February 27, 2006

Listless feeling

FEB. 26, GRINDSTONE PARK, sunny, 45—Shut out. Pulled a Bode. Fell on a triple-triple combination. Straddled a gate. Missed the podium. DNF. Maybe I've been watching too much Olympics, but for the first time of the little big year I registered no new species on an outing. It was bound to happen soon.

Still, the day and birding were enjoyable. Hinkson Creek runs through the park and always draws turkey vultures. During the warming afternoon I rarely saw fewer than 4-5 soaring above the bluffs. Once, while sitting in sand in the creek bottom, I sensed the sky darkening and turned on my back to see 17 overhead. An hour later and half a mile away, I saw 25 above the same section of Hinkson.

February 25, 2006

Exit here for exotic sparrow

59 Eurasian tree sparrow
60 white-crowned sparrow

Finding bird no. 59 of 2006 was like eating a whole bag of potato chips in one sitting—fun, but not a particularly proud moment. I knew three things going in: (1) I'd be in St. Louis for the day, (2) a population of non-native Eurasian tree sparrows lives in and near St. Louis and practically nowhere else in North America, and (3) almost anything can be found with a Google search.

Once in St. Louis I exited the interstate, drove six precisely delineated blocks to an intersection, and waited at a Eurasian tree sparrow hotspot I'd found on the Web. One of the corner houses was supposed to be the epicenter, and I could see birdhouses and feeders behind a backyard fence. Five minutes after arriving I saw Eurasians moving through and briefly alighting on a sweetgum tree in the backyard. But the light was bad and and I wanted to make sure. After waiting 20 minutes I drove around the corner, reparked (I never left my car during the entire affair), and saw my Eurasian tree sparrow on an ornamental sidewalk tree. Bingo.

A little more background on the Googled sparrows: Eurasian tree sparrows were introduced to North America in 1870 in St. Louis. We now know this is a bad idea all around, but it worked, and the sparrows spread through the area. Meanwhile, another bad idea led to English (now called house) sparrow releases in New York and countless other American cities. Eventually arriving in St. Louis, the bigger and more aggressive English/house sparrows outcompeted and scattered the Eurasians to the point where they can now be located by Internet directions.

The white pelican wins today's Birds of America honors, however. During a 30-minute St. Louis zoo jaunt, I saw pelicans, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers in a small lake, showing no signs of leaving anytime soon.

February 13, 2006

Mob scene

51 green-winged teal
52 greater white-fronted goose
53 ring-necked duck
54 lesser scaup
55 redhead
56 canvasback
57 great blue heron
58 killdeer

FEB. 13, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 45—My first bird encounter at Eagle Bluffs was none other than a meadowlark (see last post). I administered the flight test, and it looked more hyped from caffeine than mellow with Jack Daniels. I'm passing on an ID until I'm good and sure, as central Missouri is also in the eastern-western overlap zone.

Eagle Bluffs is a state conservation area with artificially flooded pools, and I wanted to see waterfowl new since my Jan. 15 visit. The jackpot payoff started with a white-fronted goose resting with seven Canada geese. With a spotting scope and strong sunlight at my back, I could observe bird features and colors clearly for 200 yards across the pool.

Among the thousand or so mallards—most keeping out of the wind in grasses bordering the water—I found 75 shovelers, 50 ring-necked ducks, six lesser scaup, and one redhead (three more later). In other pools I found 6-8 green-winged teal and a solo canvasback diving in deeper water. The white-fronted goose and redhead represent my first out-of-the-ordinary species of the year.

Other birds of note: five great blue herons loosely grouped (drawn by a good food source), several killdeer (a favorite of mine), and about 400 red-winged blackbirds mobbing a northern harrier hunting beside them. Mobbing is not completely understood. Here it caused—as it usually does—the annoyed harrier to move to another field. Mobbing also alerts nearby birds to a raptor's presence, and may teach young birds who their enemies are. You might think mobbing puts a bird in harm's way, but the danger is diluted with each new mobber, and raptors probably prefer to surprise their prey.

February 11, 2006

Okie lark

48 northern mockingbird
49 wild turkey
50 red-winged blackbird

On a work trip to Oklahoma we spent hours driving and none birding. Except for a mockingbird in Anadarko, all birds were windshield sightings. While keeping my eyes on the road proved good survival strategy, it cost me a couple species. I couldn't tell whether a meadowlark was eastern or western, whether a gull was ring-billed or herring (probably ring-billed), or whether a small flock of swans was tundra or trumpeter (almost surely tundra, but trumpeters sometimes show up in Oklahoma). But the pain isn't great—I should be able to see all these birds again.

After the trip I did some meadowlark study. Eastern and western meadowlarks overlap in the central U.S., and though they differ a little in plumage, voice is the best way to tell them apart. Unless, of course, they have learned each other's songs, which happens often. Although—more complications—imitated songs are not sung perfectly but at an intermediate pitch. Also, easterns have a much larger song repertoire. Maybe the diagnostic tool I'll use is one I heard recently: easterns fly like they're on caffeine, westerns like they're on Jack Daniels.

I also saw a golden eagle (and two balds) in a beautiful new eagle aviary operated by the Ioway tribe of Oklahoma. The Ioway have an active conservation program, not only rehabilitating injured eagles for release, but raising a herd of bison on native prairie. The tribe received support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build the flightcages and mews, and uses nearby Oklahoma State University veterinarians. The Ioway are also able to keep molted eagle feathers for ceremonies.

February 10, 2006

Little king

42 belted kingfisher
43 hermit thrush
44 Carolina wren
45 red-shouldered hawk
46 golden-crowned kinglet
47 brown creeper

FEB. 5, ROCK BRIDGE, partly sunny, 35—It's a chickadee-dee-dee day for the first hour or so on the High Ridge trail in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, a few miles from Columbia on the north edge of Missouri's karst region (think caves, sinkholes, springs). I'm layered against the cold, the sun is out, and for a while I don't care much that I'm seeing little else.

Once I start caring I decide to head for water and drop down from the ridge to Clear Creek, immediately hearing the rattle of a kingfisher. Sitting against a willow sapling on a gravel bar, I eat and wait for action along the thinly frozen creek. (Walnuts, pear, and carrot are the snack foods of Little Big Year champions.) For a while I watch a downy woodpecker and several yellow-rumped warblers, then a hermit thrush shows up, even perching within 30 feet. A Carolina wren, second consecutive new bird of the year, moves along the streambank in and out of brush.

Returning through an open oak-hickory-cedar woods, I see several waves of bluebirds moving down the slope (the airy eastern bluebird is our Missouri state bird). Later, it's a small group of mobbing bluebirds that reveals a blocky hawk high up a tree, barred red on its breast with checkerboard wings. Distracted for a moment by another bird, I suddenly look up to see the hawk flap away, then I pivot back to the original tree with the hawk still there: two red-shouldered hawks.

I hit a small hotspot along Gans Creek within yards of the parking lot. Alerted by high-pitched buzzing, I soon find the tiny (4 inches) golden-crowned kinglet, perfectly named and one of my favorite winter birds. Next, a brown creeper moves up one tree, then to the base of another, and again, gleaning bark insects with a long, thin, curved bill. I may have seen a kinglet cousin, the ruby-crowned, but I'll save a sure sighting for another winter outing.

Though it's early in the year, I'd like a bigger number of species at this point. By the end of February I need to have around 75 permanent and winter residents. I'll make 60-65 easily, but the last dozen will be work. After that, 75 migrants (spring and fall) and 75 summer visitors—both optimistic totals—will take me to 225, leaving 75 more for out of state trips if I'm to reach 300.