Thursday, September 11, 2008

Table Rock Temptations

It all started with unbelievable reports coming out of Arkansas and Oklahoma of Gustav birds falling out over regional reservoirs. It hastened a trip to Table Rock Reservoir on Friday morning, so Marvin and I set out in search of hurricane birds.

After viewing flocks of Black and Caspian Terns from the dam viewing area, we wound our way around to Old Highway 86 State Park. We scanned the area fruitlessly, but found a new friend in Joe Eades, St. Louis birder phenom, who in 2007, challenged the state year record with 313 species, one short of Tim Barksdale's long held Missouri year list of 314 species.

Joe suggested we head over to the Cow Creek Road look out, where we watched 8 Caspian Terns sail gracefully over head.
photo courtesy of Marvin DeJong
Time was getting away from us by this time, as Marvin and I had mid afternoon schedule conflicts, so we left without our hurricane birds. Joe continued the quest.

At 8:45 that evening, the call came. "I think you should come down here in the morning",. he cautiously said. Being careful not to reveal the species, I suspected a new state record possibility. Thinking Royal Tern was the most likely bird, I began to study the field guide. Shortly, thereafter, Josh Uffman posted on the GOAS message board:

I'm reporting for Joe Eades, who has just observed a ROYAL TERN at Table Rock Lake (Taney/Stone Co's) this evening (September 5) for about 45 minutes. Directions follow, and Joe states that he will be at the spot first thing in the morning to try to relocate the bird. This is a potential first state record and therefore needs to be documented with special care. There are two ways in which it can achieve acceptance: (1) Someone gets diagnostic photographs. These do not have to be great pictures, but they must show the diagnostic features of the bird. It may be hard to get such photos if the bird is far out on the lake, but let's hope someone gets lucky. (2) Two or more observers INDEPENDENTLY watch the bird, take careful field notes on the spot, and write up their documentations soon thereafter. The meaning of "independently" is that the observers should not be talking to each other, discussing field marks, and thereby possibly convincing one another of what they are seeing. The two (or more) documentations also need to be "independently acceptable," i.e., either one alone contains sufficient detail to make the record acceptable under normal circumstances (other than first state record).
Joe will of course provide one documentation, so other observers are needed to locate the bird and then do their own observing and note-taking and documentation (which neither Joe nor anyone else can help with). This policy may seem a bit arbitrary, but it is designed to avoid the situation where observers talk each other into agreement on certain field marks—a scenario that has actually occurred many times. With properly independent documentations, the MBRC will accept a record without the necessity of physical evidence (photo, specimen, etc.). I excitedly arrived at the point at 7:00 am without my photographer friend Marvin, who had gone on a family camping trip. At 7:10, I observed a large tern near the Branson cap...... Caspian.Shortly after 8:00, Joe arrived. He felt that he could not discuss the bird, other than the fact that he had observed it for 45 minutes in good light the previous evening. This morning, however, the lighting in the same direction was blinding, as the sun rose over the Ozark hills. Even so, he spotted and began to follow a possibility. The bird skirted the shoreline in horrible light before it turned toward us!

During that quick flyby, I was having trouble getting my new angled scope on the bird, and I became frustrated. By the time I gave up and grabbed the bins, I couldn't get anything on the head. The bird vocalized. My first thought was that a heron was nearby, but Joe confirmed that it was the tern. The sycamore trees obscured my view, and by the time I got my bins on the bird, I was unable to get any features on the head. As the bird flew away and into the distance, I did see a profile of a slim build and long wings, but I did not see a forked tail, white forehead, or any other head features.

"Do you think this was the bird that you saw yesterday, I asked. "I think it was", he replied.

As the bird flew along the far shoreline, at least 2 miles in the distance, Joe shouted, "Sabine's Gull! Does that do anything for you?" Indeed it did, a life bird, but the vast distance to the bird prevented me from initially and independently identifying the bird. Luckily, the bird veered right at the Branson Belle showboat, and entered the cove across from our vantage point. As the triangular shapes on the wings came into clear view, I began to understand why Joe was able to make the call at such a long distance. This is a striking and unmistakable gull, beautiful in flight, suggesting balance, as in a yin-yang by Gerrit Vyn, off of Cornell website

I returned home ready to provide sketchy gizz related, albeit not conclusive in any way, documentation of a Royal Tern, thinking Joe had a slam dunk the previous day. Then, I remembered that vocalization! I checked various Internet sites, and the truth was obvious. This was a Caspian Tern. I called Joe to tell him the conclusion that I had reached. Caspian Tern. I was relieved to find that, in the end, Joe, too, backed off his call for the Saturday bird, and had decided to hold off on documenting the Friday evening sighting, too.

It was a reminder that anticipation is a powerful intoxicant for all birders, no matter what skill level, and that we all can make errors in the field.

I've learned much from the experience. If I ever get a chance at a Missouri Royal Tern, I will definitely be more prepared, and, as a result, probably would not give a second thought to a bird like I saw Saturday, a beautiful, yet common, Caspian Tern........

But, then, I would have missed all this excitement!

Bring those hurricane birds inland, Ike! Joe, Marvin, and I have already made plans for Sunday and Monday at Table Rock Reservoir!


marvin d said...

Nice try! Maybe Ike will be more profitable. And Sunday you will have your photographer.

noflickster said...

Wow, great story! Too bad the Royal Tern didn't work out, I've found myself in that position way more than I'd like (but that's what makes the actual find even more sweet, I suppose). I'm completely jealous about the Sabine's Gull - not a nemesis since I've never chased one, but a would-be-lifer I'm dying for!

Good luck with whatever Ike brings your way.