May 23, 2007

Looking for spare Gulf-coast bedroom

158 western kingbird
159 Forster's tern
160 black tern
161 red-headed woodpecker
162 scissor-tailed flycatcher
163 little blue heron
164 bank swallow
(total on this date in 2006: 125)

MAY 23, EAGLE BLUFFS, mostly sunny, 75—Reports of shorebirds dropping in to take advantage of our receding Missouri River flood—who can resist so much exposed mud?—send me to Eagle Bluffs. We see only a distant flock of unknown sandpipers in tight formation.

There are two surprises, though: a western kingbird and scissor-tailed flycatcher, birds of the prairies and plains to the west. Check out that scissor tail!

I may need about 80 more surprises to reach 300. After checking off probable Missouri birds and counting species I might find in Montana and Wisconsin, I can see I'll need a trip to somewhere like Florida or Texas. Howard, I know it's been a long time, but what are you doing for Thanksgiving?

May 21, 2007

Little big day

144 yellow-breasted chat
145 great horned owl

146 house wren

147 ruby-throated hummingbird

148 white-eyed vireo

149 Tennessee warbler

150 Nashville warbler

151 prothonotary warbler

152 American redstart

153 mourning warbler

154 chestnut-sided warbler

155 Wilson's warbler

156 sandhill crane

157 red-breasted merganser

(total on this date in 2006: 108)
my Big Day list

MAY 12, KATY TRAIL, sunny, 60-85—Today is a big day of birding. Actually, a Big Day with capital letters, where you try to see as many species as possible in one day. For my first one the target is 75. The X factor is the flooding Missouri River—most of the day I'll be next to it. I have food, water, and to handle the X factor... extra socks.

Today is also the North America Migration Count (NAMC) and, no coincidence, International Migratory Bird Day. Knowing I'd be spending a big chunk of the day on NAMC, I decided to make a Big Day-NAMC sandwich. Like last year, our count area is seven miles of Katy Trail State Park between Huntsdale and Rocheport.

My first identifications are a robin and nighthawk
at 5 a.m. When I arrive in Rocheport I note some obstacles to birding: the town park, river trail, boardwalk, and conservation area are all underwater.

The Katy Trail doubles as the town dike, with concrete jersey barriers, sandbags, and loose sand piled on it. I walk the trail in half-light surrounded by an enormous racket of birdsong. When the trail goes underwater with no dry ground ahead, I turn into the woods and
climb the bluff.

From the base of this bluff to the river is all water. Who would guess I'd find my bird of the day at sunrise? Watching me from a tree is a great horned owl, a juvenile with fuzzy gray head feathers. The Lewis and Clark expedition climbed this same "projecting rock" above Moniteau Creek in 1804 (journal entry here). The "Courious Paintings" Clark mentions were probably destroyed by the Katy Railroad when it tunneled through the bluff in the 1890s.

NAMC mates Jim and Donna arrive at 7:30 and we shuttle to Huntsdale. Returning to Rocheport on foot via the Katy, we travel about a mile per hour, big bluffs on the right and the Big Muddy on the left. The river is high and fast, and submerged wingdikes have the power to flip large logs. Luckily the trail is only slightly damaged by flooding.

Since this is a survey we do our best to count every individual bird (see our count here). The NAMC is supposed to be a one-day snapshot of birds across the United States, but an online national clearinghouse of count data doesn't seem to exist (though I've found state data).

At the end of the count at 4:30 we're all loopy from seeing and hearing 874 birds (73 species). On my own I go down the road to Eagle Bluffs, where I'm sure to pick up at least a horned lark and dickcissel. What I don't count on is the levee is breached at Eagle Bluffs and access is closed a third of the way in.

It probably doesn't matter, because the whole habitat is transformed. Instead of fields, pools, marshes, and mudflats, the conservation area now consists of a glassy lake of water. There's no place for shorebirds to probe shorelines along ponds and channels (zero shorebirds all day, in fact.)

From a grassy levee I see a close second to the great horned owl: a juvenile sandhill crane flying over me and landing near a group of Canada geese to feed. Trees are full of orioles and red-winged blackbirds. When I flush turkey vultures away from some carrion, 11 perch in a nearby snag and wait for me to leave.

Brainpower is fading but I manage a plan for the rest of the evening. On the way back to Columbia I stop at the city wetland cells, hoping for mallards, shovelers, and blue-winged teal. No ducks, but I see three soras
, marsh birds I usually hear but never find.

Running out of daylight,
I stop at Shireen's house for a guaranteed rose-breasted grosbeak (they're regulars at local feeders this month). After a few minutes I have one, then head down the street to Bear Creek, where the combination of open grassland, creek, and woods is promising.

Soon the light is too dim to see much, though I pump my fist at a barred owl calling. As a last gasp I stop at an out-of-the-way corner of woods where I've seen a pileated woodpecker in the past. Nope. Nighthawks come out, which is fitting since I started my day as they finished their night.

The final stop is my home park of Grindstone, where I have realistic chances at hearing a screech owl and whip-poor-will. Small forested hills rim a grassland where savanna is being restored. Fireflies are out and I hear an owl, but it's another barred. Final count: 85. I'm ready for home.

May 09, 2007

Big(ger than usual) Muddy

138 purple martin
139 blackpoll warbler
140 yellow-billed cuckoo
141 gray catbird
142 eastern wood-pewee
143 Eurasian tree sparrow
(total on this date in 2006: 107)

MAY 8, POINT DU SABLE PARK, sunny, 70—In St. Charles I accumulate as many ticks as birds walking a new 100-acre Missouri River park. This is work, but I seem to be performing it mainly through binoculars.

The big surprise (besides a blackpoll warbler, a life bird) is the Eurasian tree sparrow, an introduced species that in all of North America lives only in the St. Louis area.

Because the sparrow's range is so irregular, last year I made a special trip to a St. Louis neighborhood by following directions on the Internet. I'd been thinking about another Eurasian mission this year, but today two flew up to the huge concrete pillars of the Interstate 370 bridge spanning the park and river. Strange that the Eurasian tree sparrow may be the rarest bird I'll see all year, but with a little effort a sighting is guaranteed.

The Missouri River is high from a month of rain but has fallen two feet in the past day. That will change shortly when floodwaters from torrential rains—produced by the same storm as the Greensburg, Kan. tornado—roll downstream from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and northwest Missouri.

The predicted height next weekend for St. Charles isn't on par with the Flood of '93, a flood that earned capital letters, but close to 1986 and 1995 levels.

If that sounds like a lot of major floods in a short time, it is. The Missouri River channel is so engineered with wing dikes and levees that a not-unusual spring rise now forces towns to sandbag against disaster. I vote for restoring wetlands next to the river.

May 06, 2007

Birds in bunches

126 common nighthawk
127 dickcissel
128 palm warbler
129 orchard oriole
130 great egret
131 sora
132 Baltimore oriole
133 fish crow
134 yellow warbler
135 greater scaup
136 eastern kingbird
137 rose-breasted grosbeak
(total on this date in 2006: 98)

MAY 6, EAGLE BLUFFS, partly cloudy, 75—With April's freeze damage behind us trees are now in full flush and spring migrants have no reason to move on. Not only are my numbers rising fast, but every week I'm picking up life birds: today, palm warbler and fish crow.

The Eagle Bluffs birds had two nice bookends: a midnight nighthawk above my neighborhood (almost the same date as 2006's first) and a rose-breasted grosbeak in the evening at my friend Shireen's birdfeeder.

Until recently fish crows were rare on the Missouri River, but their range expands year by year. Small differences between fish and American crows in shape and size are impossible to spot in the field. Voice, usually a giant obstacle for me, is the key.

Fortunately it's easy to tell apart the well-known "caw" of the common American crow and the quacky croak of a fish crow. Many thanks to the red-winged blackbirds for harassing the crows into breaking their silence.

May 02, 2007


125 Cooper's hawk
(total on this date in 2006: 89)

Another good window sighting: a juvenile Cooper's hawk across the street swooped down to a flower bed arranged around a cedar stump. For 3-4 minutes the hawk moved around the perimeter of the flowers trying to flush something, probably a bird. It peered in, flared its wings in a menacing posture, but finally gave up. I never saw its target so I don't know whether the hawk was mistaken.

5 a.m. pays off

110 Kentucky warbler
111 green heron
112 common yellowthroat
113 red-eyed vireo
114 blue-winged warbler
115 summer tanager
116 wood thrush
117 great crested flycatcher
118 black-and-white warbler
119 worm-eating warbler
120 Swainson's thrush
121 scarlet tanager
122 rough-winged swallow
123 indigo bunting
124 yellow-throated warbler
(total on this date in 2006: 89)

APRIL 28, PRAIRIE GARDEN TRUST, sunny 50-65—We had perfect conditions for the annual Prairie Garden Trust bird walk, which doesn't mean perfect conditions for spring. Trees remain practically bare—they're leafing from secondary buds after our April winter—even though May is three days away and migration is peaking. See the dramatic evidence here.

For the morning the group had 60 species (about 55 for me). Some identifications were by song only, but we had clear looks at many birds normally hard to locate in foliage. Many were stunners in red (scarlet tanager), yellow (blue-winged warbler), or blue (indigo bunting). At Hillers Creek we saw a turkey's nest, pipevine swallowtail, and Devonian fossils.

Lorna and Henry own the property and carefully manage the woodlands and restored prairie. Henry, I think, is a world-class photographer. He sells his work to anyone but targets health-care facilities because he believes patients can relieve stress by looking at scenes of nature.