May 27, 2006

Wishing for a gular

127 Hudsonian godwit
128 dunlin
129 Virginia rail
130 American white pelican
131 double-crested cormorant

MAY 26, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 85—With the heat wave (it is just a wave, right?), a whole lot of gular fluttering was going on at Eagle Bluffs. On this visit the conservation area showed off its healthy populations of dickcissels in the fields and great blue herons in the water. Several of the great blues and two juvenile cormorants were vibrating their throat pouches (which contain blood vessels close to the skin surface) to dissipate heat.

Four pelicans, resting on a log in the water side by side with three great egrets, had gular surface area to spare but did not use it.

Elsewhere, three families of Canada goose goslings caused enough commotion for their parents to call a timeout. About 15 scooted over the water ten yards at a time, dove under—sometimes going momentarily bellyup—meowed to one another, and twice scattered a small group of Hudsonian godwits trying to feed in the shallows.

The godwits rank with the great-tailed grackle and Caspian terns as my best birds of the year. Originally I and another birder labeled them marbled godwits, but a long look through the spotting scope gave them away. Unfortunately I missed good April and May birding, and many spring migrants like the godwits won't return until fall.

I heard the rarely seen rail in a patch of cattails. My field guides describe the call as a clattering series of gik, skew, ti-dick, or wack, descriptions I can't improve. "Thin as a rail" comes from rails' abilities to compress (and avoid detection) in thick marsh vegetation. Biologists are forced to survey their populations using tape-recorded calls at dawn or dusk during breeding season and counting responses.

Never leave Eagle Bluffs in a hurry: on the way out I saw an otter hustling along the shoreline dragging what appeared to be a three-foot-long black rat snake.

Oklahoma official state cutting tool

126 scissor-tailed flycatcher

I knew I would see this bird on a work trip to Oklahoma, and as it turned out it took only till southwest Missouri for a windshield sighting. In Oklahoma I saw dozens of them on powerlines or in flight. The scissortail is Oklahoma's state bird, its tail indeed spectacularly scissored for more than half the body length. I probably should have bought the scissortail refrigerator magnet.

May 17, 2006

Migration day

109 cliff swallow
110 white-eyed vireo
111 common yellowthroat
112 northern rough-winged swallow
113 great crested flycatcher
114 northern parula
115 chimney swift
116 orchard oriole
117 red-eyed vireo
118 eastern wood-pewee
119 Caspian tern
120 gray catbird
121 worm-eating warbler
122 prothonotary warbler
123 solitary sandpiper
124 ruby-throated hummingbird
125 house wren

MAY 13, KATY TRAIL, mostly cloudy, 50-60—Birding alone most of the time, I'd half-forgotten how fun a day in the field can be with skilled friends. The occasion was the annual International Migratory Bird Day, an event, I gather, not so much for data collection as for appreciation of the double lives many of our birds lead, one in North America and a second in central or South America. The 2006 theme is the boreal forest—see this article in Audubon magazine.

That's all for the good, but I was also interested in appreciating my year list. Increasingly high limestone bluffs along the Missouri River lined the 7-mile stretch of Katy Trail State Park we walked (at roughly one mile per hour). For the first couple of miles we had a wide agricultural riverbottom on our left. Then the Missouri ran close against the bluffs the rest of the way to Rocheport.

The highlight reel ran nearly continuously through the day: four Caspian terns flying up the Missouri River, a pair of hummingbirds working nectar sources on the bluff face, indigo buntings and cardinals crisscrossing the trail, prothonotary warblers in the thickety woods, swallows swooping over the river, and a bobcat pausing halfway across the trail to look at us—my first Missouri sighting.

We counted both species and individuals: 19 goldfinches, for example, and 28 Canada geese. In all we saw 57 species and estimated 794 individual birds. Thanks to Donna and Jim I also successfully updated my voice recognition software, helpful with hard-to-spot warblers and vireos. In the end we heard but did not see about six species, including the northern parula, whose buzzy song I've heard dozens of times this May without ever spotting the bird itself..

May 11, 2006

Music to my ears

108 eastern towhee

This evening, a simple demonstration of the learning process:
a. listen to bird songs on CD
b. go outside (in this case, the Rock Bridge weekly spring wildflower walk)
c. identify singing bird

Which leads to a question: is this device a handy teaching aid or enemy of the people?

May 09, 2006

Rogers Hornsby, here I come

100 lark sparrow
101 eastern kingbird
102 dickcissel
103 great-tailed grackle
104 sandhill crane
105 red-headed woodpecker
106 spotted sandpiper
107 least sandpiper

MAY 8, EAGLE BLUFFS, mostly cloudy, 65—I'm now only 607 behind Babe Ruth, without the aid of ornithological steroids. On a banner day for little-big-year birders, I reached and broke 100 with three new birds—lark sparrow, kingbird, dickcissel—within five minutes in the fields next to Eagle Bluff's wetland pools.

The great-tailed grackle may be my best find of the year. Well-named, the tail is so enormous that at first the grackle looked like two blackbirds fighting. Near the grackle, a solitary sandhill crane foraged in the company of a few Canada geese. It may be the same individual who hung out with large snow goose flocks here in winter. (Audubon's sandhill painting is from his later, smaller, and less expensive octavo edition. I'm not sure if the images are public domain.)

Other notables of the day included a soaring bald eagle, which should always make a highlight list, several kingfishers zipping low over the water or perching next to it, and six Canada goose goslings (Canada goslings?) parading to the water in front of their parents. A hoarse cluck from some cattails had all the earmarks of a rail, but I couldn't identify it.

With all the talk of Barry Bonds and the Babe, and my ascendancy to 100 species, I noticed Hank Aaron's (755) and Babe Ruth's (714) home-run totals are in the ballpark of the North American Big Year birding record, Sandy Komito's 745. Given these comparable numbers, if I reached 300 for the year, would that put me on par with baseball players with around 300 career homers? Since that group includes Rickey Henderson, Andruw Jones, Rogers Hornsby, Shawn Green, and Vladimir Guerrero, I'd say definitely not. The Henderson or Hornsby of birding would have about 650 Big Year birds.

May 07, 2006

99 species of birds on the list

99 indigo bunting

MAY 7, GRINDSTONE PARK, partly sunny, 60—Shortly before bird no. 99 (a bluer-than-blue indigo bunting), I flushed a barred owl into a high tree, from where it gave me a long and (anthropomorphism warning) curious look. The same thing happened 15 minutes later. Otherwise my triple-digit bird eluded me in the trees. I notice I'm falling into bad binocular habits: this time of year there are lookalike birds I'm not sharp at identifying, and I break off watching to sketch or consult my guide—and poof, the bird is gone. I need to pay more attention to Yogi Berra.

May 06, 2006

It's a jungle out there

95 Swainson's thrush
96 Baltimore oriole
97 ovenbird
98 yellow-billed cuckoo

MAY 6, GRINDSTONE PARK, mostly sunny, 60—I spent a three-martini-long lunchtime at my favorite bend on Hinkson Creek, mostly looking high up in trees. That stretch of Hinkson has riffles, sand and gravel bars, willow thickets, a small bluff, and dense woods of sycamore, elm, hackberry, buckeye, and flowering black locust on both sides. Highlights were a Baltimore oriole pair—Audubon's print does not do justice to their orangeness. I saw my first LBY wood thrush, having heard one a few days ago. As I exited the woods, an 18-inch-long black rat snake coiled and recoiled in front of me.

We've reached the season when it's hard to see birds among all the greenery. I've got a few warbler-song problems at the moment, and real martinis could make an appearance in future posts if I can't solve them.

Not a Hitchcock sequel

Twice in a week I've been chatting in someone's backyard when my host said something about birds, followed quickly by suspicion about them carrying bird flu. If the H5N1 virus ever breaks loose, I'm pretty sure it's other people and not birds we'll be worrying about. Bird-to-human transmission is only scary to someone spending lots of time in east Asia (and a few other places) close to infected domestic birds like chickens. The real trouble would start with human-to-human transmission, which might happen if avian influenza and human influenza viruses were present in the same body and exchanged genes. A pig is the most likely go-between (more info here).


90 blue-gray gnatcatcher
91 ring-billed gull
92 wood thrush
93 barn swallow
94 common nighthawk

Five species seen or heard in the last two weeks: gnatcatcher (on a wildflower walk in Rock Bridge State Park), wood thrush (same, Three Creeks Conservation Area), barn swallow (around the countryside), nighthawk (nighttime streets of Columbia), and ring-billed gull (strip-mall parking lot in Madison, Wis.). I first glimpsed the gulls at a small lake, then a few days later had up-close views in a parking lot a mile from the lake. Though half a dozen gulls cruised around for edibles, a single crow easily kept them at bay when they discovered a sandwich, and also flushed them from lightpole perches. A gull is slightly larger, and they had numbers, but the crow ruled the asphalt kingdom.