Monday, January 21, 2008

Riverlands Ramblings

It was in January of 2001 that I last visited the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, then called the Riverlands Environmental Demonstration Area. The renowned birding area across the Mississippi River from Alton, Illinois is THE gull watching spot in Missouri, and is the winter residence for countless eagles, swans, and other waterfowl .

On January 13, 2001, a Smew of unknown origin (later accepted by the Missouri Bird Records Committee as a countable bird) arrived at the refuge. Although the bird's origin was thoroughly discussed, in September of that same year, the Missouri Bird Records Committee ruled that the bird "showed no signs of being an escapee, while there were many reasons to think it had a natural origin". (A once in a lifetime bird....... I believe it's the rarest on my NA list.)

I drove a group of hardy GOASers up there to take in the spectacle. On that day, experienced birders from all over the state and nation converged to see the gorgeous little merganser. After the slam dunk Smew sighting on Teal Pond, the gull watching began with expert birders all around. I added four life birds to my list: the Smew, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, and Glaucous Gull.

Seven years later I used a convergence of events as an excuse to make the 2008 road trip to RMBS. I arrived just as the Audubon Society of Missouri field trip, drawing 28 birders from across the state, was drawing to a close. Birders scanned through a group of 75 gulls. Ring-bills, Herring, Lesser Black backed....... LESSER BLACK BACKED!? Yes, the second gull from the left is a first year immature bird, Edge Wade, well known Columbia birder said. I, being a very
inexperienced gull watcher, observed the bird with bins, trying to look for subtle difference between a nearby 1st year Herring and the black-backed. Ah, this gull identification seems impossible, and I always thought shorebirds were tough. But tomorrow is a new day!

I had a remedy for this gull confusion. Josh Uffman, perhaps the best Missouri birder under the age of 40, generously offered to show me around Riverlands early Sunday. His passion is gulls, and Riverlands is his preferred site for winter birding. A day without a rare gull is a bit disappointing to him. Even as I was taking in the beauty and newness of this habitat, he was continually scanning the incoming gull flocks for a prize.

Common Goldeneye was the first bird of the day. A flashy flock of Canvasbacks appeared near the banks on the Illinois side of the river. We scanned some Lesser Scaups for the possibility of a Greater. I was surprised to hear Josh say that Greaters are more common than Lesser at Riverlands this time of year.

As the sun broke over the levee, we observed the awakening flock of swans, geese, and eagles on Ellis Bay. We quickly spotted Greater White-fronted and Cackling Geese in the flock of Canada Geese and Trumpeter Swans. Josh spotted two Tundra Swans among the flock. Since most of the swans had their heads tucked in, we waited as the Tundras lifted their heads to show their identity.

We repeatedly made our rounds scanning loose flocks of waterfowl and gulls: from Ellis Bay to Lincoln Shields to visitor's center, to Alton Barge Road and Alton dam to the locks on the Missouri side. Eagles and eagle watchers increased in numbers. On the gull front, and much to Josh's dismay, nothing except Herring and Ring-bills showed up.
Upon our return to the Alton Barge Road, our previous Canvasbacks were joined by a stunning pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, several displaying Hooded Mergansers, and a pair of Ring-necked Ducks. Although I had seen Red-breasted Mergansers at Fellows Lake, I had never seen a male Red breasted in near breeding plumage.Around 10 am, I split company with Josh after a very enjoyable morning. Josh apologized for not seeing any rare gulls, but I thoroughly enjoyed the morning, adding 13 species to my year list. Upon returning home, I opened the following e-mail message from Bill Rowe, secretary of the Missouri Bird Records Committee:

"I made a fairly fast tour around Riverlands this morning, 10-12; must have missed Greg and Josh by not too much. Of interest: 1) There was a lot of gull activity in the spillway below the dam, with a fair number of Herring Gulls participating. Among them were an adult Lesser Black-back and an adult Kumlien's (Iceland) Gull. "

Dang! Where was I? Well, I'll tell you. After Josh left, I concentrated my efforts unsuccessfully on the other Riverland potentials, in hopes of spotting longspurs or Prairie Falcon, or maybe relocating the recent Northern Shrike. I returned to the visitor's center to get a picture of my lifer: the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
I made one more trip to the locks, but I didn't see Bill Rowe there. If I had, I undoubtedly would have asked him what he had seen. But, that's the way it goes with birding. Those birds fly, you know; sometimes toward you and sometimes away from you!

I also walked the Confluence Park trail, and paused where Lewis and Clark began and ended their epic journey up the Missouri River. A single drake Common Merganser sat on the Missouri River, while a flock of ten passed overhead. A triple slam of Mergansers for the day!

A successful Riverland morning ended with 41 species, 14 new year birds, one life bird, and one more face put to an outstanding Missouri birder. Thanks, Josh Uffman, for being an excellent guide during a great morning of birding! I'll get that Iceland Gull on another visit!


Lisa Berger said...

Hey, I would have tried to hitch a ride to STL, assuming there was room in your vehicle. I view birding as a crossing of paths: The intersection of that sought with seeker. Too bad the Iceland didn't intersect your path this weekend.

Greg said...

I'll get the Iceland on another day. I see you are signed up on blogger. Time to start your birding blog!