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.


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