December 18, 2007

Did I say 300?

Though I finished 2007 with only 175 species, I started fast. On May 23 my count stood at 164, compared to 125 at the same point in 2006. Things looked possible, but by July, with a move to Madison, Wisc. approaching, it was again painfully obvious I had no chance at 300.

Little Big Year will continue in some form, perhaps as another
big day attempt at 100 species (I had 85 on my first big day). I will also list birds on our family farm. We're gradually restoring about 55 acres of prairie and savanna, and I'd like to record trends or return appearances. Most of all we'd love to see meadowlarks (prairie) and red-headed woodpeckers (savanna).

December 04, 2007

Four calling birds

173 sharp-shinned hawk
174 red-breasted nuthatch
175 rough-legged hawk

DEC. 15, MADISON, WISC., snowy, 20—It’s not a good sign when the highlight of your birding day is a bathroom break. Not to say my experience at the 108th annual Christmas Bird Count was miserable, though it did involve more cold tolerance than I normally like to have to demonstrate for birding.

The CBC is a nationwide survey of bird populations, where counters add up not only different species but all individual birds. T
his is my fourth. Last year we had a cracking good time in Missouri on a 68-degree day. Now that I’ve moved four degrees of latitude north to Madison, Wisc.—which explains the huge gap in Very Little Big Year—a winter day in the 60s is pure fantasy. The reality on CBC day was 16 at sunrise, reaching low 20s in the afternoon. Also in the forecast: the sixth snowstorm of the month, if I counted correctly.

So it was no surprise when it began snowing soon after my partner, Peter, picked me up. We stopped first at Vilas Park at the Lake Wingra shore, a known spot for screech owls. Our territory was a combination of parks, lakeshore, neighborhoods, and a corner of the university arboretum. We quickly realized we’d have to depend on mixed winter flocks for most of our count. At mid-morning an alley turned up finches, chickadees, goldfinches, cardinals, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers—the usual winter suspects.

By late morning I felt chilled. I can also report that a combination of gray sky and falling snow makes terrible light for birding.
My binoculars fogged regularly, rendering the obscure objects in my field of view even more invisible--assuming I could focus in time with gloves. Luckily Peter was a good birder who managed to pick up everything. We needed a timeout.

Vilas zoo offered public restrooms, warmth, and the largest collection of tropical birds in Madison. Basking in the unreality, we stepped inside a steamy rainforest aviary to watch tanagers (including the multicolored paradise tanager), white-faced whistling ducks, and gregarious blue-and-gold macaws.

Back outside, Lake Wingra was mostly frozen (two tiny areas of open water held mallards). The brushy lakeshore had little beyond cardinals. Our arboretum section stood silent except for a few chickadees. The place to look for birds was at backyard feeders.

Fortunately we had decent backyard views from alleys and the southwest bicycle path. We noticed what the popular feeders have in common: tree variety in the area, especially evergreens and shrubs—good protective cover—near the feeders. Three or four feeders provided the bulk of the afternoon’s birds.

By late afternoon we hoped to reach 20 species. A red-tailed hawk high in a tree gave us that, and at the end of the day a flock of Canada geese flew over for no. 21 (final count here). We decided not to include the macaws and tanagers.

[where: 53711]

July 23, 2007

Don't move here

166 gray jay
167 Steller's jay
168 western wood-pewee
169 violet-green swallow
170 yellow-headed blackbird
171 lazuli bunting
172 Cordilleran flycatcher
(total on this date in 2006: 134)

JULY 12-19, BOZEMAN, MONT., mostly sunny, 90s—Bozeman is a city that makes you wonder why you don't live there. Not only is it surrounded by mountain ranges and outstanding flyfishing rivers, but the city is highly bikeable, an anonymous donor just paid off the last million on the new green-built public library, and the monthly art gallery walks are happening. And Yellowstone is 80 miles away. Ask a family member to move there if you can't do it yourself.

Over three mornings I went to Sourdough Creek, the East Gallatin River, and Kirk Hill at the foot of the Gallatin Range--plus an afternoon climb to Ross Peak in the Bridger Mountains. Notable birds included redstarts and yellow-headed blackbirds (in the same places as last summer), a spotted sandpiper, and plenty of yellow warblers.

The lazuli bunting, a life bird, was a complete surprise. That made up for zero western tanagers, my top priority. Animal of the week was a fawn that ran the length of a stream, only six feet in front of me. Its mother and sibling, more careful, followed by crashing along the slope above in a wide detour.

June 04, 2007

T-shirt weather

165 alder flycatcher
(total on this date in 2006: 132)

One of our great American traditions is the and all I got was this lousy t-shirt t-shirt (example here). Assuming I get the shirt, that's how I think I'm going to feel after birding this summer in Missouri.

Migration season is over, meaning few easy birds until the migrants return this fall. It's also hot and hard to see birds in the jungly woods. At least I can enjoy seeing dozens of great blue herons at Eagle Bluffs, madly spawning
(or nervous) fish (see video), and hummingbirds in the woods at Grindstone park.

long Grindstone Creek I saw an empid flycatcher, a family of birds with vast potential for causing nightmares. I tried to memorize its chip note, then played a birdsong CD back home. The notes seemed to belong to an alder flycatcher but since it could be a willow flycatcheruntil 1973 they were considered the same species (Traill's flycatcher)—I doubt I'll be listing a willow later this year.

A paragraph from the American Bird Conservancy field guide should discourage any further interest in identifying empid flycatchers:
"Science currently recognizes 11 species, distinguished by differences in voice, nesting habits, and habitat. Unfortunately, empids usually sing only at the nesting grounds, and migrants can appear in any habitat, making species identification impossible at times. Most species are so alike in plumage that their color varies more due to molt and wear than from one species to another. Few birders can identify more than their local nesting species…"

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.