Sunday, January 30, 2011

CBC was a Chart Buster! Sort of…

I’m expecting someone to tell me that there’s a glitch in my spreadsheet, because our grand total of species this year is a chart-busting 130!
Wait! There is a glitch. The total is 71.
I’m referring to the 60th annual Weldon Spring Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, January 2, 2011. A Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a tally of the birds and number of species within a 15-mile diameter circle, in this case, centered on the town of Weldon Spring, St. Charles County, Missouri. Webster Groves Nature Study Society has sponsored MOWS (Missouri Weldon Spring) CBC since 1951. Most of our efforts are concentrated on Busch Memorial Conservation Area.
We had 81 party-hours, which sounds really fun. Actually. it’s just a total of the hours the groups spent surveying. The number of individual birds of each species is available in Audubon’s interactive data tables going back to the earliest Weldon count, but the “Species total” is not listed until the 1996 count year. It’s taking more time than I have right now to sift through the records, but so far the biggest total I’ve found was 80, on Jan. 3, 2009, with 61.5 party-hours. The prior year to that had 78 species in the composite list, with 79 party-hours.

I don’t know how to account for this number, especially when I look at the checklist you see in the above photo. An unknown compiler filled in a checklist including every species seen at least once starting in 1970. There is no end date specified, but it appears to be 1978. In that 8-year period, the total was 111. How could we surpass that in a single count?
Sorry! My mistake! We didn't. 71 is quite respectable, but not a chart-buster.

Some factors working in our favor this year was that we had 3 teams in the St. Louis County portion of the circle, including excellent wetland habitat in Howell Island, and Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge, and mature forest with a small area of old growth in Babler State Park. At Howell Island, Mary Ann Auer and Mike Brady found a bird never recorded in the 60 year history of the Weldon Count: American Pipit!

Several birds were found by only one of the 16 groups: Tom Parmeter, working the northwestern portion of the circle touching Lake St. Louis found Green-wing Teal, seen on only 10 of the 60 Weldon Spring counts. Connie Alwood’s group was the only one to find Ring-necked Duck, and an amazing Short-eared Owl, seen only one other time in count history, in 1975! Dan Curran and Mary Smidt found Lesser Scaup in the southwest part of Busch. My group found Ruddy Duck on Lake 33. Bill Rowe’s group found Eastern Screech-Owl, seen on only 4 counts since 1951, and Brown-headed Cowbird. Working their way through central Weldon Spring CA, Bryan Prather and Paul Corley found Great Horned Owl and 6 Cedar Waxwings—this year was a low count for that species. Following the Hamburg Trail, Ken Hollinga was the only one to find Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Mike Grant. Mike Brady, and Mary Anne Auer were the only 2 groups to find Eastern Meadowlark, in the St. Louis County section of the circle. Jeannie Moe and Karen Meyer, as well as Bill Rowe’s group found Winter Wren.

There were a number of “high count” species, that is, birds in unusually high numbers. Turkey Vultures set a record of 85 (previous high was 18 in ’06), and I really think it was much higher than that. I saw a kettle of 50 but I could not determine if others counted the flock already. Their previous high count was 18 in ’06. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also set a record of 17 (11 in ’04), as did Yellow-rumped Warbler with 202 (200 in ’02). White-throated Sparrow totaled a mind-blowing 700, crushing the previous high count of 493 in ’01. 26 Eastern Towhees revealed themselves—previous maximum was 21 in ’08. Pileated Woodpecker scored an unusually high count of 32, just shy of the record of 33 set in 2004.

All together we counted 15,189 individual birds in the 15-mile diameter circle centered on Weldon Spring, St. Charles County. Our most widely distributed species were the Blue Jay (285 individuals), American Robin (3054), and of course, the 700 White-throated Sparrows! These were the only species were seen by every team whether counting in the forest at Lost Valley Trail or Babler State Park, the fields in Busch Wildlife Area, along the Katy Trail, or along the Missouri River at Howell Island or Greens Bottom Road. Other widely distributed bird, seen by 14 of the 16 teams, were Red-bellied Woodpecker (129 birds), N. Flicker (83), N. Cardinal (253).

I know what you’re thinking. Why do I keep saying this was the 60th count if it has been held since 1951? Well, there was no count data for 1968. Whether that was because of bad weather, lost records, or a lack of an organizer I don’t know. Thanks to everyone who participated! I wrote more about the Christmas Count experience in an earlier post. You might like to check the interactive data tables of historical and current results on National Audubon’s website.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cooper's Hawk in the Library

This young Cooper's Hawk is jarringly out of place. Photo by m_barje
After hearing the news stories that a juvenile Cooper's Hawk somehow got trapped in the main reading room of the Library of Congress, my mom and I had this conversation:
Mom:   Did you hear about the Cooper's Hawk that's in the Library of Congress?
Me:      Yes, I did. I hope they get it out soon. It can't last long in there.
Mom:   Of course you're happy about that--you don't like Cooper's Hawks.
Me:      Yes, I do actually.
Mom:   They eat little birds don't they?
Me:      Well, a hawk's gotta eat something.
Mom:   Anne, I'm surprised at you. I thought you liked little birds!
Me:      I do.
Mom:   Well, can't he learn to eat something else?
Me:      I don't think so.
Mom:   He learned enough to go to the library.
Me:      Yes, he did.
Mom:   And he picked a good library.
Me:      Yes he did.
Mom:   I tell you, there's a children's book in it if he lives.
Me:      Hmmm…at least a blog post.

Searching through Flickr, I found the above photo of another juvenile Cooper's that blundered into a building. Fortunately, this one eventually followed the cat out the same door it entered. I noticed that well-known blogger Birdchick left a comment on the Library Congress's first blog post about the hawk. She mentions that when she worked with a raptor center, she once rescued a Cooper's from a batting cage.
I'm not a bird rehabber, but I had a similar experience. I was just out for a walk with my best buddy, Rosie, in the campus of a nearby college. We took the path past the track and ball field, when I saw a Cooper's Hawk frantically trying to get out of the nylon-net batting cage. I hurried home and put Rosie inside, then headed back.
More than once I'd freed Mourning Doves from these batting cages, and I figured I could help the hawk, though his size would make it more of a challenge. I lifted the netting as high as I could, but it was surprisingly heavy and hard to lift over my head for very long. The panicked hawk would come nowhere near the opening with me there. There was a woman running the track at the time, so I trotted over to ask for her help. Two of us could hold up the net from the corners, leaving a wide open space, I explained. She was afraid of birds, she said, and left immediately.
Finally I found two chairs left by baseball fans and used them to prop the net up creating a low but wide opening. The hawk was frantically trying to get out of the top of the net so I withdrew. When I checked an hour later, the hawk was gone.
Dome of the Main Reading Room of the Library of
Congress, where the hawk is trapped. Photo by Photo Phiend

As I post this, the Cooper's Hawk has now been in the LOC for almost 7 days, hanging out just below the "Mural of Human Understanding," seen on the left in a photo by Photo Phiend. We bloggers have had some fun with this story, but the bird's situation is serious. She-- they determined that she's a female--managed to steal some food from the trap set by the Virginia Raptor Conservancy team, but didn't spring the mechanism. Check the latest tweets about the LOC's hawk here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea holds on to the snow. AMcC
Low on a north-facing hillside at Girl Scout camp in the Missouri Ozarks, a large shelf of limestone protruded from the hill. Along a shallow ravine, it broke up into white, pitted boulders--some the size of a refrigerator, some the size of a pickup truck. In the deep shade grew ferns, mosses, and a few wild hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens). The quiet, the shafts of light through the high canopy of maples, soothing greens of the fern and hydrangea leaves, combined with the dramatic rocks to earn the area its name, "Green Cathedrals."
When no one will volunteer to crank the ice cream maker and best friends refuse to accompany each other to the latrine at night, it's time to go to Green Cathedrals. One counselor begins, saying, "On my honor, I will try." Another reads a poem about friendship. If it's the second week of the session, better sing all four verses of "Kumbyah" too--guaranteed to restore harmony in the group for a good 30 or 40 minutes.
 I don't have the same karst topography in my yard, but I can still enjoy wild hydrangea. Native bees love the flowers, because, unlike many cultivated hydrangeas, the large flower heads produce lots of pollen. Surrounding the flower head are "false" or sterile flowers with three relatively large petals. They open before the "true" flowers, and are still hanging on to my plant in the above photo, adding to the charm of this shrub. Tried and True Missouri Native Plants for Your Yard (Barbara Fairchild, ed., Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 2007) recommends pruning back branches in early spring, since most of the blooms appear on new growth. 
For a look at wild hydrangea through the seasons, click on one of these photos.

June Morning wild hydrangea June garden wild hydrangea Morning Snow on Christmas Eve

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Website Wed: Illinois Wildflowers

Missouri Evening Primrose is pollinated by Sphinx moths. AMcC
I use lots of references for my blog posts; books of course, and websites. The websites have some advantages:
  • I don't have to buy any bookshelves for them.
  • They aren't heavy.
  • They don't pile up on my desk.
  • In most cases, they're free.
One of my favorite reference websites, and the subject of this week's "Website Wednesday," is Illinois Wildflowers. True, I don't live in Illinois, but I'm only about a 20 min. drive away and our states share most plants. Written by Dr. John Hilty the home page offers categories or chapters, including, wildflowers of Prairie, Savannah and Thicket, Wetland, and Woodland. If you're not sure which category the plant fits into, scroll to the bottom of the page and use the "custom Google search" to go through the whole site. 
Once you've chosen a category, you'll see an alphabetical list of scientific names, each with an common name. Click on your plant of choice and you see a full-page article. Not only is there a color photo and written description, but he gives advice for growing the plant in a garden. Click on the hyperlink "Distribution Map" and a map of Illinois pops up, with shading on the counties in which the plant is found. My favorite part is "Faunal Association." Hilty lists the birds, mammals, and insects that use the plant for food. If you like to see butterflies in your garden, this is really helpful for finding plants that caterpillars love! 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In the Rooky Wood

Great Horned Owl vs. Crow, photo by Jerry DeBoer
It seems like everyone hate crows. Throughout much of the world, crows--ravens, carrion crows, jackdaws, rooks, choughs--fill the same niche as vultures. Garbage collectors are indispensable of course, but not celebrated. Associated with death and bad fortune in European folklore, crows have been an object of persecution. 
Then there's that voice. I once worked with a nun who had some very uncharitable things to say about crows. She complained that they perched at the top of the chapel's cross and screamed! And they did. 
After Macbeth murdered his king, he plans more killings with these lines (3.2.50-53):
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
(Of course, crows and rooks are not nocturnal, but this is Shakespeare, not ornithology.)
Kevin McGowan has been studying crows for 20+ years, and his research shows that those groups we see as feathered juvenile delinquents are actually families. Just as we wouldn't tolerate a dangerous snake or spider in our home, crows vigorously defend their nesting area against predators. In winter, when crows gather at night in roosts, sometimes in the hundreds or thousands, what could be more terrifying than an owl swooping through the dark to take a one as prey? No wonder crows take every opportunity to drive owls away. Studies show that American Crows are at or near the top of the intelligence quotient of all birds, and those calls, which seem so offensive, have variety and meaning.
Birders know that a flock of screaming crows often means that an owl is nearby. Sometimes the owl will flee its tormentors, sometimes--as in the amazing photo above, by Jerry DeBoer--they stay put, stoic and grumpy.  Why doesn't the owl attack? Great Horned Owls are the top bird predator in our region, with a wing span up to 5 feet. For a bird, it's quite heavy: around 3 pounds--triple the weight of an American Crow. Beyond the fact that owls are most adept at maneuvering in the dark and crows have some advantage in daylight, the answer to that question remains a mystery

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Heavens Above

Northern Lights and Iridium Satellite flare light up the Alaskan sky-photo by Jason A

A few years ago, as part of St. Louis Community Colleges “Master Naturalist” certificate program, I signed up for a short course on night sky viewing, sponsored by St. Louis Astronomical Society. Our instructor, Mike Malolepsky, took us out to the center of campus in the twilight to see an Iridium flare. He explained that the Iridium communication satellites—there are 66—have flat-surfaced antennas, shielded with shiny aluminum. As the satellite rotates, sunlight glints off these mirror-like panels. When the angle between the panel and the sun is just right, that flash hits a small area of the planet, visible to anyone looking in the right spot.
Mike pointed to the right spot and we stood around, looking up. A small crowd of curious students began to gather around us. Then POW—a small but brilliant flash of light appeared in a sky that was still bright. Two young women in the crowd, who had not heard the explanation, actually clutched each other in fear. Possibly they envisioned an impending alien abduction. The flare lasted for several seconds, and those of us who were informed were just as stunned as those who weren’t.
The magnificent photo above, taken by Jason A. about 30 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska, shows an Iridium satellite flare in a sky colored green with the aurora borealis. The view in the photo is not quite the same as what we see. Jason left the shutter open for 15 seconds in order to capture the light. The observer sees a burst of light, but the photo shows a streak as the flare moves from left to right, as Jason explains. Just as wonderful is the reflection of the flare and the green sky in the lake. Thanks for making this photo available to us, Jason!
How in the world did he get such an image? Was it just luck that his camera was pointed at this precise area of the sky? And how did Mike know where and when to tell us to look? The answer to this riddle is our Wednesday website: Heavens Above. Chris Peat maintains this site that gives predictions for the movements of satellites, International Space Station, planets, sun, moon, and even minor planets.
Heavens Above
For accurate information, you’ll want to register and log in. Seeing a flare depends on your latitude, longitude, and elevation, all of which you record for your location when you register. The prediction is given in local time, using the 24-hear clock, and intensity or magnitude. For those new to astronomy like myself, lower numbers mean a brighter flare. Thus, a flare of a –8 magnitude is predicted to be brighter than a –4. The table also provides the altitude, or angle from the horizon to the point of the flare, and the azimuth, or direction in which to look, measured in degrees of the compass; north is 0°, east is 90°, and so on. Peat even tells you which satellite you’re viewing! Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are helpful I’m sure, but not necessary. Bring your binoculars along when you step out to view an Iridium flare—amazing!
Can’t get enough Iridium flares? Explore the photos in the Flickr group, “Iridium Flares!” Many of the members in this group share advice to photographers about exposure, etc. For more links and diagrams, check out the Visual Satellite Observer’s pages.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bird Encounters of the Christmas Count Kind

Huge ice crystals mark the sand in Dardenne Creek AMcC
We began our Christmas Bird Count by looking for the Red-headed Woodpecker, near what’s labeled as “Shorebird Area.” This low spot below the dam for Busch Conservation Area’s largest lake, Lake 33, is reliable for Red-headeds, a species that has declined 4.6% per year since 1980, according to National Audubon Society. They gave us quite a show, sparring with Blue Jays, and chattering to each other on a snag that looked like Swiss cheese.
beaver cuts along Dardenne Creek AMcC
There was no open water at “Shorebird,” so after a lap around fields that sparkled with frost, we headed down to Dardenne Creek. The sand bars were puddled with white ice, the kind that we liked to smash when we were kids. Ripples and huge crystals of ice marked the sand. A small flock of Swamp Sparrows and White-throats hopped away.
On the high bank of Dardenne we saw the work of an ambitious beaver. The beaver cuts looked old, but it’s interesting that Red-headed Woodpeckers are associated with beaver. The woodpeckers claim the trees killed when flooded by beaver ponds, and exploit the edge habitat created as beavers fell trees.
After lunch, we headed down a disused service road, toward a corner of large white pines. White pine is not native to our area; possibly this stand was planted for lumber. My friend Connie was determined we’d find a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the pines. White-breasted Nuthatches are expectable year-round residents at Busch, but Birds of the St. Louis Area: Where and When to Find Them lists Red-breasted as uncommon to casual (that is, beyond rare) in January. In the pine grove, she produced her iPhone, with not one, but three different apps for bird songs, and played a recording of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Then we paused—silence. At least 30 seconds ticked by, then, an answer! There must have been some pretty bad grammar in that recording, because this Red-breasted Nuthatch was outraged! He scolded us till we fled, not wanting to stress the little guy beyond endurance.
Northern Flicker in the mixed species flock AMcC
We crossed the road and entered the trailless area that will now be known as “The Enchanted Forest. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by birds: three calling Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers, a Northern Flicker, and another Red-breasted Nuthatch—all in the same tree! Now a Brown Creeper joined the group, tugging itself up a tree trunk, where Blue Jays screeched. Not far beyond, a Pileated Woodpecker answered the jays. In the same tree, a Hairy Woodpecker minded his own business. The sun peeked briefly from behind the clouds, and a male Golden-crowned Kinglet snatched those rays to light his golden-orange crest. Chickadees and a dozen American Robins called all around us. As we moved through the flock, stumbling over an old wire fence as we looked skyward, they vanished. Not even a White-throat chirped as we walked back to the car.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Website Wednesday: The Owls of Harry Potter

Laura Erickson and Archimedes share their love of birds
and Harry Potter with children. 

Laura Erickson, seen here as “Professor McGonagowl,” is a well-known author of The Bird Watching Answer Book: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Birds in Your Backyard and Beyond, 2009, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids, 2002, and For the Birds, An Uncommon Guide, 1993. Her web page, The Owls of Harry Potter, packs a lot of information into a small space. Designed to appeal to young fans of J. K. Rowling’s books, “The Owls of Harry Potter” introduces each owl that’s a character in the novels, then provides a photo and its proper name. She discusses the natural—as well as magical—range of each owl.

The owl people most often associate with the Harry Potter movies and books is Harry’s own messenger owl and pet, Hedwig. Hedwig is a Snowy Owl, a bird of the Arctic tundra. Hedwig is of course female, but Erickson points out that she is played by a male bird—actually, 7 of them—in the films. Female snowies have black barring on the crown, back, and chest. Young males are barred, but usually not as much as females. As they mature, the plumage grows white. Presumably the director felt that a pure white bird would look “snowier.” They are magical birds, especially when the French horns and celesta of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” play in the background.

Whether Snowy, Great Grey, or Scops, an owl is a wizard’s letter carrier of choice, but we notice there is no junk mail in the wizard world. Muggles like ourselves are annoyed by it and, more to the point, millions of trees are destroyed so that our mailboxes can be filled with useless, unread messages. As you would expect from the author of 101 Ways to Help Birds (2006), Erickson includes ways to help owls by precycling, that is reducing the stream of junk mail and excessive packaging. She even includes a link to a publisher that uses 100% recycled paper in the printing of Harry Potter!

Really—which one is cuter, Laura or Archimedes? I contacted her to ask for permission to use this photo and inquire after her Screech Owl. She replied, “Archimedes is my own licensed education owl—I’ve had him since 2000. He was unreleasable after an illness as a nestling, and the rehab center had to find a safe place to transfer him right when my license had been approved but I didn’t yet have an owl. He’s still doing well.” Erickson maintains 2 blogs worth visiting too: Twin Beaks, and Laura’s Birding Blog.