April 16, 2006

Flush, working on full house

85 eastern phoebe
86 warbling vireo
87 Louisiana waterthrush
88 golden-crowned kinglet
89 pileated woodpecker

APRIL 16, GRINDSTONE PARK, partly cloudy, 70—My home woods in Columbia are leafing out in spring green, redbuds linger at peak pink-purple, and wildflowers like wild sweet William, rue anemone, blue-eyed Mary, and trillium are out with others on the way. Also out are poison ivy and ticks.

Songbirds are back—for the first time this year I looked at warblers and vireos in the field guide. Familiar year-round birds are now in breeding plumage, the male goldfinch transformed from dull to bright yellow. I can see it's time for some more intensive CD study than I've been doing, because this is the season of Small Birds High Up in Trees, and recognizing songs and calls is key. Good birders find most of their species by voice, not sight. The Grindstone woods are so close to home I actually returned and listened to 10-12 songs before hitting the woods again—no immediate payoff, though.

The day's best moment was the pileated woodpecker. With the ivory-billed woodpecker in the news so much recently, it felt like a minor demigod version of the "Lord God bird" (ivorybill nickname). Over at Eagle Bluffs, I hear reports of cormorants, pelicans, and sandpipers. Today I voted for spring woods and wasn't sorry.

April 15, 2006

Lonesome cowboy

79 eastern screech-owl
80 greater prairie-chicken
81 eastern meadowlark
82 Brewer's blackbird
83 brown thrasher
84 brown-headed cowbird

APRIL 9, HI LONESOME PRAIRIE, sunny, 40—I don't know a better prairie name anywhere. Located in southwestern Missouri's Osage Plains region, Hi Lonesome is one of the state's best tallgrass remnants. Apparently "hi, lonesome" is an old cowboy greeting, but I couldn't find it with Google, which asked if I meant "high lonesome." That name* may be even better.

Hi Lonesome is home to leks where prairie chickens court in spectacular fashion, no small thing given that only about a thousand birds are left in the state (go here for information). The always-romantic Audubon wrote in Birds of America that "Inspired by love, the male birds, before the first glimpse of day lightens the horizon, fly swiftly and singly from their grassy beds, to meet, to challenge, and to fight the various rivals led by the same impulse to the arena. The male is at this season attired in his full dress, and enacts his part in a manner not surpassed in pomposity by any other bird."

Thus we arrived before dawn (not a phrase I use often) and walked quickly and quietly uphill toward a high point. Shortly, two males rose above the grass in mid-fray, talons out. Unfortunately a harrier scattered the competitors, and that was the end of the love-inspired pomposity. For another hour prairie chickens called from the grass and bolted across the prairie singly and in small phalanxes.

The meadowlark problem I mentioned in February was solved several hundred times. They were everywhere on Hi Lonesome, singing eastern songs repeatedly and thrusting bold yellow and black breasts from perches.

For the rest of the morning's activities, simply refer to the section in the Sibley Guide to Birds beginning on page 472: "Sparrows and Their Allies." Hi Lonesome has prime birding: wet, brushy draws, ponds, thickets, a few large trees, and slope after grassland slope. We spent enough time puzzling out sparrows so that by the end of the outing I felt I knew them well, but it was a fleeting knowledge. The part of my brain reserved for sparrow identification is somewhat smaller than for motor control of my left little toe.

* A friend and manuscript specialist, Bill, points out that high lonesome is defined as "a drinking spree or binge, especially one indulged in alone." Possibly after referencing Sparrows and Their Allies repeatedly.

April 03, 2006

Purple martin's mosquito-less majesty

77 house finch
78 purple martin

It's amazing the house finch is no. 78 of the year—with a little effort, I could have seen one on Jan. 1. They're widepread in Columbia, but I never looked for them. In fact, I have no purple finch either, a fairly common urban feeder bird about to head to Canada.

If you're interested in building a purple martin colony or empire around your house, consult this for martin care and feeding. The site even debunks the mosquito-devouring myth mainly pushed by martin house manufacturers. In fact martins eat almost no mosquitos, not surprising considering the birds feed in the open during the day. Pursuing such small and protein-poor food would also waste valuable energy. A wise sentence in a 1968 paper from The Auk says "There is no need to ascribe to the martin abilities greater than those it already possesses in order to encourage its protection and propagation."

April 01, 2006

George Mason 58, Jeff Durbin 45

73 lesser yellowlegs
74 great egret
75 field sparrow
76 rough-legged hawk

APRIL 1, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 55-70—Certainly that score is a fair result, because GMU has had a much better season than me. I went for 45 species on the day but had serious ID struggles with shorebirds and sparrows.

To honor George Mason's advance to the NCAA basketball final four, what better than an avian bracket in the Missouri River Floodplain regional? The day's highlights are in reverse order of seeding.

#16 young eastern garter snake in woods
#15 barred owl call
#14 groundhog moving within 10 feet of my car
#13 first field sparrow song of little big year
#12 white and sulphur butterflies proboscing common violets and other blooms
#11 dozen or so greater yellowlegs, tall, clean, elegant shorebirds
#10 shoveler, coot, and blue-winged teal domination of the water
#9 bright-blue-tailed (abdomened), green-bodied (thoraxed) common green darner dragonfly
#8 huge numbers of basking turtles everywhere: 35 hauled up on a gravel shore, 18 on one log
#7 one or two lesser yellowlegs flocks in muddy shallows, whose identification confused me to no end
#6 silent snow geese resting on a bar, 28 in flock
#5 abundant blue-winged teal in pools and channels, many standing on logs, our most beautiful waterfowl (honorable mention all-America to green-winged teal)
#4 nesting bald eagle stretching its wings over vast stick structure
#3 couple of dozen great blue herons, fishing, preening, resting, cronking, one flipping a sunfish down its throat
#2 juvenile rough-legged hawk in cattail shade on drained channel, then coursing over field
#1 cluster of six great egrets, including one losing and retrieving a large frog, dunking it repeatedly, then scarfing it down, frog lump visible in its neck

Who would win such a fictional tournament? I decided to run the MRF bracket through my simulator.

Not only has a #16 seed never beaten a #1, this may be the first case where the 16 could actually be eaten; the egret advances easily. So do the hawk, herons, teal, and lesser yellowlegs. In the first major upset, #13 field sparrow (a mechanical but pleasing song I can actually identify) mobs #4 bald eagle (a little passive in the nest). Then #11 greater yellowlegs (high energy, could execute full-mudflat press) overruns #6 snow geese (snows did not have "A" game of several weeks ago, when thousands showed up). Both eagle and goose favorites, it should be noted, are somewhat overrated traditional powers. In the 50-50 matchup, the shore-patrolling #9 green darner dragonfly prevails over the turtles.

In the next round, it's #1 egret gracefully defeating green darner, but the blue-winged teal, after dispatching with the field sparrow, upset the frog-dunking egret and move on to the final.

On the opposite side of the bracket, #2 hawk is lethal from the perimeter against #7 lesser yellowlegs. The #3 cronking herons have a huge height advantage inside against the undersized yellowlegs, then take out the rough-legged in the semifinal.

In the title game, teal versus herons, the teal outsplash and outfly the GBHs and take home the Birds of America trophy. The Blue-winged Beauties are champions!