Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Birding Beginnings

It's a little odd when we reach a point in life when our memories of the past become an ever increasing fraction of our current thoughts. It's beginning to happen to me.

I didn't teach my son to bird. He taught me.

So, I'm truly enjoying his take on his childhood in his blog series entitled "Life Birds". My wife's and my journey "back to the land" and "back to town" has greatly impacted his love for nature in general and for birds in particular. For that, I am very grateful.
See you over at The Drinking Bird!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

There's Gold in That Prairie!

My longspur search started last fall when my son indicated that he would be in Missouri for the holidays. There were a few birds left in Missouri that would be lifers for him, and it would be nice to find them while he was in Missouri.
When he was a young birder, we spent most of our Missouri birding time in the forests and edge areas of the Ozarks, rarely venturing out to the prairies just an hour or two west of our home. That is precisely the reason that some of the gaps in his Missouri list exist.In December, while birders gathered to begin the Taney County Christmas Bird Count, Jeff Nichols of the Big Bluestem Audubon Society in Iowa mentioned that he had been to Golden Prairie and had spotted longspurs in a burned off section of the grasslands. GOAS birder Charley suggested that we bird the agricultural fields around Lockwood to find the birds. For whatever reason, I thought the birds would be a slam dunk, and when my son arrived for the holidays, we searched around Lockwood instead of bee-lining to Golden Prairie. That was a mistake.
I continued to keep my ears and eyes open, thinking that the small birds were more ubiquitous than I eventually figured out. I birded my home area destination of Palmetto several times, drove to Riverlands for gulls, but hoped to find them there. One month of weekend searches passed, and still no longspurs.Finally, I talked my friend Marvin into heading west to the original December longspur site at Golden Prairie. He took all of the quality bird pictures on this post. We had a difficult time locating the prairie as no signs exist on the main roads south and west of Golden City. After finding large numbers of various sparrows, Harris's, White-crowned, Fox, Field, Song, and Swamp, we passed a microwave tower and arrived at Golden Prairie. We circled the entire tract of land, observing many more sparrows, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and Horned Larks, but no longspurs.We returned to the micr0wave tower road where I caught a glimpse of a small bird with white outer tail feathers flying out of the gravel and into the former soybean field across the road from the tower. Although it briefly perched on a branch of a weed at the edge of the field, it disappeared into the barren field. We slowly edged down the road when I caught a glimpse of movement 100 yards away. I quickly set the scope up and "bingo", Lapland Longspurs. Their various plumage patterns gave their identity away immediately. Some of the males were coming into breeding plumage, while others were more well-camouflaged individuals.
Restlessly, the entire flock took to the air with rattly calls and chaotic patterns, eventually moving much further out into the field. I circled them to try to flush them back toward the road. For a brief moment, I was successful. I hope that Marvin got a picture or two. My photo attempts were very marginal.. Since I knew where to look, I could see the chestnut nape of one of the birds in the picture, but that's about it. Can you see it? Ok, I know, but it's there, I promise.
The gold was in the bag. I got my 384th North American lifer, the Lapland Longspur.

We birded the backroads back to Springfield, picking up 3 Loggerhead Shrikes for the day, a single American Wigeon among Gadwalls, and many more American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks. Forty one species in all, plus the satisfaction that comes with finding another life bird.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Marvin DeJong Photos: Waterfowl in Alaska

After receiving so much positive response for Marvin's eagle photographs, I decided that I couldn't wait to showcase a few more of his wonderful images. There are many species in his waterfowl collection that I so far only dream of seeing. I know many of you will have no problem identifying them, but it was been a great exercise in bird identification for me. Marvin periodically sent me his "mystery bird" photos via e-mail during his time in Alaska last winter and spring.
So, enjoy. I won't spoil your fun in identifying the birds. Of course, I know that most are way too easy, but I'm still curious about the corms and gull in #7. I'll number them if you'd like to comment:


7. How many species? ID the gull......
8. Again, what are the gulls?


Come back soon for Marvin's shorebirds........ in breeding plumage.

All photos copyright by Marvin DeJong.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Marvin DeJong Photos: Eagles in Alaska

Upon my return from Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, I began to think about the recovery of the Bald Eagle in America. The count of Bald Eagles in the Alton area is currently in the several hundreds and corresponding eagle watchers are flocking in to see our national symbol reinhabiting the nation's heartland.

As this point, I remembered the photography of my friend Marvin DeJong, my main birding buddy and GOAS member. I have been thinking about doing a series to showcase his work, and so I begin that series today with his photos of the Bald Eagle.
One year ago Marvin and his wife Claudia set off for a six month adventure in Alaska. They volunteered at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka. Across the sound was Mount Edgecomb, an extinct volcano. On the landward side stood the Tongass National Forest and mountainous terrain. One of Marvin's first purchases while there was a digital camera and zoom lens. One of the highlights of last winter was receiving his beautiful photos of the avian life of this rich bioregion.
And so, in the first of a series of photographs, here are a few of Marvin's Bald Eagle photos:
Be sure to visit again as I continue this series with Marv's waterfowl photos, featuring Barrow's Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, and Common Merganser young.
All photos copyright by Marvin DeJong.

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!

Birdstack Launches!

I have had the pleasure of birding with David Ringer over at Search and Serendipity on several occasions. My favorite memory with him was when he was a teen. We drove to Riverlands to observe the Smew a few years back. I remember his hand drawn and written "quick reference" gull guide that he created for our trip that day.

By coincidence, I made the 4 hour trek to Riverlands this weekend and will prepare a trip report soon. Unfortunately, the trip list is not quite as extensive as when David was with me.

In the meantime, I wanted to make all of you aware of David's latest creation, Birdstack.

This message was posted on Mo-Birds this morning.

"Some of you will know David Ringer, the phenomenal young birder that grew up here in Springfield. He has now morphed in to a young adult phenom birder.
David is a computer whiz as well as an outstanding birder. He and a friend have been building a new web based bird listing program called "Birdstack". It is not only a very functional program, but fun as well. I have had the opportunity to be one of the beta testers on this program and late last night the program was put on line for public use.
This is the url: for the site, take a look and enjoy. Yes, this is a free on-line program, and me, you nor anyone else is receiving any monetary gain from this program.
Charley Burwick
Greater Ozarks Audubon "

Go over there and check it out!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Good Ol' Palmetto........, Again

Ever since the Short-eared Owls arrived at Nixon Farm, 5 miles NW of the Palmetto region of Greene County, I have been convinced that I can pull something rare out of the short winter grasses and agricultural fields of Palmetto. Before I head out, I dream of Prairie Falcons, Lapland Longspurs, Smith's Longspurs, or perhaps another Northern Shrike.

And so, the last two days I have spent part of my weekend searching for that rare bird, whatever it is. Even though I have not uncovered that super special casual or accidental species, I have managed to spot a couple of bird species that I would consider rare for our immediate Springfield area. Here are my favorite finds of the weekend.
Yesterday the normally dry fields of Farm Road 166 were flooded and 500 Canada Geese settled in the inundated corn field. Among the geese I spotted around 30 Mallards, 6 Gadwall, 3 Northern Shovelors and 5-7 Cackling Geese. I tried to take some photos of a single Cackling right next to a Mallard for the size comparison, but the image came out very blurry, so I settled for what I think are three Cackling Geese in the foreground among the big geese behind. One's profile is apparent.

Today, I spotted 6 Rusty Blackbirds in a flooded woodland in the same area. This head of the bird in this photo looks odd, but I think it was snapped just before he took off. Seconds later I saw the Wild Turkeys in a distant field.
Other birds of note for the weekend included two Short-eared Owls, three Northern Harriers, one Loggerhead Shrike, and one Harlan's Hawk.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Two "Fellows" Warm Up Near "Palmetto"

Our day began early as Marvin and I arrived at Nixon Farm in the pre-dawn hour. It had been two weeks since we had seen the three Short-eared Owls, and we were curious if they were still around. The balmy 48 degree start to the morning made jackets unnecessary, but the strong southerly winds still added a slight chill to the air in the early morning. I briefly thought that the winds might have sent the owls to the ground sometime in the middle of the night. My worries were unfounded, however, as the owls made their entrance 20 minutes before dawn, fluttering like butterflies and fighting winds over the field that serves as the diurnal siesta site. We watched as the three crisscrossed the field in search of prey. When they landed quite close to us, we decided to walk out into the field in hopes of getting some photos. The wary owls rose immediately, again searching the field for movement. This time they landed across the field as the sun rose over hill. The day worker, a Northern Harrier, harried the sitting owl, appearing to alight on it for an instant. It was less than a minute later that we realized that the Harrier was eating a small mammal. We put two plus two together. The harrier had stolen the morsel from the owl it appeared to sit on.
It occurred to me that in winter GOAS birders tend to underbird the Palmetto region along the Greene/Webster County line east of Springfield. On the way there, we counted 7 Rusty Blackbirds in the short grasses in front of a ranch at McCraw's Ford near the James River.
However, it is in this "Palmetto region", that extremely fertile fields, remnants of natural grasslands that once topped the Springfield Plateau, give way to agriculture. Interspersed in the area are natural wetlands where shorebirds thrive during spring migration. The birds that occasionally make their way to Palmetto are many and varied, genetically linked to an earlier time when bluestem, Indian, and switch grasses thrived and natural playas supplied plentiful moisture to the area. These species continue to pass through, hoping to meet their survival needs in the current soybean, alfalfa, and fescue fields that dominate the area now.
Records of species from this area in the last 15 years are amazing. Most amazing; A Swallow-tailed Kite by the late Betty Dyer. My personal list from the areas includes Sandhill Cranes, Western Kingbirds, Peregrine Falcons, shorebirds galore, Black-bellied Plovers, American Golden Plovers, Baird's, Pectoral, Least, Semipalmated, Western, Solitary, Spotted, White-rumped, and Upland Sandpipers, Dunlins, Sanderlings, Dowitchers, Phalaropes, Willet, Sora, Snipe, Black Terns, Forster's Terns, Caspian Terns, Franklin's Gulls, Rough-legged Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Marsh Wrens, Bobolinks, and countless others I cannot currently recall.
On this day, the Northern Harriers glided and the Horned Lark sang, entertaining us on the productive FR 166 through the region.
We headed up the road to the French's Mustard plant on I-44 just NE of Springfield. In the ponds near the plant, we added Gadwalls, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Mergansers, Mallards and Ring-necked Ducks to our list. I was lucky enough to catch the splash as the duck on the left eagerly dove.

Valley Water Mill added 2 female Northern Shovelors, and a cooperative mockingbird enjoyed the warm temperatures on the road to Fellows Lake.

Fellows Lake was choppy but yielded 12 Common Goldeneye, 4 Horned Grebes, 25+ Pied-billed Grebes, and 2 Common Loons. Passerines were almost totally absent on the windblown north side of the lake. Stopping at a popular feeding station on the road near Fellows yielded this handsome immature White-crowned Sparrow.

Last surprise of the day was over Ozark on the way home. A single Turkey Vulture drifted north on the warm winds. With a harbinger like that, can spring be far behind?