Friday, December 23, 2016

A Great Day for Birding

Setting out on a Thursday morning, a day of annual leave from my job to go count birds for my Audubon chapter, the dry air couldn't have been more crisp with a relative humidity hovering around 19%. I sent out a general interest question regarding rescheduling our annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that my Audubon chapter has participated in for almost 60 years, usually on the first official Saturday. Last Friday's horrendous road conditions and Saturday's forecast for another lousy weather day sent us to reschedule to Thursday, a nice clement day of 35 degrees, light and variable winds, clear to partly cloudy skies. So I volunteered to canvass the areas that the regular counters couldn't hit because of work or other obligations.

My first site in Section 2 North was a recreational lake surrounded by parkland but dotted with woodlands, and native plantings along the shoreline that follow the contour to the woodland edge. I truly delighted in the explosion of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows gorging on buttonbush seed; every twig must have hosted one of these birds, almost too many birds to count. Unlike a lot of competitive birders, I didn't join the Christmas Bird Count to rack up species numbers. I do it for the fun, for the delight in seeing wintering birds, to observe behavior and to watch them in their surroundings, and to add to the winter bird data that my chapter has collected for all these years. At this first site I didn't have a huge species list, but the highlights included all of the mockingbirds! Five mockingbirds in the shrub layer, sadly eating bush honeysuckle berries, trash food extraordinaire with no nutritional value. 25 species including a flyover of a sharp-shinned hawk capped the morning at the first area.

Keeping in touch with other count circle members with the internet, I noted that they had not yet seen the golden-crowned kinglet for the circle, a regular species for the area. I spent another hour at the recreational lake and park complex and saw two! Check, 2N got their golden-crowned kinglets. We all missed geese besides Canada goose with all the frozen ponds and other factors which I may not be aware of. At the end of the day, I learned that even at the local wetland complexes we failed to document any snow geese, speckled bellieds, or even a Ross' goose. Bad day for geese, but a good day for woodpeckers. My house happens to rest in the middle of the count circle for 2N, so I was able to document my yellow-bellied sapsucker who hangs out on my cedar and the three red bellieds who visit my feeder everyday.

Count day continued and I was sent to an area south of town to visit a woodland complex, but on the road to the woodlands I saw my first-of-the-day bald eagle, some turkey vultures, and more and more blue jays. I realize a lot of folks aren't crazy about blue jays, but in recent years their numbers were way down due to West Nile Virus which impacted jays and crows alike. I've helped out with the Christmas Bird Count in various parts of Missouri for twelve years and have never seen as many blue jays as I did on Thursday. They really are beautiful birds.

Checking in with my fellow count circle birders, I learned that a nearby state park with a bunch of dead white oaks from the 2012 drought harbored huge numbers of red-headed woodpeckers, hands down my favorite Missouri bird. I have hand carved wooden ornaments of this bird, have secured permission to photos of this bird for professional interpretive panels where appropriate, have paintings of red-headeds and I tend to migrate to woodlands and savannas where this bird is prevalent, so it's nice to hear they're hanging out in a local state park. My count circle got all 7 woodpeckers and brown creeper by noon on Thursday.

The Christmas Bird Count is a national event, so anywhere you visit you may be able to hook up with the local organizers to participate. Our count caught the attention of local press who tagged along with our field trip organizer who published this article in the local paper about our count day. We didn't have our annual tally party-with-chili-supper so missed out on a lot of good camaraderie that we all really appreciate. Because I never ran into any of my fellow counters, I'll be driving all over town tomorrow to deliver rum balls and fudge to my birder friends and meeting at a local watering hole to finally tally all the results once they come trickling in. Keep those feeders filled and you may get a good glimpse of a pretty purple finch or a smattering of white-throated sparrows who like to eat food off the ground.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

117th Christmas Bird Count

After yesterday's miserable driving conditions increased the time of my commute by 2 hours, my Audubon chapter has made the decision to postpone our annual Christmas Bird Count slated for today. While the icy roads yesterday caused horrible wrecks, up to 300 in Missouri in one day (not counting all the cars in ditches), today's driving is expected to be influenced by a wintry mix and plummeting temperatures, which could result in even worse conditions. The decision to postpone was not made lightly; this means no chili supper, no camaraderie while we tally the birds we all saw throughout the area, but rescheduling the count to a weekday, possibly Thursday. None of my Audubon friends are fair weather birders, we've birded in snow and ice before with temperatures around 13F and lower, but the road conditions are expected to be horrible and it's not worth risking more wrecks and injuries.

Meanwhile, the squirrels knocked all the seed out of my feeder onto the ground, which is just as well for my white-throated sparrows who love to eat off the floor. I still haven't seen my usual winter resident yellow-bellied sapsucker, but a report came in that one was spotted in the park a block away. The suet feeder is full, so he just needs to come back for it. I have a brown creeper hanging around my cedars this week, which is always a treat to see, the little bundles of energy hopping up the bark and blending in so well it's almost hard to see them sometimes. At some point today before the temperatures drop and the precipitation begins again, I need to make a trip for more seed.

My Audubon chapter is among many chapters in Missouri conducting Christmas Bird Counts; Springfield's Greater Ozarks Audubon Society is a particularly active chapter, too. Read here for an article in the Springfield newspaper about the data we all collect showing trends in winter bird populations in the Ozarks influenced by climate change. With the wind chill in coming days dipping below zero, take the time to fill your feeders, keep the bird baths full of warm water, and enjoy bird watching from the comfort of your home with a bowl of chili and a glass of Missouri Norton in hand.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Winter in the Interior

I realize we're still in fall according to the calendar, but last week's backpacking trip was reminiscent of cold, hard winter. Frost on the fly of my tent, no moisture in the firewood, and lovely frost flowers at the bases of the wildflowers in my campsite. Having set out in 50 degree temperatures the day before, I didn't pack well enough for the night, and my feet were ridiculously cold all night. Wildfire danger was high with absolutely no rain in the recent past, and I will NEVER be responsible for starting a wildfire because I'm ridiculously cautious with fire, but I can be responsible for containing one. My small stick fire surrounded by three layers of rocks, an established fire pit (created no doubt by Boy Scouts), was not going to escape. Nevertheless, when I left the next day, I piled rocks on top of the embers to make sure there were no rogue embers going crazy in the dry woodland landscape.

The shadows were long, typical of this time of year, but it's so nice to hike without worrying about seed ticks. One stray purple Aster laevis was still in flower but otherwise it was a winter botany hike, lots of blasted out Solidago radula, gattengeri, and so forth. I was there to flag firelines so winter botany wasn't my primary driver. My campsite was the focus that day, trying to get through the flagging to get to my campsite halfway through the unit so I didn't have to set up my tent in the dark. I set up coffee while the screech owls called and was in my tent when the coyotes started their howling.

Winter tent camping leaves a lot to be desired considering that nightfall occurs at 5:30pm, so you're stuck in the tent until you get tired. I once lived by nightfall and daybreak, but that was 20 years ago in a cabin in Arkansas. Pack enough lanterns, batteries, and secure enough kindling for fires, and camping this time of year is fabulous. The short daylengths get me down, make me want to go to bed at 7pm, but soon enough the days will grow longer, the time to comb the catalogs for new kale varieties, and seeing my strawberry plants come back. Meanwhile, I'm loving my white-throated sparrows hitting up the feeders every morning. They have such a low-key chip note but in numbers I know when something is not right, a Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned hawk coming in. Backpacking season is here, with winter allowing for backcountry exploration. Campstove coffee remains my favorite coffee ever.