February 27, 2007

Game theory

66 American coot
67 killdeer
68 wood duck
(total on this date in 2006: 60)

FEB. 27, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 50—Nice spring days require you to go outside, so I grabbed my binoculars, PDA, iPod, and laser pointer and headed for the Missouri River.

Or so goes the new wave of 21st-century birders, as the Wall Street Journal reports. I won't express outrage, though I can't believe someone would carry a bird database on their PDA when fieldguides in book form are far superior. And I will say that laser pointers are lazy and gauche and I would betray my entire upbringing by using one.

But I've birded with people carrying iPods and don't object in any way except for the cautions pointed out in the article: to play sparingly and in the right circumstances, which I believe nearly all birders do. Rare-bird alert services? Not my thing, but I do check this website, which tells me pelicans are hanging out by the river now.

I think most birders bird for a combination of reasons. First, to be immersed in the outdoors and see wild things. That's why people walk in the woods, canoe and backpack, hunt and fish, climb and sail. No doubt it's a deep instinct.

Many birders also play a game with themselves to identify birds by sometimes split-second clues—puzzles of memory and learning combined with alertness and dexterity in the field. Some play the game hard. Me? I'm playing for 300.

Migration day

62 snow goose
63 ring-necked duck
64 northern pintail
65 lesser scaup
(total on this date in 2006: 60)

FEB. 19, EAGLE BLUFFS, sunny, 60—I'm tired of writing descriptions of bird sightings, though it's tempting this afternoon, a day that feels like the first true day of spring. Canada geese, snow geese, and white-fronted geese cross the sky in all directions, and more than a thousand mallards rise in unison from a flooded cornfield. Today is all about the noise and movement of migration.

Whooping cranes now migrate in the eastern United States (between Wisconsin and Florida) for the first time in more than a hundred years. First-year birds are trained to follow ultralight planes south to Florida and find their own way north and south after that. Last month a tornado in Florida killed 17 of 18 first-year cranes. But there are 60 others, the oldest now old enough to breed. Later this month you can follow each day of northward migration here. The whooping crane is so tall—North America's tallest bird—that Audubon painted it reaching down to snatch a salamander.

February 12, 2007

Spring in winter

61 red-winged blackbird
(total on this date in 2006: 50)

Feb. 11, BEAR CREEK, partly cloudy, 40—This week I went west on Columbia’s Bear Creek trail. I enjoyed a kestrel at the peak of a sycamore, kingfisher moving along the creek in front of me, rattling all the way, and
a solitary duck winging high overhead.

But nothing compared to the red-winged blackbirds.

Red-winged blackbirds return to Missouri some time in February, and the 15 I saw probably half-wished they'd canceled their return flight. The male redwings wore faded, ragged red-and-yellow shoulder patches (or epaulettes), which they flash in spring as an all-powerful mark of social status (hey, it's cheaper than an Escalade).

The interesting part about the epaulettes is they can be covered easily by feathers, and a redwing male intruding into foreign territory (either to claim it or find food) will hide his. He is thus ready to submit to the territory owner and avoid a fight. But if the intruder finds the territory vacant, out flash the epaulettes! Spring is not far off.

February 04, 2007

Bear east

57 Carolina wren
58 pileated woodpecker
59 white-breasted nuthatch
60 northern mockingbird
(total on this date in 2006: 41)

Feb. 4, BEAR CREEK, sunny, 20—After seeing a Carolina wren at my friend Shireen’s birdfeedermy attempts to photograph the feeder are here and hereI went down the street to the Bear Creek trail, which crosses Columbia’s north side, entered the woods and started stalking winter flocks.

After bluebirds, mourning doves, and an amazing number of cardinals, a racket raised by a flicker preceded the grand entrance of a pileated woodpecker, a supercharged woodpecker—nearly the size of a crow—with a flaming red crest.

The pileated pounded a
honeysuckle, unaware of me standing just 40 feet away. At that size I could see it clearly without binoculars. Then I saw my third woodpecker of the past few minutes, a downy, first noticing its shadow on the sunlit tree trunk behind it—I don’t recall ever coming across a bird that way.

I located the downy and moved directly under it—it didn’t seem to mind. I’ve read that downy woodpeckers like to flock in winter with chickadees and tufted timice because they rely on those birds to sound the alarm in case of a predator.
(Mixed winter flocks are an advantage if food is scarce.)

Finally, back at the Bear Creek trailhead, I saw a mockingbird at exactly the same cedar tree cluster we saw a mockingbird at 13 months ago on the 2005 Christmas bird count. I think there’s a decent chance it was the same bird.

February 01, 2007

Mighty father of old man river waters

48 bald eagle
49 American white pelican
50 ring-billed gull
51 herring gull
52 hooded merganser
53 tundra swan
54 greater white-fronted goose
55 trumpeter swan
56 belted kingfisher
(total on this date in 2006: 41)

JAN. 29, RIVERLANDS, sunny, 40—After a shortened workday in the St. Louis area, I happen to find myself supplied with binoculars and a spotting scope and enough time to drive to America's greatest river confluence. I cross the Missouri River twice, then a low, leveed agricultural floodplain (background of this confluence view) to the Mississippi and Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The Mississippi River doesn't mess around with its birds. In a bay next to the river across from Alton, Ill., you didn't need any vision aids to notice lots of large birds: blocky eagles hanging out on the ice or in trees, geese and swans cruising open channels, gulls below Melvin Price dam plunging for fish in the churning water. I'm looking forward to spring migration here. My estimates:
60 bald eagles
50 pelicans
42 trumpeter swans (plus 1 tundra swan)
300 ring-billed gulls
30 herring gulls
200 Canada geese (plus 3 white-fronted geese)
75 crows

The Missouri-Mississippi is also a confluence of river controversies. For the Mississippi, it's whether to spend $2.5 billion upgrading locks and dams. Whatever the merits of this proposal (under pressure, ecological restoration has been beefed up), the Army Corps of Engineers has often failed to produce good-faith cost-benefit analyses in the past. A National Academies report found flaws in the Mississippi lock project, and the advocacy group PEER put the matter in blunter language, here.

Meanwhile, debate over how to manage competing interests on the Missouri River—barges, crops, recreation, wildlife—is the status quo. An upper-basin idea to buy out the barge industry has gotten the usual response in Missouri.