Monday, December 31, 2007

Top Ten Nature Moments of 2007

I've spent a good bit of this day reading a series of Top Ten Nature Moments of 2007, and I've come to realize that it is with gratitude and a desire to share the joy of the great outdoors that the birding blogosphere has undertaken this vitally important task.

As an biology teacher, I know that natural awareness and environmental responsibility is taught in the classroom, but the teachings simply do not take hold without awe inspiring, first hand encounters with the natural world and all of its beauty. We who long for our next day out of doors have developed a heartfelt gratitude for the gift of Nature. It is from the core of this "gratitude within" that we are called into action to educate others, and to protect, defend, and preserve our biosphere.

What first appears to be a self-indulgent episode in blogging, in reality is a testimony to the power of Nature to transform lives and to instill, as Rachel Carson coined, "a sense of wonder" in all of us.

It has been a remarkable year outdoors for me. So, it is only fitting that I join the ranks of those of you out in the birding blogosphere. I admire and respect all of you for your knowledge and perspectives into the avian world we all love to share. So, I am honored to join you with my Top Ten Nature Moments of 2007, starting with #10. Several of these "moments" extended into several days that run together in birding bliss in my mind.
10. Fellows Lake Birding: In September, I observed the subtle difference between Chipping Sparrows and my lifer Clay-colored Sparrow at Fellows Lake during a GOAS field trip. In November, I had 12 Common Loons in one morning. There is recent activity in the Bald Eagle nest there, and it is where my Northern Shrike was discovered. Last, but surely not least, it is the main piece of the pie in my section of the Springfield Christmas Bird Count circle, where I learned that "every bird counts."

9. During my summer school class called Missouri Wildlife and Habitats, I watched as 18 junior high students marveled in the acrobatic aerial maneuvers of Cliff Swallows, who have built their mud nests under the new Finley River bridge in Ozark along the brand new Riverwalk Trail. This experiential course is designed to instill a thirst for outdoor knowledge and an appreciation for nature within these young people. Needless to say, there isn't any homework, and the syllabus depends upon whatever Nature has to offer us on any given day. It's pure friluftsliv. Thanks to the city of Ozark for recognizing the value of our river to our young people and to our growing community.

8. For the second half of the year, I discovered a new birding friend. Many days after he returned from Alaska, Marvin and I could be found on the roads of Missouri searching for birds and retelling wildlife stories from our youths. His Iowa childhood days shared much with my Kansas childhood days of discovering and developing an admiration for the natural world around us. From Painted Buntings to Short-eared Owls, we've shared great memories of Missouri birds. The day we discovered the Northern Shrike, we knew we were quite a team.

7. On the day after Christmas, I gathered up some friends to fulfill a promise. Our search for LeConte's Sparrow proved successful. It was a lifer for my son Nathan. We headed out into the Missouri prairie on the same day and added Cackling Goose and Brewer's Blackbird to his life list.

6. December 8: After a wonderful, up close and personal view of a Bald Eagle at Fellows Lake, my friend Marvin and I rounded a corner to discover a Northern Shrike in southwest Missouri! His photography skills paid off, as an undeniable image of the bird was discovered among his many shots. Sure takes the pressure off of the documentation process. Nothing like a casual winter visitor falling into your lap!

5. The weekend of May 5 and 6. After a late frost destroyed the budding deciduous canopy, a weather system created fall out conditions, and the end of the work week coincided with the remarkable weather creating a perfect storm of spring migrants that fell out of the sky and into the understory. Saturday I alone saw 21 species of warblers, and one of those species was a pair of lifer Bay-breasted Warblers! On the next day, I led a GOAS field trip that uncovered 19 warbler species and unheard of numbers: 13 Philadelphia Vireos, 14 Blackburnian Warblers, 15 Cerulean Warblers, 14 Chestnut-sided Warblers, the list went on....

4. The day that Martha, Danielle, Nathan, and I went to Wrightsville Beach, where I picked up my lifer Northern Gannet, Black Scoter, Red Knot, and my favorite, 2 Piping Plovers. It's a banner day when you're on the beach with three of the most important people in your life and life birds abound!

3. The five day clean up trip that my wife Martha, Nathan, and I took to south Texas on a "Mission" to fill in the gaps in our south Texas list. From Falcon Dam to South Padre Island, all three of us scoured the scrub forest and wetlands for new lifers, and relished in the sight of our colorful, avian border friends from previous years.

It culminated on the beach at South Padre Island, where we met our daughter Laura. As I said above, it's a banner day when you're on the beach with three of the most important people in your life and life birds abound! I ended the trip with 8 lifers, Nathan with 10!

2. Eleven days of Costa Rican birding! 258 species for me, at least 225 of which were life birds. The lists of my birding companions, Nathan and his friend Nolan were considerably larger. I cannot think of a better way to spend time with my son, total and mutual immersion in our shared obsession of chasing birds around the globe. I've dreamed of going to Costa Rica since the early days of my teaching career 25-30 years ago when my classes and I participated in fund raising events to raise money to protect rain forests there. I was so impressed that much of that "school children money" was used to buy land in or near national parks and reserves in Costa Rica. The images of our trip are many, varied, and I continue to process it all. I just cannot distill the whole experience yet. I cannot thank Matt Gasner enough. He is a Purdue graduate student and the grandson of our local friends Mel and Dorothy Fretham. His kindness and guidance in creating one of the most memorable days of my life will always be treasured. This much I know: While in Costa Rica, I continually felt a sense of awe and amazement at the depth and breadth of this ecological wonder we call the rain forest. Thanks to Maura Lout and sister Meghan for their enthusiasm. Thanks to Maura for these photos. Being around these five young environmental activists made me realize that we are passing a legacy of environmental stewardship to able bodies and quick minds. The whole experience renewed my hope for the future of green spaces.

1. My #1 birding moment for 2007 caught me way off guard. Nathan and his wife Danielle journeyed from North Carolina to spend the holidays with us. It seems my son and his wife had been doing a bit of Christmas shopping. I was clueless when I opened their present. It so effectively summed up this extraordinary year of birding for me, perhaps capturing the essence of it all. For a moment, I was caught up in a wave of emotion. The present? It was the Charley Harper poster of Monteverde flora and fauna. Harper's sharp, clean lines and color, and his creative celebration of the VIBs of Costa Rica brought it all back to me. It just doesn't get any better.

Wishing you all many life birds and many life birding relationships in the coming year! Cheers!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

December Delights, Part II

All photos except the loon were taken by Nathan Swick. Loon photo taken by Marvin DeJong. Thanks to both of you for letting me use them here.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, we set out for a half day of birding. We were greeted in the slanting rays of the morning sun at Nixon Farm with great views of Northern Harriers, Savannah Sparrows, and a Harlan's phase Red-tailed Hawk sailing across the grasslands. Its white tail and black terminal band strongly revealed its identify as it alit on a distant tree. We ended the morning with 50 species after another failed attempt to find the Northern Shrike at Fellows Lake. In the exact same area of the Northern Shrike, however, we
observed 2 Bald Eagles on their nest, and a pair of Wild Turkeys displaying within a flock of 20 or so birds. Quadruple highlights of the day included 4 Common Loons, 4 Bonaparte's Gulls, and 4 Bald Eagles, and, 2 Red-shouldered hawks. The day ended with a singing Carolina Wren directly overhead at Lake Springfield.
Another delight of the season, we spent Christmas day together with family, enjoying their company, eating too much, playing board games, laughing, and talking.
But this morning we were out birding again. This day we had a target bird in mind, a lifer for Nathan. I knew we could find LeConte's Sparrow at Bois D'Arc Conservation Area if we had enough people and enough time. But.... all I could rally were the four of us; Dean, Marvin, Nathan, and I. It proved to be enough.
In a previous post, I explained our process of finding and observing LeConte's Sparrows. We walked along the top of the ridge where we kicked up Savannah Sparrows, observed many bluebirds, a flicker or two, a Northern Harrier, and a few others. We had turned back after seeing four orange-clad upland bird hunters at the far end of the grasslands. It ended up being a fortunate move, as shortly thereafter, the LeConte's Sparrow flushed and flew its characteristically short flight. We chased the bird into the brush, where Nathan managed to get its portrait. He also flushed a Vesper Sparrow from the grasses. We were unaware at the time that the pale sparrow with white outer retrices is a casual winter resident in southern Missouri.
This all occurred within an hour, so we took advantage of the additional time bonus to head for the agricultural fields and prairies around Lockwood, Missouri. In the next couple of hours, we picked up two more lifers for my son. A nice flock of Cackling Geese posed with Mallards, and were dwarfed by the surrounding Canada Geese. We found Brewer's Blackbirds in a large mixed flock of blackbirds, and tirelessly searched the fields unsuccessfully for longspurs, Prairie Falcons, and Rough-legged Hawks.

One last trip by Fellows Lake to search again for the Northern Shrike was unsuccessful, but a pair of Common Loons on the east end of the lakes ended a great day of birding.
Next big trip: Taney County Christmas Bird Count: Saturday, Dec. 29!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December Delights

It has truly been a joyous season. December birding for me has included several sightings for the record books. It all began on December 2 with the local sightings of Black-crowned Night Heron and a Selasphorus sp. hummer that has since been confirmed as a Rufous.
Less than a week later, my friend Marvin and I discovered my highlight for the month, a Northern Shrike. Despite several attempts to relocate the bird in the following days, it remained undetected until Charley Burwick managed to spot the bird on December 22. Again, all follow up attempts to find the bird have been futile since the second sighting.
Ron Thompson called early in the month to report a visiting Baltimore Oriole. The fate of the bird remains unknown as Ron left the area for HIS wintering grounds, inspite of the fact that the Oriole's internal mechanism to leave for its wintering grounds is apparently malfunctioning.
On the 22nd of December, my son from North Carolina arrived with a few target species in mind. Less than an hour after his arrival, Charley called with his report of the Northern Shrike, so we high tailed it to Fellow's Lake just as dramatic weather changes took place. Needless to say, we were unsuccessful in our attempt to find the shrike, but stopped by Nixon Farm to see the Short-eared Owls that have been hanging out there this month.
More of N8's and my outings on the next post.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Joyful Winter Solstice Message

When I was younger, I read Tom Brown Jr.'s books religiously. It seemed that his acute awareness of the outdoors and his talent for story telling combined to increase my awareness of both the life around me and the life within me. I offer his Chickadee Survival essay on this Winter Solstice Eve. I hope I don't upset him by posting this, but at least I have linked to his website and one of his many insightful books.
Photo by Marvin DeJong.
Chickadee Survival
from The Tracker by Tom Brown Jr.
Of all the birds, we respected the chickadee the most, even more than the hawk or the owl.........., above all of them ranked the chickadee because of its indomitable spirit.
The exuberance of the chickadee made him our idol. In the coldest weather, when other birds have gone into the brush to wait behind a dome of driven snow, for the weather to clear, the chickadee is always out, his chickadee-dee-dee ringing off the snow. When the fox has curled himself up under a small tree and let the snow drift him a blanket of insulation, the chickadee is out doing the loop-the-loops over the seedless snow. Calling louder than playing children that he is there and alive and happy about it!
A chickadee doesn't look like a good bet for survival; you could close your hand with one in the palm almost without hurting him. There are better fliers . . . But nobody flies with more reckless abandon than the chickadee, and nobody flies with more delight.
The chickadee lives by joyous faith in living. Whenever anything else curls up and prepares to wait, or die, the chickadee is out in the middle of it. I have heard them even in the middle of a blizzard, chirping with that dancing tone over and over into the cold air, as if it thinks that hiding from a storm is the craziest form of self denial.
His voice comes out of the cold silence like the last voice in the world, singing that everything which has gone under the snow is neither lost nor dead and that life survives beautifully somewhere else and will return. There is a joy in its song which says that everybody who is hiding from the storm is missing the best part.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Short-eared Owls' Twilight Dance

Every year our local Audubon Society sponsors a field trip to Prairie State Park and the surrounding area in search of Short-eared Owls. It's an all day trip, and there are no guarantees. The state park is approximately 100 miles away, and it's easy to stay home instead of making the committment of time and energy necessary to see the owls.

What a surprise it was, then, when local birder Charley Burwick discovered 2 Short-eared owls in the early pre-dawn hours on Saturday, the day of our annual Greene County Christmas Bird Count.

Work conflicts prevented me from visiting the site earlier, but this evening I set out with Marvin DeJong at 3:45 pm to view the birds. Marvin had photographed them last evening, so he knew exactly the area to stake out, and the odds were in our favor to relocate the owls. Here's one of his pictures from last evening.

The timing was totally a surprise to me, however. In my previous experiences with the owl species, it was very near dusk when the Northern Harriers checked out, and the Short-eared Owls checked in. Perhaps the appearance of only one Northern Harrier today provided a reason for the owls to take over the hunting grounds early. Niche partitioning..... if the day hunters are a "no show", the night hunters fill in this promising early crepuscular hunting niche. On the prairie west of here, I have once seen harriers and owls compete aggressively for hunting territory as dusk approached.

Tuesday, we arrived at Nixon farm at 4:10 pm on a balmy late fall afternoon. We set up our tripods to await the action. Between 4:15 and 4:20, a good 45 minutes before sundown, we spotted our first two owls. The slow wing beats and acrobatics of the Short-eared Owls never fail to amaze me, but in the bright light of the pre-dusk sun, the colors jumped out at me. The beige leading edge of the wings appeared bright yellow in the horizontal rays of the sun. The facial disc glowed. The birds gracefully and gently winged their way back and forth across the field, alighting for brief moments before soaring again. A third owl appeared. The birds began to interact with one another, shifting, diving, and climbing in an avian mid-air ballet. It was truly an incredible few moments with Nature: colorful, dynamic, flowing and vibrant.........., far more beautiful than a setting sun alone.

Photos Courtesy of Marvin DeJong

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Bronaugh Baltimore Oriole

On December 3, Ron Thompson of Bronaugh, Missouri, in Vernon County, first called to let me know that an oriole had been coming to one of his trees, feasting upon its red berries. I asked if he had taken pictures, and he said that he had not. I encouraged him to do so if the bird returned.

Since Baltimore Orioles are classified as casual winter residents in Missouri, I posted the sighting on Mo-Birds. It received some attention, and I was asked if Ron would be documenting. The answer was "yes". I had suggested to Ron that he take some pictures and document the sighting. I sent him the new online documention form recently implemented on the Audubon Society of Missouri website.
Photos courtesy of Ron Thompson.

On December 10, I received this message from Ron:
quote: "Baltimore Oriole 2nd sighting. Today 12/10/07 at 10 am I saw an oriole on the back porch. I put out a grapefruit , bacon fat & crumbs & it HAS eaten all day. He is in cat danger but he was hungry enough to come up 6' from me. I took a few pictures for ID. I was another adult male, if not the same one I saw in Nov.. Ron Thompson We are covered up in the ice storm." end of quote.

This time the response to the posting took a different turn, and had a sense of urgency to it. During the last week, a Streak-backed Oriole, a casual visitor from Mexico that very rarely shows up in Arizona or California has managed to make to Loveland, Colorado. It remains there today.

So, in a most highly unprobable case of serendipity, I suppose that the weather system that blew the Loveland bird to Colorado could have blown another member of Icterus pustulatus to Missouri. So, the inevitable question had to be asked, and an active Mo-Birder did just that on the listserv.
Is this Bronaugh oriole a Baltimore? And so, you now have seen for yourself.
Yes, it is. But, you know, it's a grand day when a casual and beautiful winter visitor arrives at your doorstep!

Congratulations, Ron, and thanks for the fine portraits!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Yikes, a Shrike: Part Two

My friend Marvin DeJong sent me more pictures of the shrike that we saw yesterday so I thought I'd post them. The first one on this page tells it like it is......... better than any previous photo. I filled out the documentation form today, but must admit that I'm not 100% because of a link that David Ringer sent me. The whole experience, however, has been fascinating!

So, thanks to all who have written me personally, and to any readers out there in cyberspace that can contribute their expertise to this discussion by commenting on this blog. I really do enjoy the discussion and the fact that I'm learning a lot about a species that is very unfamiliar to me, even if it could ultimately lead to a Loggerhead identification.

Special thanks to N8 for encouraging me to take the risk in posting and documenting this bird, to Marvin DeJong for letting me post his photographs here, and to my wife Martha for letting me obsess about a bird for the entire weekend when holiday tasks are mounting. May it all collectively serve to increase everyone's awareness of the avian world, but especially my own. ;)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Northern Shrike! Fellows Lake Spillway

Edit: Tuesday, Dec. 11. Before I originally posted these photos on Saturday, I opened them in Coral software and did a "quick fix" on them in order to lighten features on this dark and rainy morning. After a day or so, I realized that the lightening of the images may have prevented observers from seeing some of the key fieldmarks, like the barring on the breast and flanks. Therefore, I have reposted Marvin DeJong's original unaltered photos. Again, Special thanks to Marvin DeJong for the great photos!

Photos courtesy of Marvin DeJong

Directions to bird: In Greene County. Take Hwy 65 North out of Springfield, Missouri. Go 5 miles to State Hwy AA. Follow signs to Fellows Lake. Follow FR 66 that runs on the north side of the lake until you reach the spillway below the dam. Proceed to intersection of FR 66 and FR 175. The bird was seen in the brushy field on the SE corner of this intersection. Also see the new Bald Eagle nest along the creek on the SW portion of the intersection.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Lotto Sunday!: Part Two; Selasphorus sp.

Before I left in search of an alleged ibis on Sunday morning, I checked my e-mail. A message from fellow birder Charley revealed another possibility for the day. "I went down to the Liles' place this afternoon and saw the Rufus. I found out it has been there for a week."

A Selasphorus hummer has been in my county for a week, and I didn't know about it? How could that happen? Oh, well, at least I wasn't too late. After I found the casual Black-crowned Night-Heron, I returned home and called the Liles, the hummingbird's host family. They graciously invited me to their home to see the bird.

I jumped in the car immediately, hoping to beat the inevitable cold front due to pass through our neck of the woods later in the morning. It was 69 degrees when I headed out. I arrived just in time. The hummer greeted me with quick fly by. It sipped from the feeder, and then darted away.

For the next hour we were treated to aerial ballet at 15 minute intervals. At 10:30, the bird returned for an extended stop in an oak tree nearby. It perched there for 5 minutes or so, and we caught a glimpse of its color. It was rufous all around except for the white breast and belly. It's gorget, previously unseen by the hosts, was emerging from pin feathers and extending outward from its body, flashing metalic gold in the partly cloudy skies. What a magnificent bird!

I tried to capture its beauty in my point and shoot camera, but all I could muster are these silhouettes and blurry images. The bird returned to the feeder for another fill up, this time sitting for a moment. Ah, a real beauty!

The most interesting part of the day came, however, just as a squall line ushered in what turned out to be a 40 degree drop in temperature for the day. It was at that exact same time that neighbor and certified hummingbird bander Sarah Driver showed up with her trap. The winds were blowing so hard that we had to secure the netted trap to the deck. Whether it was a change in the weather, a change in the feeder's appearance, or a combination of both, the little hummer avoided the area for the next 5 hours.

Next door neighbor....a certified hummer bander! What a coincidence that Sarah Driver lives only 500 feet from the feeder location! I remember her when the 1995 Anna's Hummingbird stopped off in Ozark for a few months. She is also credited with banding the only Black-chinned Hummingbird ever reported in Missouri. By the way, it showed up at her own feeder! Unbelieveable!

Anyway, after her futile efforts to capture the bird failed, she left for home, only to find the bird feeding at her station! She quickly set up the trap at her home and apparently netted the bird. But, the little scrapper managed to squeeze through the bottom of the trap and escaped. When I called Dan late in the day, he said sadly, "we scared it away." It was no sooner than he uttered the words, however, that the bird reappeared at his feeder. Now Sarah and he are timing arrivals and departures between the two houses, in the unlikely event that two separate birds are present.

Sarah must work until Thursday, when another attempt will be made to capture the bird and put a name to it. In the meantime, we hope the bird stays around, but we also realize that natural impulses run through this hummer. This will eventually dictate the choice that the bird makes. Will it leave its secure food source(s) for more favorable temperatures, or will it try to winter here? I'm thinking that this is not the last word for this tough survivor.

Lotto Sunday!: Part One

How long has it been since you saw two casual/accidental species in your own home county, both within 12 miles of your home, and both on the same day? Well, it's been forever for me. But today, while in search of another casual species, a Plegadis sp., I discovered one seasonal casual species (Black-crowned Night-Heron) and observed an accidental species (Selasphorus sp.) that has been hanging out for the past week or two. Source for species status: Annotated Checklist of Missouri Birds.
It all started when I received an e-mail over the Mo-Birds listserv from local KY3 television meteorologist Dave Snider. Dave said that he had seen at twilight in the evening "some sort of darkish Ibis (noted the downcurved bill) in Ozark, MO., on the NE corner of the 65 and CC/J intersection."

"In Ozark?" I said to myself as I read the message in the darkness of a Saturday evening. "I'll be there at the break of day."

And there I was at dawn, search the marshy area for the ibis. I quickly spotted the Great Blue Heron in the reeds, but no sign of the ibis. I walked all the way around the small wetland, searching and trying to kick up the hidden bird. A Swamp Sparrow ran across the mud flat and into a clump of cattails. Four Song Sparrow flushed from the same area, but there was still no sign of Plegadis sp.

On the southwest side of the intersection lies another wetland area, a pond along a frontage road on Highway 65. I decided to give it a try. Quickly I flushed two Great Blue Herons from the pond. I approached close to the water's edge, and flushed the night-heron. I immediately forgot about the alleged ibis. The bird flew only a short distance into a dense stand of brush near the base of a tree at the shoreline. The first significant field mark that I noted was the exterior bill itself. It was sharply pointed and its inner surface was yellow, outlined in black along the outside. Its streaking throughout the body was bold and coarse. The bird crouched in the underbrush, apparently feeling quite obscure as I approached within 15 feet. I snapped off several pictures with my point and shoot camera. Most were a blurry mess, but I was relieved to see a couple that could be used for MBRC documentation purposes.
Black-crowned Night Heron! Nycticorax nycticorax - T & SV u; SR u (se), ca (elsewhere); WV ca (s), a (n) from The Annotated Checklist of Missouri Birds

Let's save that Selasphorus sp. for another post!

Footnote: A White-faced Ibis has just been reported at Flint Hills NWR near Emporia KS, 150 miles west of here as the crow flies! Keep your eyes to the skies!