Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pine Siskins!

The first representatives of a northern irruption species found their way to my feeders yesterday! High count today (10/31) was 5 Pine Siskins! Hope these are only the first of many more northern finches this winter!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nothing Finer than Carolina

A month or two ago, my wife and I planned an extended weekend trip to see our son, The Drinking Bird, and his lovely wife. An end of first quarter getaway turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for us. Yes, teaching junior high students is fun, but requires seemingly endless stores of energy. So, this weekend was about respite and, nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina as the first blast of autumn weather put a dent in the drought and brought in a fine wave of fall migrants.
The welcomed Friday rains gave way to a breezy and overcast Saturday morning, so we set out for Jordan Lake near Chapel Hill to see what the precip dropped in. I was hoping for shorebirds as Ozark shorebirding has been dampened by too much rain and high lake levels. This, however, was certainly not the case in parched North Carolina, where dropping lake levels have caused more mud to be exposed than water in many of its lakes.
My anticipation and excitement grew as I got my FOY Dunlin at our first stop. Special thanks to Doug, Bruce, and others of the Chapel Hill Bird Club birders for that one.
Soon we parted ways with the bird clubbers, and we headed for the mud flats. After a 1/2 mile hike, on which we shared a rare and beautiful Gray Fox sighting, we arrived on the lake shore. A dozen American Golden Plovers greeted us from the first mudflat, as our first Bald Eagle soared over the distant point. We turned to our right just as large mixed flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds took to the skies a mile or so up the arm of the lake.

We couldn't resist the long walk to the next point, but were rewarded amply upon our arrival there. On the way, a small flock of Semipalmated Plovers fearlessly foraged nearby. (photo courtesy of The Drinking Bird) From the point we scoped the following duck species: Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, Northern Pintail, American Widgeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Shovelor. Shorebirds species included: Wilson's Snipe, Dunlin, Least Sandpipers, American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, both Yellowlegs in the same view, Pectoral Sandpipers, and surely I few more that I've forgotten! Five Bald Eagles circled near the power lines crossing the lake arm. All in all, we had a great flurry of avian activity and a wonderful morning of birding. But then there was Sunday........
We headed for the beach at Wrightsvillle early Sunday for a leisurely picnic with birding as a secondary activity, or at least my son and I tried to make it seem like birding was not the primary objective. But the potential for North American lifers for me was strong on a NC beach, and this beach and my son delivered well. Within 5 minutes, I checked off Northern Gannet, a species that we both have seen in multitudes at Bass Island near Berwick, Scotland. Many flew at the edge of the scope's range, but later in the day, to my delight, an immature flew near the shoreline. Minutes after the first Gannets of the day, two Black Scoters (lifer #2) hugged the breaking waves as they glided 2-3 feet above them, passing by and under the pier. After lunch on the beach we headed for the marshy areas at the north end of the island. There we saw hundreds of birds in the distance and quickly began our trek to the far end of the island. There we saw hundreds of Royal Terns and Black Skimmers, mixed with American Oystercatchers, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, an Osprey, a Northern Harrier, and several shorebird species. Among the shorebirds was a couple Red Knots (lifer #3). But my favorite lifer of the day didn't come until we were heading back to the car. Almost totally blending into the white crystalline sand was a trio of shorebirds. One was the common Sanderling, but he was joined by two Piping Plovers, one mature and one immature. What a magnificent and graceful species! Certainly this was the highlight of my NC birding!

My mood, however, was slightly dampened by the fact that this species is in serious trouble largely due to irresponsible humans disrupting nesting grounds on beaches upstate from this very beach. When will we ever learn? And what can we do now to enact and enforce laws to protect this and our other threatened and endangered shorebirds of the Eastern Seaboard?

And so, I end this entry with a conservation question, and a great big thank you to my son and daughter-in-law for a memorable and productive weekend of North Carolina birds, beer, laughter, and relaxation! It just doesn't get any better!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Autumn Beckons Under Summer Temps

Giving up any immediate hope for seasonal temperatures , we ventured out this weekend, enjoying the cool mornings and then peeling off the layers to adjust to afternoons in the mid 80's. Nevertheless, organisms have detected decreasing photoperiods and have begun to move. On Saturday morning, we were treated to a large kettle of 250+ Turkey Vultures. Despite our attempts to find Black Vultures and raptors in the mix, we settled for the fact that this was a pretty amazing buzzard brigade.

On Sunday, we treated ourselves to a drive along Glade Top Trail. Native Smoke Trees with their brilliant reds and yellows brought the hillsides to life. Dogwoods were beginning to show color with touches of maroons. Sassafras trees lined the roads with their orangish-yellow hues. Peak colors, I suspect, are still a week away.

The glades of our region are nothing like the famous Everglades. Our "open spaces in the forest" provide a fascinating and purely southern Missouri ecosystem that results when southern slopes of the White River watershed become baked by their intense exposure to the sun and, therefore, become unable to support the trees of the surrounding oak-hickory deciduous forest. This creates a semi-arid community; home to pricky pear cacti, smoke trees, and other low growing grasses and xerophytes. As a result, there are numerous animal species found no where else in the state.

Although the Greater Roadrunners of the area either managed to stay off-road today or escaped my glances, another sluggish, reclusive species did make an appearance. The Missouri Tarantula is truly a classic Missouri glade endemic. This large, nocturnal, hairy arachnid illicits fear among many, but is a docile and benevolent creature. Although all spiders produce venom, the Missouri Tarantula is only capable of a bite equivalent to a small bee sting. But far more importantly, when handled gently, this species of spider chooses not to bite.

In my thirty years of science teaching in southern Missouri, I have taught countless students how to handle tarantulas and then freely allowed them to let the gentle giants crawl across their hands and wrists. I have never seen one move into its striking poise, let alone bite a human. The species does, however, engage in fearsome behavior when capturing a cricket or a grasshopper. Tarantulas must first raise their fangs in order to bite, so it is obvious when it is ready to strike. Its otherwise sluggish nature transforms to quick and agile with prey in sight.

Missouri Tarantulas are nocturnal and so secretive that they are rarely seen, except in late summer and autumn. Because of some strange shift in their circadian rhythm, they venture out of their secure hideaways, and diurnally roam through open glades, occasionally crossing roads. They are truly remarkable. You can learn more about them at MDC's spider website.

Ah, fall temperatures may arrive around here tomorrow. Couldn't come at a better time, as these Ozark hills are ready to burst into flaming color that will knock your socks off!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Green Leaf Reflections on Science Teachers

It's mid October, and the leaves are still very green. Faint signs of autumn are beginning to become visible, but as this morning's Springfield News-Leader reports, "maples often peak in mid-October, but that could be delayed this year because of unseasonably warm weather." Indeed, it is obvious now that the fall spectacle in the Ozarks is delayed, and we must grow accustomed to human accelerated climate change. We are now years into the current trend of warming global temperatures, and finally the world has begun to listen to the scientists. Hopefully, we are not too late to avert an ecological disaster.

This message is written, however, to thank all of those who, through the years have been willing to stand up in the face of ignorance and special interest groups to bravely educate the citizenry about the fact that our human actions are affecting Earth in extraordinarily negative ways. In spite of hateful and inflamatory remarks from those who continue to hide their heads in the sand, these brave scientists and educators have spoken the truth. They continue to do what scientists do; critically and objectively analyzing the data. And, the scientific results still supply mounting evidence supporting the hypothesis that our increasing appetite for and use of fossil fuels has significantly increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, leading to rising global temperatures.
And so, this day I say congratulations to you, Mr. Gore, and your team of scientists, whose work has finally been recognized globally with your acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most of all, however, I want to thank all of those informed teachers, educators, mentors, and professors in the classrooms of the world. Thanks for objectively presenting the evidence of global warming with both eyes wide open, unblinded by the anti-science forces that seek domination and control of our thoughts and actions for the sake of greed and power.

It's going to take many serious and concerted efforts to kick our nation's and our world's fossil fuel addiction, but we owe it to the generations to come to meet this challenge head on. With an informed citizenry that values both objective scientific inquiry and diplomacy to resolve global challenges, we just might have a chance.

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” -From the Great Law of the Iroquois

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Grassland Gems

Our first fall blast descended into Missouri this week, and avian friends that we haven’t seen since last spring returned to visit. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and others inhabited Lincoln's Sparrow by Marvin DeJong
the brushy edges of the Ozarks once again.
This day the winter residents and other migrants took second seat to two elusive migratory grassland sparrows, LeConte’s and Henslow’s. The Greater Ozarks Audubon Society’s annual quest took us to the hunter managed and dominated Bois D’Arc Conservation Area 20 miles northwest of Springfield.
I spend a lot of time birding by myself or with one other friend, but one’s odds of seeing these two species are greatly increased by the presence of a coordinated crowd of birders. Most of the birders attending today’s field trip were veterans of last year’s trip, when we had soul satisfying views of a LeConte’s and a Henslow’s, both in a single binocular view, begging for our careful observation and analysis of differences. The image lingered in our memories as we recalled our lucky day.
Because of their skulking nature and mouse-like running behavior (the sparrows, not the birders!), six observers is the minimum number needed to isolate and view LeConte’s and/or Henslow’s. The technique reminds me of childhood days of upland game hunting. We form a line and string out across the grasslands to cover more territory. These sparrows prefer the shorter areas of the prairie, those either burned or grazed to prevent the dense mesh created by the 6-8 feet tall bluestems, switch, and Indian grasses of the tall grass prairie. We flush our first LeConte’s of the day from the one to two foot high grasses. In flight it appears light gray and weak. It flies less than 50 feet. We surround the bird, closing in on it from all sides. We approach within 5 feet or less, the bird flushes and flies a shorter distance this time. We surround the bird again and again, until the bird has little additional energy to evade us. It is then that, as my birding friend Lisa said, “we can have our way with it”. The tiny, short tailed LeConte’s Sparrow perches on a stem less than 5 feet away from the entire group. Its orange face glows from amid the grasses. Purplish nape becomes visible to all. White medial stripe on top of head appears. Smiles all around for a mission accomplished.
Since I left my camera in the car, I ran ½ mile back to the car to get it. Shortly after I returned, the group closed in on another LeConte’s. Not as cooperative as the first bird, this one dove for the dense vegetation. Regardless, I snapped off a few pictures, one of which is on the left. The LeConte's is in the center of the picture, just to the left of the beige stem.
Later, the group split up as Charley and I bushwhacked through the dense thickets. Emerging from the thick vegetation, we flushed a dark bird out of the grasses. This bird flew less than 10 feet. We closed in without the help of our group this time. The bird flushed again as we noted its streakiness in addition to its dark back as it dove into the grasses. Even knowing exactly where the bird went down, however, we were unable to kick it out of the grasses this time. Almost certainly, however, we had a Henslow’s Sparrow.
Exploration of additional areas uncovered numerous White throated, White Crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrow, a few Field Sparrows, a Common Yellowthroat, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Nashville Warbler, and all the regulars. A Cooper’s Hawk soared overhead against the autumn sky to put the crown on a satisfying birding morning.