January 30, 2007


43 eastern meadowlark
44 white-throated sparrow
45 northern bobwhite
46 short-eared owl
47 horned lark
(total on this date in 2006: 41)

JAN. 28, BRADFORD FARM, sunny, 15—Time again for the monthly bird survey at the University of Missouri's research farm, scheduled for afternoon so there's a little more life in both birds and observers.

Six of us arrive in wool, fleece, and down. On top the wind chills, but we cross icy fields into a drainage leading to a small woodlot. There the wind is calm and my many layers catch up to the cold. We see more than a hundred tree sparrows move in and out a goldenrod patch, a quail covey fly out of a brush pile, and red-tailed hawks soaring (later we see the nest a hawk pair is building).

Bird of the year so far (and a life bird for me) is a short-eared owl that rises out of rough grass and flaps over a rise. It settles on the ground again, near a harrier—both the owl and owl-like harrier hunt rodents by flying low over grassland, so perhaps they're talking shop. The short-eared owl hunts at night and in daylight, especially on cold winter days when calories mean survival.

In late afternoon we see long, ragged lines of Canada geese approach from the northeast after a day of feeding. Probably they hope for open water, but it's ice all the way to the Missouri River.

Bird masterpiece

42 wild turkey
(total on this date in 2006: 40)

On the drive to work I get a windshield view of a small flock of turkeys. John James Audubon's painting of the male turkey is a classic and commands one of the highest prices of any of his Birds of America: $4,500. (See a better version than the one I faked at right.)

The white pelican and roseate spoonbill also currently sell at $4,500. The top-dollar Audubon bird is the great blue heron, now going for $10,000. Really, any of these will work for Christmas.

January 22, 2007

River of ice

35 American kestrel
36 northern shoveler
37 gadwall
38 green-winged teal
39 American goldfinch
40 northern harrier
41 American tree sparrow
(total on this date in 2006: 34)

JAN. 20, EAGLE BLUFFS, cloudy, 30—A good Midwest saying is that things could be worse, but it is a bleak day for birding. At the Missouri River (photo here) 10-foot saucers of ice roll downstream. The state has been locked in ice for a week, unusual because Missouri usually melts by then. Tonight it will snow and another cold week lies ahead. Almost every day's newspaper has a story involving a dog sliding down a slope and unable to climb back up (see here, here, here, and for a variation with a swan, here ).

Eagle Bluffs seems to have exactly four areas of open water judging by where the mallards are: a couple hundred in the two main pools, another hundred in a distant pocket wetland—all I see are ducks wheeling around it and landing from time to time—and a large, dense group of unknown numbers in a canal. I stop my car before reaching them because they're near the road and I hate the idea of flushing them in this weather (approaching on foot is guaranteed to spook them). A few dozen each of gadwalls and shovelers plus a single green-winged teal round out the duck lineup.

No doubt the cold and ice have killed birds this month—the ice is so hard and extensive you could probably skate across cropfields all the way to the river bluffs—but others manage fine. Goldfinches tear apart sycamore seed balls, song and tree sparrows locate seeds in dense brush and grasses, and flickers fly from tree to ground, finding what they need.

January 19, 2007

East Gallatin River

On my own one morning I go to the same recreation area where last July we swam and I saw yellow-headed blackbirds, yellow warblers, and muskrats. This time I flush a pheasant from a hayfield on the other side of the East Gallatin River (a Missouri tributary) and a sharp-tailed grouse from a riverside thicket. I saw lots of pheasants and grouse on my Great Plains bike trip and know them after a few wingbeats.

Jim Bridger, mountain man extraordinaire, named this river the Cherry, probably after chokecherries on its bank. Though that name is lost, the Bridger mountain range rises in the north to Sacajawea Peak's 9,665 feet. The Lewis and Clark expedition camped a few miles from here on July 14, 1806 as Clark's party crossed to the Yellowstone River toward a rendezvous with Lewis.


We ski, snowshoe, and hike around Mammoth Hot Springs near the northwest entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Mammoth's upper terrace is steamy and partly snow-covered, and from it my brother leads us into the woods to an unnamed thermal feature (photo here). After taking a trail through caking snow (the temperature is around 30) we bushwhack back to the hot springs.

On the terrace at least one Bohemian waxwing flock is on the move, and a life bird, a mountain chickadee. Later I flush a white-tailed jackrabbit. We finish the day at the best end-of-a-winter-day spot in Yellowstone. Here the Boiling River, draining from Mammoth, emerges from the ground and enters the Gardner River.

The Boiling River itself is dangerously hot, but where it joins the Gardner rocks protect bathers from the swift Gardner current. Elk browse the slope above the river opposite us; one stares at us and bolts. Downstream, mallard and goldeneye ducks ride the river, which is warm enough for trout to spawn in December. American dippers, remarkable birds that walk underwater for food, can overwinter here because of the warmer water, but I don't see one.

Sourdough Creek

I've never seen a Bohemian waxwing, but a quick bit of homework gives me hope of seeing a winter flock. Sure enough, I find a flock of about 120 in aspens along the Sourdough trail (part of Bozeman's great trail system), next to a creek of the same name.

Also a hairy woodpecker, though my excitement is minimal since Midwest woods hold plenty of them. On a short hike the day before I was pretty sure I'd heard a raven's croak, but today is a sure thing when one flies over, its wedge-tail obvious from below.

Big sky

24 mallard
25 American magpie *
26 house finch
27 common raven *
28 Bohemian waxwing *
29 hairy woodpecker
30 Clark's nutcracker *
31 mountain chickadee *
32 common goldeneye
33 ring-necked pheasant *
34 sharp-tailed grouse *
* not generally seen in Missouri
(total on this date in 2006: 25)

JAN. 6-12, BOZEMAN, MONTANA—A week visiting family in Montana gives me a chance for some Rocky Mountain species. I come up with fewer non-Midwesterners than I'd like. I hoped for more pine-tree birds: siskins, finches, redpolls, jays. But I'll be back in the summer, and this helps me get off to a faster 2007 start.

After falling short of 300 last year, I have a better idea of how my numbers need to add up through the seasons. My benchmarks include 60 species in January (compared to 41 last year) and well over a hundred by the end of spring migration. At some point a southern U.S. trip will be essential, though it doesn't count when on my return to Missouri I unexpectedly find myself looking for desert birds along a line of palo verde trees in Arizona.

Unfortunately I'm not in the great desert outdoors, but walking through the Phoenix airport checking out the landscaping through the glass. An ice storm in Missouri stranded me overnight in Salt Lake City, where luckily I have friends to stay with. We play Scrabble until 1 am and I resume my trip way too early the next morning via Phoenix.

As it turns out, I'm lucky to make it back home only a day late. From Phoenix we land on a slick Kansas City runway, de-ice, then shuttle to equally slick Columbia, where on arrival I discover my car sheathed in a quarter inch of ice that can only be removed by heating the car interior and hacking down to the layer of meltwater.

Be kind to invasive species week

21 rock pigeon
22 European starling
23 house sparrow
(total on this date in 2006: 20)

During a week of little outdoor time, I didn't seek out my three least favorite birds but noticed them in obvious places: pigeons rising from the top of a Missouri River bridge, starlings perched on powerlines.

So what's not to like? In the starling's case, it isn't a dislike for Shakespeare but that his plays are not good reason for introducing a bird that takes nest cavities from native birds. Still, it's no fault of the starlings, who are currently thrilling Californians. In huge flocks, they are forces of nature.

I made zero effort to see house sparrows until the morning of my trip to Montana. I poked around the Columbia airport and found a few to complete the non-native bird trio. This sighting was a shame—on a layover later that morning at Kansas City, a male house sparrow that somehow entered the terminal landed on the carpet in front of me while I waited for my flight. It would have been my first and probably only indoor Little Big Year bird.

Little Big Year, Part deux

1 dark-eyed junco
2 American robin
3 turkey vulture
4 eastern bluebird
5 yellow-rumped warbler
6 song sparrow
7 red-bellied woodpecker
8 red-tailed hawk
9 American crow
10 blue jay
11 great blue heron
12 northern flicker
13 northern cardinal
14 black-capped chickadee
15 tufted titmouse
16 cedar waxwing
17 downy woodpecker
18 brown creeper
19 mourning dove
20 Canada goose
(total on this date in 2006: 17)

JAN. 1, ROCK BRIDGE, sunny, 35—I'm even more excited on this second annual new year's day birding than the first, 2006's Little Big Year beginning. I have a favorite place picked out: the High Ridge trail in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. The sun shines so brightly from the east that for half the morning I have to loop around to the sunward side to see any birds.

On the way to the trailhead I avoid looking out the windshield except for purely driving purposes—I want my first bird of the year to be at the park. On the ridgetop bluebirds fly between the edge of the oak-hickory-cedar woods and recently burned grassland. I hear a red-tailed hawk cry, familiar to all movie-watching Americans as the overdubbed cry of the bald eagle (the eagle makes a far less majestic snuffling that's apparently regarded by Hollywood producers as insufficiently patriotic).

With my own voice I pish-pish-pish a song sparrow from some brush and a yellow-rumped warbler from the depths of a red cedar. Besides bluebirds, the day's high numbers are rung up by red-bellied woodpeckers in the woods and robins crisscrossing a gravel road between a stream and cedar thicket.

After a pause at home for lunch and the second half of the Wisconsin (alma mater)-Arkansas bowl game, I want more and head out to Grindstone, my trusty neighborhood park. Right at sunset I find a pair of mourning doves, then some Canada geese fly over. From a blufftop over Grindstone Creek, exactly where I had a daytime sighting of a barred owl last Jan. 1, I make like a barred owl myself. Either it's elsewhere or laughing quietly at my imitation. The birding day ends at dusk when I follow a cacophony of what I think are juncos into a dense stand of cedars. They're roosting for the night and I seem to be unnoticed.