent controlled burn. Tucker is managed by the university for restoration and research. The ground here was hayed but never plowed or cropped, so prairie was waiting to return with a little help. I head for the pond after a detour into an oak thicket, and see it's iced over. A blue jay burble from the woods leads me there to look for mixed flocks.

The woods contain several fussy red-bellied woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and three tree stands for hunters just across the fenceline, but not much else. Back on the grassland, I aim for the plum thickets. With no reason to sing conspicuously, birds are staying down in the grass. I'd hoped for more sparrows, which are difficult IDs for me. At this time of year in Missouri my birding ambitions aren't huge, but I want to see golden-crowned kinglets and cedar waxwings before the month is out.

In-between-birding birds

18 red-tailed hawk*
19 dark-eyed junco
20 European starling
21 house sparrow
*only new species are listed

A trucker voices strong objections to my car driving around a truckstop in search of house sparrows. At least they appear to be objectionshis window is rolled up so I don't hear anything, but I can tell it's not friendly. He and his semi are bigger than I and my Mazda, so I pretend to take his advice. Normally I wouldn't spend time on house sparrows (introduced from England, they take habitat from native birds), but this is a Little Big Year after all, and since I'm filling up with gas I may as well pick up a species I know must be here.

January 05, 2006

A honking new year

1 Canada goose*
2 American robin
3 black-capped chickadee
4 white-breasted nuthatch
5 northern flicker
6 hairy woodpecker
7 red-bellied woodpecker
8 tufted titmouse
9 blue jay
10 American goldfinch
11 downy woodpecker
12 turkey vulture
13 barred owl
14 American tree sparrow
15 white-throated sparrow
16 northern cardinal
17 American crow
* birds are listed in the order identified

JAN. 1, GRINDSTONE PARK, party sunny, 45A Big Year always has to begin on Jan. 1. Not that I've ever done a Big Year. In fact, I'm still deciding what to call this. Miniature Big Year? Fairly Small Year? Would Be a Bigger Year if I Had More Money and Time? Not a Bad Year Under the Circumstances?

Whatever I call it, my Year began while I washed dishes. A small flock of Canada geese honked over the rooftopa good and noisy start. For this debut day I chose Grindstone Park, just minutes away from home, an old farmstead turned city park with oak-hickory woods and a grassy bowl in the center. Hinkson and Grindstone creeks rim the center bowl, so there are lots of habitats and edges.

I saw usual midwest winter-resident birds today. I especially like the goldfinch (its yellow toned down for the season) and titmouse (love the tuft and huge black eyes). A slightly out of the ordinary bird is the barred owl, which I saw fly down Grindstone Creek as I watched from a high bluff. The barred is much more active during the day than other owls, and easily flushed.

No need for a long introduction. The main idea is that I'll go birding roughly once a week, also picking up birds wherever I happen to find them. Depending on trips away from Missouri, my daydream target is 300, more than half of the 572 species Roger Tory Peterson found in 1953, the first known Big Year in North American history.

The record is 745. Any number approaching that involves tens of thousands of dollars, pilgrimages to farflung bird hotspots, and frequent spur of the moment airplane flights to see accidental individualsas in accidentally in the wrong place, often storm-blown to the wrong continent. My goals are modest: to have fun, get outside regularly, learn more about birds and other wildlife, and use the incentive of birds to see new places.