Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Big Day Part One: The Missouri Prairie

Records are made to be broken. Long ago, I was amazed when we broke 100 species on a Big Day of Birding. I thought it would never happen again.

On that day, Mark Goodman, my son Nathan, and I set out for Schell-Osage Conservation Area and Taberville Prairie for a productive day of birding in early May of 1995. When I look back, I remember vividly the life birds for the day: Least Bittern, American Bittern, Bell's Vireo, and Henslow's Sparrow. I think we ended the day with 104 species. I'm sure Nathan with his constant attention to detail could tell you exactly how many species there were. But this I do know. My personal record stood for 13 years, occasionally being challenged as several 100 species days followed.

This year I took Big Day to a new level. I enlisted the help of GOAS and Audubon Missouri president Charley Burwick to map out a successful strategy. Charley had birded big day for years and tirelessly pursues new species in the Ozarks. He reminded me that it's all about hitting all the possible habitats in your region. The birds start stacking up each time you enter a new ecosystem, and that makes all the difference.

So, I felt really great when we ended the day with 125 species. Of the 125, I personally saw and/or heard 122 species! For Southwest Missouri, this is an outstanding total.

To top it off, Marvin DeJong, excellent photographer, joined us to capture the mood and the memorable moments from our 2008 count. I am featuring Marvin's amazing work from that single Big Day. Thank you, Marvin, for sharing.

And so, I begin this story at Niawathe Prairie at sunrise. Although cloudy, the birds were singing as we arrived. First bird of the prairie was Common Yellowthroat, followed quickly by Horned Lark. Soon we were hearing Bell's Vireo. Our successful attempt to see the vireo was characterized by quick jumps into the open and just as quick retreats into the undercover. Along with the ubiquitous Eastern Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Dickcissels, we heard Henslow's Sparrows and occasionally watched their short flights into the deep grasses. Northern Bobwhite and Yellow-breasted Chat echoed on the horizon. Near the brushy margins of the prairie we picked up a pair of surprise Harris' Sparrows.We searched the surrounding agricultural fields and grasslands unsuccessfully for Greater Prairie Chicken, but picked up Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Great Horned Owl, and Loggerhead Shrike, among others. Marvin caught this American Pipit on his camera.
Our highlights from the prairie were in a recently burned field guarded by this Charolais Bull. Comfortably foraging about at his hooves were 6 Upland Sandpipers in the damp grasses. When I first saw them at a distance with their necks retracted and plumage dampened in the rain, I hoped for prairie chicken, but the next best thing was these beautiful grassland natives.
We left the tall grass prairie around 8:30 a.m. with 40 species, headed for Willard in search of our target Painted Bunting. There were pleasant surprises along the way. Come back for Part Two.


N8 said...

I can't remember our Big Day record, but I think I only passed the century mark once, and that was with Goodman and you. I remember that day well.

That Least Bittern was actually our second. We flushed a bird in Kansas the summer before that I counted and you apparently didn't...

Congrats on the new record though, perhaps I need to do something like that in the future.

Greg said...

I now remember my life Least Bittern at Cheyenne Bottoms, but the one at Schell was an SSV.