Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Conservationist's View of the 2008 Election

Peace........... Economic Prosperity............ Environmental Protection and Conservation........... Global Alliances......... An unheard of annual budget surplus........ A standing ovation before the United Nations Assembly....... Within the William J. Clinton Library and Museum, the legacy of the Clinton administration rose up within us, and my wife and I again felt the too long repressed wave of patriotism surge.
It was spring break, so we attempted to escape the cold weather of SW Missouri, heading four hours directly south to Little Rock. The strategy worked as we enjoyed 3 days of 70+ temperatures, culminating with an 84 degree Thursday in central Arkansas.
On our first day, we visited the Clinton Library and Museum. The building itself is interesting in the least. It is a LEED Platinum certified green building that sits on the banks of the Arkansas River, where it symbolizes a bridge to the future. Its grounds are large and manicured, but apparently resemble the grasslands enough to lure a very approachable pair of Loggerhead Shrikes.
But back to the Clinton presidency. It's incredible what a visionary and great communicator that Bill was, and still is! And, it's unbelievable how quickly "W" unraveled eight years of progress on every front. It's even harder to believe that anyone would think that the conditions that we are currently experiencing in this country are preferable to those experienced in the 90's.

Although I am currently supporting Barack Obama for president, I found myself highly respecting the role of Hillary both before and during Bill's years in the Whitehouse. Going back to a time, even before the two met, one finds Bill and Hillary were two highly gifted individuals believing strongly in public service, and modeling a life of action to achieve the highest of ideals. That is still true today.

Sure, they are both humans, with their inherent faults and shortcomings, but for the most part, they both strived and continue to strive to move America to a more enlightened state, embracing our strengths as one diverse and beautiful country, and furthering the cause of "liberty and justice for all".

Then comes Bush, Chaney, Rove, etc..... How quickly greed and intolerance can unravel progressive thought. The Republicans certainly can no longer claim to be "conservatives" as they continue to squander valuable natural and human resources, increase federal debt, and encourage spending and deficits, rather than striving to create a sustainable environment of savings and surpluses. So, the lesson is this. Eight years is not enough time to return America to its greatness. We need at least 16 unbroken years of visionary progress toward peace, sustainability, and global cooperation. So, I join others in advocating the dream Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton ticket. It does have the potential to return control to those that see the global community as one village and see the value of conserving and protecting natural resources.

Come on, Hillary and Barack! Put your petty differences aside to join forces for the common good. Let the Democratic Party decide the nominee, but if you lose, join the winner to complete the Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton ticket. Make the decision to do so before June. It is the only way to ensure that we have enough time to adequately turn this country around.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pine Ridge Pine Warblers

This morning the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society will host its annual field trip to Pine Ridge in southern Christian County to celebrate the return of the Pine Warblers. When I found out that GOAS President Charley Burwick was heading down to the Mark Twain National Forest to look for warblers yesterday, I decided to join him.

The Pine Warblers were there and happy about it. Our first pair responded well to my built in Screech Owl and approached within 15-20 feet. I waited for the colorful male to come close, and he cooperated. All told, we saw and/or heard about 20 Pine Warblers, both Ruby Crowned and Golden crowned Kinglets, a Brown Creeper, and many woodland regulars. With temperatures warming into the 60's today, the field trip group should have a very successful Pine Warbler day. I, on the other hand, am heading for Arkansas today to find some more early warblers and an isolated population of Rufous-crowned Sparrows in the hills that rise out of the Arkansas River valley. Will report on my success or lack of it upon my return.

Palmetto Meadows: An Overview

In the heart of my local birding circle lie Palmetto Meadows, an odd juxtaposition of habitat east of where we normally think that the prairies give way to the Ozark hills. This collection of privately owned and rich agricultural fields holds great promise for birders now and in the coming weeks.

We who live in the Springfield area know that "our" portion of these Ozark "hills" are really deep "valleys" (locals call them hollers) , where water through the ages slowly, but powerfully carved into the uplift that we now call the Springfield Plateau. On the sides of the plateau, the valleys drop off, heading to the Nianqua and Gasconade River on the north and to the Finley, James, and White River on the south. So the highest elevations in our area are found in these relatively flat, formerly grassland habitats.
The map above shows the entire region that we refer to as Palmetto in the lower right hand corner. Also labeled outside of the area is Nixon Farm, another frequent site of good birds in our area.

On any given day in the summer, you can enjoy the large numbers of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (the GOAS symbol), Eastern Kingbirds, Dickcissels, Savannah Sparrows, and Grasshopper Sparrows that nest in the area, but the most exciting times come during spring migration. After spring torrential rains, many unusual and varied species of birds pass through the meadows. During these times, Palmetto is by far my favorite local birding hotspot. In a previous post, I listed some of the many unusual species seen there since I started birding in the mid 1990's.

Here's an excerpt:

"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."

In light of our recent floods, I predict that Palmetto Meadows will be "the official Southwest Missouri birding hotspot for the rest of March and the entire month of April. Here are a few of the most recent sightings taken Saturday.

Lesser or Greater Yellowlegs? Great-tailed Grackle for size comparison. Males are 18".
So, I'm inclined to say Greater. Beak length is hard to tell. What do you think?

I say Baird's Sandpiper, but I have little experience with the species. What do you think?
Rusty Blackbirds

As the casual water slowly drains through the sinkholes and into our karst features, rotting vegetation will give way to mud, and with mud comes the shorebirds! So, GOASers, join me in making it part of your regular outings, at least until the warblers hit Red Bridge Road, a topic for another day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Great Lakes of Palmetto

After record rainfalls inundated the Ozarks, I couldn't resist heading out to look for shorebirds in one of our most adversely affected areas, the Palmetto meadows east of Springfield. Road closures were abundant in this sinkhole pocked area east of Springfield. Water rose to roof levels in many places. I even witnessed one of the many recent rescue efforts that have been successfully retrieving crazy people that think motor vehicles can double as watercraft in rushing and/or deep waters. I tried to beeline for the intersection where American Golden Plovers were seen in heavy rain yesterday. Unfortunately, I was repeatedly sidetracked by barriers and flood waters. Even the four lane Highway 60 was reduced to two lanes as a result of high water. In a yard along the way, I spotted my first of year Hairy Woodpecker.

When I finally arrived at FR 166, I approached the flood water barriers and scanned the fields. Nothing interesting except the water itself. I headed back to the highway and closed in on FR 241 from the north. Ah, the strategy worked!

I was greeted by a beautiful mature male Northern Harrier soaring overhead. It slender wings, long tail, and white and black underparts combined in a moment of grace against the brilliant blue sky. I felt a rush of adrenaline. I glanced to the field on the east side of FR241, and there they were. Amid hundreds of Killdeer, I spotted my first of year American Golden Plover. As I scanned the far reaches of the field, I counted over 30 more plovers among the plentiful Killdeer flock.

The biggest treat of the day, however, was the wonderful view of a Short-eared Owl hunkered down in the the bright green new growth of a wheat field along FR 166. I spotted the bird only 50 feet from the roadway, and quickly grabbed my camera to get off a few shots just before it lifted to the air and with ease twisted and turned before returning to the sea of green.

"We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words." - Joana Macy

Saturday, March 15, 2008

First Purple Martin Appears

Ah, spring is in the air! Our first Purple Martin arrived to check out our array of martin accomodations in our back yard yesterday. Our first daffodil blooms grace our yard today.

Update: Less than a week later, six martins are inspecting the grounds.

"Hope is a thing with wings." - Emily Dickinson

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"Jay" Hawks and "Cee" Gulls

On a recent trip to Topeka, Kansas, we stopped by Clinton Reservoir, just west of Lawrence, Kansas. It was a clear and calm evening and a couple of species were very active in the region. Clearly, the most common bird species in this area is the Jayhawk, an odd looking flightless bird fiercely protected in this University of Kansas town. Second to the Jayhawks in number, however, were the Ring-billed Gulls that were hanging around the Clinton Reservoir dam. Apparently there was a recent fish kill as I saw many gulls gorging themselves on dead fish up to 6 inches long. Among the thousands of Ring-bills was a young 1st or 2nd year Herring Gull and a few Common Goldeneye.I was hoping for something else, but my scans didn't turn anything up. The good thing is that birds are active and moving in spite of this past frigid week in NE Kansas.

I'm celebrating the arrival of Daylight Savings Time!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Bit of Breezy Birding after Sunday Shopping

Temperatures in the high sixties tempted us to head south to the Branson area this afternoon to do a little Eddie Bauer outlet shopping and a bit of breezy birding. I picked up a couple pairs of nice wool socks for next winter's outings, and we headed for the waters.

White caps rolled in like gangbusters, and the lake was vacant of most waterfowl. All I spotted were three Pied-billed Grebes on the north end of the lake, as strong south winds no doubt sent waterfowl northward. Remaining waterfowl probably found refuge in the far south coves of the large Table Rock Reservoir or in surrounding small ponds. After a short nearly birdless swing around Table Rock State Park and Marina, we headed over to the College of the Ozarks campus.My wife Martha poses for a picture in front of the pond at College of the Ozarks.

It was there that we got some great views of breeding plumage Buffleheads and a few Lesser Scaup. A lone Mute Swan begged for food, aggressively extending its long neck through the iron gate surrounding the campus pond.Mute Swan is looking for food whereever it can be found. There's nothing edible on my shoe.

You have to love the breeding plumage of a Bufflehead. What a handsome duck!

A pair of handsome drakes!

Joined by Lesser Scaup drakes.A head on look at Lesser Scaup.

Winds of Change

With definite harbingers of spring appearing each and every day now, we decided to venture out to say farewell to our wonderful winter residents at Nixon Farms. Only one Short-eared Owl remained, but it gave us a good show. It first appeared 3 feet off of the ground in the middle of the paved road 300 feet in front of us. Upon spotting us, it took a sharp right and settled in the meadow beyond the large bales lining the side of the road. It was there that he posed.We also searched one more time at the Fellows Lake Spillway for our favorite winter bird, the Northern Shrike, but I believe that it had long again left this southern sanctuary for its more suitable northern climes. Fellow's Lake had a few Horned Grebes, Lesser Scaups, Pied-billed Grebes, and Bufflehead, but was largely bare.

Of course, with spring in the air, we had hopes of finding new arrivals. Our birds of the day were a flock of 65 Greater White-fronted Geese at the Horse Ranch on AA highway. Although they were way the heck out there, I managed to shoot some identifiable photos through my scope.
All in all, it was just a wonderful day to get out, and by the way, it's time to get out again before the cold front changes everything once again tomorrow. And so, Martha and I are heading to Table Rock Reservoir today. Could a Western Grebe or Greater Roadrunner be in my future? I can only hope. See you in the field!