Friday, December 02, 2005

Missouri listing mop-up

Hi folks, I left Arkansas Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and spent four days driving around in Missouri and birding very successfully. The object of the trip was to identify enough species in MO to become listable in the ABA report. My listing program, AviSys, shows 409 species for MO, but if they're like the Arkansans, they keep adding new ones. Anyway it looked like I needed 11 more sightings. In 1450 miles I found, with lots of help and luck, 21 new species for MO, making a total of 215. Whoopee! "Best" birds were a Yellow-billed Loon, and a Pacific Loon, but the image that sticks was six pairs of Hooded Mergansers down in a narrow little pond in some mined land. I suppose the four Snow Buntings landing in front of the truck will make an etching too. And 90,000 Snow Geese flying at once, and ...

What follows is a more detailed narrative; those who yawn at listers yammering can get on to the next posting.

It took about three hours to get to Prairie State Park, well after dark, but I got the first bird on the way in as a Short-eared Owl crossed the road. I've seen a lot of them there. Good omen I suppose. Later awakened by Barred owls almost overhead, doing the meeting-in-the-night yowling. Up before first light and out on the prairie, walked a big loop. Have to say that watching the sun come up over the big rolling grassland is something that never wears out. There was one strange call at the crack of day, never heard before, and couldn't match it from tapes of what seemed reasonable suspects. The area it came from was freshly burned with 2 inch emergent grass in the ashes. There were Horned Larks there, but the call didn't match them. It was two notes, second higher by an octave I'm guessing. A mystery. I followed Larry Herbert's suggestion and checked out Shawnee trails, and yes to raptors, and sparrows too. I need to spend a full day there with him sometime, someday.

It's about an hour's drive to Four Rivers from there. Not many birds there, best areas closed at the western section, and numerous hunters trying to get a Thanksgiving goose. But one of the best birds of the trip sat for about a minute, long enough to use a field guide and be sure it was a Clay-colored Sparrow. That was first target, and one I didn't really expect. I went to the far end of the eastern section, and then walked in less than half a mile up onto a dike, and was able to scope a lot more waterfowl, plus some good bottom-land birds in a willow copse along the way. Backtracked out of there, north into Rich Hill, where I had been a traveling alter-boy in the late fifties. Rich memories. East of there is Schell-Osage CA, which proved a bonanza, netting five targets including my first MO Pelican, Ross's Goose and four kinds of ducks. Great place, the north side given to hunters, and the south to several cars of birders.

Drove into the dark past KC to Smithville Lake, which proved a navigational challenge since the only map I had was a funky .gif from the net. I had the good fortune to be using a GIS program on a laptop, great way to navigate, but more distracting than a cell phone. Anyway, between the two, and with several wrong turns and dead ends by closed campgrounds, I finally found Crows Creek, and bedded down after some truck cab geeking. It turned out to be a really cold windy night, dawn must have been about 18 degrees, and twenty plus mph wind, enough to max out the chill factor at around plus 5. Had I realized how the wind would affect the birding I wouldn't have left Crows Creek for breakfast in the dark, but stayed to look for critters hunkered down in the coves at first light. I got back to the visitor's center before sunrise and scoped the lake until my hands were too cold to stand. Then I followed the route in the MO birdfinding guide, supplemented by some information from Kristi Mayo and Laura Gilchrist, who I thank again, and circled the lake clockwise, stopping to freeze at each designated spot. I found one hardy Ruddy Duck, and one hardy female Common Merganser. Nary a loon, nor Doug Willis' Scoters, nor many birds at all, but two targets anyhow.

I gave up and headed for Squaw Creek. I had made contact with Tommie Rogers, who gracefully offered to guide me around the refuge, and did a great job. A wonderful place; the first sight was tens of thousands of Snow Geese, flying and swimming, and almost as many mixed ducks which I started scoping for targets. As we drove around, we found Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Canvasback. Tommie, who does survey work for the refuge has a permit allowing some penetration into the interior, where we picked up six Rusty Blackbirds. Other notables included late season Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipe. We never could find a Bufflehead, tho Tommie had seen them the day before. We drove some levees hoping to flush a Pheasant, and I returned later for another try, but it proved to be the other big miss. Tommie was under some time pressure taking care of preparations for Eagle Days, but she showed me likely places to check before splitting. I also got directions to the Snow Buntings at Bilby Ranch CA (which I also had from Helen Hewins). Made a quick drive up there, and as I approached the small lake, the flock of four Snows flew in front of the truck, then landed in front of me when I stopped. Great looks, I soaked them up, then turned around when they flew, but they landed ahead of me again on the way out. Then a quick drive back to Squaw Creek, and a direct ( if you can call following the loop direct) drive to the Pheasant stake-out. I stayed until the staff vehicle at dusk made me self-conscious.

While leaving Bilby, I had checked my phone messages, and there was one from Kristi saying a Yellow-billed loon had been sighted at Thomas Hill Reservoir. I called her, and in spite of dueling bad signals, was able to get directions. I had planned a stop there next anyhow, so it was a perfect fit to the plans. Once it was dark and I'd eaten, I took off across the state for Thomas Hill. Got there about 9:30, and wandered around briefly finding the primitive campground (it was) and settled in pretty soon thereafter. I was up before first light and gathered my wits. Started off viewing the lake from there, trying to make a Common Loon, into the YBLO, but it didn't work. A common was ok as a state bird though. Next drove south of the Campground where the map showed a likely inlet. My heart jumped when I saw how many ducks were there, and the variety. My heart sank when I saw the three guys in camo watching those decoys. Well they fooled me briefly, and made it easy to ID other groupings that I ran across as the day progressed. It was getting lighter, so I drove up to the causeway, since that's where the loon was first seen, noting another small inlet along the way. Dipped (slang for no luck) at the causeway, and got curious about the inlet. Binocs found a possible bird, and the scope confirmed it. I was mostly looking for head and neck details to match the big yellow bill, darker above, and they were there. A good bird. Not one to linger, I followed the MO birdfinding book recommended trail across the causeway, and north to a landing, where the Buffs finally made an appearance. I drove back to the Primitive CG, thinking some more birders might arrive, and found Doug Willis scanning the lake. He's found a Red-necked Grebe, which I missed, but not the loon. I headed south to check out other places, hoping for the grebe, no luck. Somewhere along here was the place with the six pairs of Hoodies. It was mid morning when I felt finished along there, and the book said afternoon for the west side as the sun would soon be in my face.

I wanted to get to Bradford Farms in Columbia, hoping for Smith's and Lapland Longspurs. Found the place, found the field thanks to info from Edge, found the Smith's, but missed the LALO again. Now after one PM. I used the west sun clue at Thomas Hill to decide to make a run for Riverlands (a refuge N of St Louis on the MIssissippi) and catch it with good light. Arrived a little after three, immediately found an Eared Grebe, and pretty quickly picked up several Trumpeter Swans. When I heard them calling in flight the next day, the name seemed inevitable, like a cavalry charge. John Solodar had suggested staying at Pere Marquette State Park across the river in Illinois, and a couple of birders I met told me where to find a Wifi connection in Alton, so I sat in the lobby of the Holiday Inn and harvested email, and the dreary weather forecast for Sunday. Then up the river to the park, where the sprinkle started in about when I turned in. Up before dawn again, back to Wifi, following the YBLO search, disappointed that it had turned out to be a one-day-wonder. Went over to Riverlands from there to look for Laplands on the Confluence road. Met Dave Rogles looking over the gulls and we sat talking in the horizontal rain. We naturally got around to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and he still harbored some skepticism. My news for him was that my friend in Eureka Springs, Dale Becker, had seen Elvis about ten days previously, an excellent sighting of a flying and perching bird, in sight for about ten, maybe more, seconds. At 50-70 yards. He'd seen bill, crest, chin, back and flying wings as the bird moved from one tree to another, each time quickly moving to the far side and peeking around at Dale. When he called Cornell later, they said it was probably the best sighting they'd had. I was supposed to go along with him, but his wife had a dream, and they set off abruptly. Dale's father had been a fish expert in Wisconsin, (he'd taken Dale into the field as soon as he was big enough to carry things) and had always held out hope for the continued existence of the great critter. He, the father, had commissioned two life size carvings of an IBWO and a Pileated, and those have been in Dale's living room since the father died. This is a guy who knows the difference in his blood, and I can't help thinking there's something high and eerie and inspired about the whole chain of events.

Anyway, no Laplands, no Snow Buntings, lots of Trumpeters, and a cute flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Dave found them, the LALO, later, I should have ridden along with him. He did give me a map to the Pacific Loon at Creve Couer. It didn't take too long to find it, with its two Common buddies. I had all three in the scope at once, making a great comparison study. And since I couldn't think of another bird to chase, I drove the seven hours home. Went to work the next day too.

So twenty-one new MO birds in four days, including three loon species, don't know yet the count of all species seen, close to a hundred I'm sure. Total cost a little over $200, 1450 miles, and that's enough. My sincere thanks to all the folks who helped with info, advice, maps, encouragement and so forth.

Nov 29 2005


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