Sunday, August 14, 2011

Late Summer at James A. Reed WA

Sunflowers planted at James A Reed for wildlife.
Photo Credit Amy Petersen
It was a lazy, late-summer morning at James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area.  With the cooler weather we decided to get out and try our birding luck.  This time of year is usually post-breeding for most birds, the young have fledged and are dispersing to feed up for the long migration or in preparation for the winter.

Being the post-breeding season for most birds it was unusually quiet.  Indigo Buntings were calling as usual.  This species seems to enjoy calling well into the day and long after other birds have gone quiet.  We enjoyed a few Bell's Vireos,  getting a good look at one male.  There were also a number of House Wrens, one apparently feeding chicks in a nest box.  The undulating flight of the brightly colored American Goldfinches were very common.

We surprised a Cooper's Hawk eating his morning breakfast and enjoyed the soaring flight of a lone Turkey Vulture.  The Barn Swallows that nest on the floating docks on the lakes around the area were all hanging out on trees and bare branches around the lakes.  I saw none still on the nest.  We enjoyed the presence of one lone Green Heron trying hard to appear like a limb on a log.

One special treat was to see several fields of planted sunflowers.  Sunflowers are planted for wildlife including doves, quail, pheasants and turkeys, along with songbirds. Our two hour trip around the wildlife area was just what was needed after a long, hot summer.  The anticipation of fall is strong in my bones. I look forward to more adventures outdoors.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How about a river cruise?

Our Reception Committee
Having lived most of my life in Missouri, first in St. Louis and now in Kansas City I have always been acutely aware of the presence of the two rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. These rivers bordered my imagination, locating me in my known universe.  I have always been aware of their flow and their presence like the tides to the moon.

So on a recent trip to the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois Amy and I decided to take a drive along the Mississippi River to look for some birds and enjoy the day. As expected there was a fair number of industrial areas along the river but there were also a lot of recreational and natural areas along the river as well.

I was impressed with how much the river was used by people.  I saw boaters, swimmers, fishermen, campers, cyclists and more using the river and the area along the river. It provided a strong contrast to the almost non-existent use of the Missouri River in and around Kansas City. Even St. Louis where I grew up didn't use the river for recreational purposes quite to the extent that the folks of the Quad Cities used there portion of the mighty Mississippi!

There may be many reasons for the difference between Kansas City's non-use of the Missouri and the Quad Cities extensive use of the Mississippi.  First, there is clearly a lack of vision today as to the recreational benefits of the Missouri River. When I drove across the I-29 bridge into Kansas City and looked at the rather anemic Richard Berkley Riverfront Park (Its actually just a handful of skinny trees, a bike path and a parking lot or two) I wondered at the lack of vision. It could be so much more, a much more attractive place to play and possibly work.

Perhaps its more than just vision.  I know that the Levee Districts around Kansas City can be quite difficult to work with(I've heard impossible). These privately controlled districts own the levees and pretty much refuse to allow any access across their levees.  Add to that the various political entities that would have to work cooperatively on both sides of the river and you can see why their is little recreational use of the Missouri in and around Kansas City.

Getting to the heart of the matter may be the lack of the immediate presence of flood control measures on this section of the Missouri, unlike the flood control on the Mississippi.  The Army Corps of Engineers has a Lock and Dam located right in the Quad Cities.  They also control a good portion of the park land that we saw on either side of the river. So their presence has had a positive effect on the recreational opportunities in the area even as they may have upset the natural habitat of the river for such species as the Least Tern or the Pallid Sturgeon. This may be the real explanation of the differences between Kansas City and the Quad Cities.  The historic lack of cooperation between the various county, state and city governments in the Kansas City region would make an organization like the Corps essential in the creation of the recreational opportunities that they have in the Quad Cities.

How about a river cruise?
The bottom line for me as that I would love to see us move away from treating the Missouri and Mississippi like an open sewer and start maintaining it for conservation and recreational purposes.  Wouldn't a springtime stroll along the river or a dinner cruise on a steamboat be a better use of the river than just treating it like a sewer and trash dump?  How about a nice canoe trip down river on a summer afternoon rather than dumping old appliances onto its shores? How about allowing some areas along the river return to their natural pre-settlement uses as wetlands and habitat for deer, waterfowl, and turkeys? It just takes vision.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Red tails are Redder than ever

Patch staying cool.
Well we can confirm that there are three, not two, fledglings from this years Red tail next in Loose Park. We were able to see at the same time two adults and three young 'uns; and we have finally given them all names. The father we call Gage, the mother is Patch (because of a conspicuous white patch on her back) and the three juveniles Cream the oldest and most independent(named after his all white or cream colored chest, belly and legs), Yankee Doodle (named for his stripped belly and red vest) and Three Feathers the youngest and most vocal of all the birds (named for her three dark feathers that protrude into her white chest).

The family is all together with dad often perching high above the din of the city on an antenna atop a tall apartment building. Yesterday, Dad was joined by Cream and Three Feathers while mom and Yankee Doodle hung around the park, panting from the heat.

Loose Park Red Tails: An Update

Well Spring has turned to Summer and the nestlings have become fledglings.  In recent weeks Amy and I have spotted at least two fledglings out of the nest.  They can fly but have not learned to catch food for themselves so their parents have been kept busy.

Three Feathers on a recent visit to our window at work.
We have named the more dominant one Cream and the more dependent bird Three Feathers.  Three Feathers has three dark feathers protruding from the neck into the white or cream upper chest area.  Three Feathers spends a lot of time calling to be feed while and seems to have more trouble flying.  She spent a lot of time on the ground alongside a building or perching on top of the building's cornice.

Cream is less vocal but more dominant.   He (I assume he is a male) has less trouble flying, tends to be more posed, more independent.  He is called Cream because his entire chest, belly and legs are an unmarked Cream or Off-white color.  Cream is a beautiful bird that I first noticed in the nest with his stark coloration.

What is special about following these Red-Tails is the ability to compare their behavior to last years brood.  There always seems to be a dominant sibling, probably the first born. They tend to hang around near their natal nest as long as their parents are feeding them.  Last year's adults seemed to disappear in late summer or fall leaving the young to fend for themselves.  The last I saw of last years young was in late Fall early Winter in a neighborhood several miles from the nest.  A young Red-Tail hand caught a squirrel and was getting ready to eat when another Red-Tail came over to claim the food much to the vocal protests of the first Red-Tail.  But readily acquiesced to the more dominant Red-Tail.   I have not seen them since and wish them well.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Long Evenings Toward Summer

Today is the longest day of the year,  June 21st.  I had know since elementary school science that the days grew longer and shorter at different times of the year.  I remember hearing about Summer and Winter Solstice and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox (I thought Autumnal was in Iowa?!)

It wasn't until a few years ago that I really truly experienced the long evenings of Spring leading into Summer.  I made a regular habit after work of going fishing at a little conservation area near Platte City.  Each evening I would change out of my work clothes and get dressed in my fishing clothes, grab my tackle and go.  Each evening I would fish until the last light, leaving just enough light to walk through the woods back to my car.

There was something special about those evenings, long, liquid twilight enjoying the cool of the evening and the feeling of being away from the work-a-day world.  I don't remember any of the fish I caught.  I do remember the quality of the evening light, the feel of the evening as it cooled down and the walk back to the car through the woods after a evening of hard fishing.

I can say that I experienced for the first time the lengthening of days and the amber light of those long twilights.  That was more than 7 years ago, yet it still remains with me.  When we discard our clocks and our indoor lights and turn to nature and its rhythms we become richer for it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's the Story We Tell

Turtles Crossing the Road
When we are driving Amy and I play a game called "Slug Bug."  Whenever we see a Volkswagen Beetle or "Bug" we call out "slug bug" and the color of the car and gently tap the other.  The farther into the Ozarks we get the fewer Volkswagen Beetles we see but the more turtles we see.  So we've started our own game called "slug turtle."  As we are driving down the Ozark back roads you'll invariably hear one or the other of us shout out "slug turtle" as I steer the car to avoid the the terrified terrapin as he ducks his head inside his shell. The game helps break up the monotony of a long trip.

On our recent trip to the Ozarks, one of our goals was to visit Sue Hubbell's old farm.  Sue lived on the farm in the 1970's and 1980's where she wrote the book A Country Year about her life on the farm.  Its one of my favorite books.  When she moved, the farm was bought by the Missouri Department of Conservation and included into the Barn Hollow Conservation and Natural Area.  I had found directions to the conservation area and so off we went.

The area is located just 3 miles north of Mountain View, Missouri.  We found the intersection where the directions told us to begin and I my heart dropped to find that it sported a Walmart and a McDonalds.  Progress had flowed right up to the doorstep of this idyllic land that Sue described.  This was not what I had imagined I'd find.  I was looking for the tranquil country life that Sue described in her book and what I got was cheap goods and cheap food.

The Little Pond
We made the drive three miles north and found the parking lot to the conservation area.  As we walked the half mile trail to the overlook I began to recall parts of the book that Sue had written.  When I heard and Indigo Bunting I was reminded that she had written about their claim to her land that preceded her own deed to the land.  When we walked past a pond I remembered she had written about the frogs calling from the pond.  The beauty of the land was still there although tainted somewhat by the proximity of the "progress" I saw just three miles away.

The Barn Hollow Overlook
The half mile trail through the Barn Hollow Natural Area ends at an overlook platform from where you can look into Barn Hollow, a deeply dissected valley with 100 foot shear dolomite bluffs on either side.  The cool shaded creek valley is the home of the ringed salamander, a species only known to exist in the Ozarks.  While there I heard the echoing call of a Belted Kingfisher and was reminded that Sue had written about hearing that same call many times from her farm.

I was still bothered by the encroachment of civilization on this eden but felt the peace that places like this bring.  As I was looking over the map of the conservation area I noticed that the entrance we had entered was on the south side and that on the north side was another entrance that had a house and an out-building marked on the map.  This portion of the map looked familiar.  The I realized that it was just like the map in Sue's book A Country Year.  Then it dawned on me that the the trail we explored was south of Sue's farm and that her farm was actually on the north side of the conservation area, a twenty minute circuitous drive through narrow back roads.  The story I had been telling myself about what I saw wasn't about her land or the book.

So after lunch Amy and I drove the twenty minute drive down increasingly narrow gravel roads following the twists and turns deeper into time to Sue Hubbell's farm.  Just before you come to a gate and sign indicating the private property of the VFW Camp mentioned in Sue's book there is a turn off  with an unmarked blue gate.  The yellow Missouri Department of Conservation signs had been torn down and only a small piece of the sign was left laying in the gravel road to give a clue to the identification of this place.

The Entrance to Sue's Old Place
Walking pass the blue gate about 30 feet is a side road heading off to the right and into an open field.  This was Sue's driveway.  I found the old power line and junction box that provided electricity to her farmhouse.  There was an old stone flower bed and the remains of what look life some daffodils that Sue may have planted.  I found evidence of an old barbed wire fence and the signage indicating the end of public use area that the MDC posts on all their properties.  There was no doubt that this was it.  This was also more like what I was looking for,  and hoping for.  This was the eden that Sue had written about.  It was beautiful and distant from anything that could be called progress.

I had gotten the story wrong.  I had recalled Sue's memories of her life on a farm and put them in a place that wasn't her place.  I had felt that progress had intruded on her eden even though it really had changed anything about the natural area we first explored nor the area that was Sue's old home.  Then I realized its the story we tell that's important.  We can tell a story that includes frequent trips to the Walmart's and McDonald's of the world or we can tell another story.  The story that recalls the time of day when the catbird calls, or the comings and goings of a fox and her kits or the time when you find a little peace in nature.  The place could be in the middle of the city or right next to a Walmart.  We can choose to tell a story of the life along the creek or the life of commerce in the local big box store.  Its the story we tell and remember that matters.

Give Me the Back Roads
Yet, I am reminded that not all stories work equally well.  Some stories we tell ourselves can cost us dearly.  The turtle tells itself a story that pulling its head and legs into its shell will protect it.  In the forest that may work most of the time and can ward off the inquisitive raccoon or wily fox but it doesn't stop the tires of a speeding car.  The truth is somewhere in between the stories we tell to create our world and the stories we tell to blind us to the dangers of life.  Its finding that fine line that is the challenge.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The St. Joseph Oxbows

American White Pelicans at Horseshoe Lake
South of St. Joseph, Missouri the fertile farmland stretches from the bluffs to the river.  All long this corridor are oxbow lakes, remnants of the Missouri River that have been orphaned from the flow of the river.  These lakes have become an oasis for migrating shorebirds, waterfowl and wading birds. Because of this abundance they are also one of my favorite places to bird.

Just south of St. Joseph is an oxbow called Horseshoe Lake just along Highway 59.  In the mornings during the spring and fall migration seasons the lake becomes an avian airport with a constant stream of birds coming and going, taxing and loafing.  Its quite a sight.

Imagine standing on the shore of this shallow lake engulfed in the constant calls of Red-winged Blackbirds, the twittering of five swallow species and the occasional eruptions of the wild, frenetic calls of the Pied-billed Grebe.

White-faced Ibises and Snowy Egrets 
The lake is filed with legions of American Coots patrolling the weedy shorelines; rafts of Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers, each paired off refueling for their long journey; squadrons of American White Pelicans  and Double-crested Cormorants coming and going in waves across the 3/4 mile long lake; the edges of the lake are teeming with countless Sandpipers, Godwits, Dowitchers, and Stilts. Most regal of all are the Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and White-faced Ibises holding vigil in the shallows.

The skies above the lake are filled with the busy traffic of Bank, Barn, Rough-winged, Tree and Cliff Swallows doing their best to put a dent in the profusion of bugs that fill the air.  Cormorants and ducks take off in pairs and larger groups.  From time to time the air is filled with the mass arrival of flights of ducks, geese, cormorants, sandpipers and myriads of others as they settle in from their flight or return from their early morning forays.

American White Pelicans in flight
Of special note are the flights of American White Pelicans that lumber into the air with a grace that belies their large size.  They are all strength and dignity and are always accompanied by a great stirring sound that is quite audible as they fly overhead.  It is a sound of strength and mastery of the air, it must be the sound that angels make as the descend from on high.  It is a presence.

Each trip to the oxbow lakes of St. Joseph leaves me with a sense of peace and beauty.  It reminds me of the mystery of nature, the sudden discovery of what you hadn't imagine was present.  It leaves me with the eyes to see the beauty all around and an expectant heart.  I can't wait to see whats around the corner.

Chimney Swifts are back!

Chimney Swift CC jim_mcculloch
While enjoying one of our favorite outdoor restaurants Amy noticed two birds flying high in circles.  She gets the award for seeing the first Chimney Swifts of the year!  I have always enjoyed watching Chimney Swifts twitter and flick around the sky over our city and anxiously awaited their return.  They are always entertaining on a warm spring evening.

Chimney Swifts don't perch like other birds rather they cling to a vertical wall.  In fact it is rare to see them sitting still.  They only land to nest or roost at night, the rest of the time they are busy sailing through the air catching bugs.  They even bath on the wing! Chimney Swifts are important because they reveal a slightly different side of the citied wilderness equation.

Human presence in a once wild land changes things.  From a conservationist point of view the changes are, more often than not, negative.  The Chimney Swift is a noted exception.  As cities grew and more chimney's were built Chimney Swifts adapted to use the newly available habitat and their population increased from pre-settlement times.  As we began to do away with chimney's or started capping or narrowing them we have negatively impacted their population by limiting or eliminating their nesting sites.

Currently their population is in decline. Yet there are efforts underway to reverse that decline by building Chimney Swift towers.  These towers are about 12 feet high and mimic a chimney.  One pair of Swifts can nest in each tower and raise as many as 5 babies each summer.  The opening images of the video in the post on the An Urban Nature Oasis is that of a Chimney Swift tower located outside the Center.  The more towers that are built the more swifts we get and the more bugs they eat.  Certainly sounds good to me!

This points us to an important lesson.  Our impact on the wild doesn't have to be negative.  It can be positive. We can build cities that allow for the wild to share our habitat

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tales of the Citied Wilderness

I'm continually reminded that the wild has been here longer than we have been here.

On Sunday afternoon Amy and I were having lunch at a local Mediterranean restaurant.  We were sitting outside and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather when I noticed a commotion in a nearby tree.  There were two crows making an awful racket.  Usually the rackets in that part of town are the evening revelers having a good time down at the local bar.

At first I couldn't quite see what the crows were upset about.  Then I noticed a huddled figure along one of the branches and assumed it was a Red-tailed hawk.  After an extended time in which the two crows were joined by two others to take up their harangue of the intruder the bird took off, revealing that instead of a hawk it was a Barred Owl.

Barred Owl being mobbed by Amy Petersen
The flight of the owl quickly took it out of our sight and earshot with the four crows following close behind.  Throughout the rest of the meal I found myself look up into the tree and thinking of the owl.  Why it had been in such a visible location? What was it doing now? Why it was there in the first place?

There is a grace given us each time we encounter the wild.  I long for its touch each day.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Urban Nature Oasis

Its easy to get wrapped up in our lives, anxious about all the little things that are like tiny little burrs that make life miserable.  I think humans evolved in such a way that they need to take time and just walk in nature.  Its been a pretty difficult early spring with the death of my grandmother and Amy's surgery.  All is well now but the strain takes a toll.

Today Amy and my son Jeremiah and I visited one of the Little Edens I had written about back in February.  The Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center is an urban  conservation area and nature center whose purpose is to teach city dwellers about nature. If anyone needs to take time to walk in nature its city dwellers.  Life is so hectic and the Discovery Center is a real gem.

We strolled around the area which includes a small pond, larger lake, a prairie and a woodland habitat, in miniature.  Highlights of our walk included some American Goldfinches, a beautiful singing House Finch, Norther Cardinals, a flyover by our neighbor the Red-tailed Hawk, a pair of Blue-winged Teal and an American Kestrel.

The Kestrel was having a difficult time of it with a single Blue Jay that objected to its presence, flying at it and trying to drive it off.  The Blue Jay was persistent but could not raise any of his companions and thought better than to try and take on the Kestrel.  So he flew down into the bushes and continued is verbal harassment of the intruder.  

There is life all around and it shines with beauty, grace and awe.  The trick is to look beyond the burrs of life to see it.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Natural History of Red-tailed Hawks

The male Red-tail feeding on our local songbirds
I've been reading up on my neighbors.  Its OK, its not like stalking or anything.  I'm reading up on my neighbors the Red-tailed Hawks.  Red-tails are the most common hawk in North America.  They were here long before humans stepped foot on this continent. According to the experts Red-tails mate for life and are very territorial, so most likely these hawks are the pair that raised two young here last year.  With the male's help the female incubates the eggs for about 30 days.  I think I first saw the female on the nest in early March and she is still on the nest so the eggs should be hatching within the next few weeks.   Then it takes about 40 days before the birds leave the nest.  Fledging can take up to 10 weeks while the young birds learn to fly and hunt.

I'm waiting for signs that the eggs have hatched.  Basically it'll be easy to spot the frantic back and forth efforts of the male to bring food to the nest.  I'll recognize the haggard look in his eyes as I think back 18 years to my son's frequent late night feedings. It's a look I remember well.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Random Acts of Wildness

At the heart of enjoying nature is a readiness to see the unexpected, the random.  As we were speeding down the highway on our way home from the hospital on Friday we saw an accipiter hawk eight feet from our car, probably a male Cooper's Hawk or maybe a Sharp-Shinned hawk.  It was diving and jerking towards the grassy shoulder in a strong wind, hunting for its dinner.

There is something sacred about these encounters.  They are certainly unexpected and undeserved.  They leave me with a sense of joy, of wonder and a kind of satisfaction.  They are frequent enough to keep me going.  I settle in and keep myself aware, watching, waiting.

A few years ago I remember driving the 2 hour drive to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge one winter's day to see eagles.  Upon my return later that day I watched an eagle flying along Missouri River near Downtown, Kansas City.  I was in awe. I didn't have to go so far to see eagles, I just had to be patient.

I am constantly surprised by the citied wilderness I live in.  Last fall I watched flight after flight of common nighthawks soaring southward over my apartment.  Or, the time several years ago that an exuberant flock of cedar waxwings visited a cherry tree near my apartment in late winter, picking it clean on their way north.

I am blessed by these visitations.  They are epiphanies of the persistence of life, of the cycle of all things.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Loose Park Red-tails

I live in a citied wilderness.  I'm reminded everyday that the vast urban landscape I live in was once a howling wilderness and may one day be again.  I have enjoyed over the past few years the regular presence of Red-tailed Hawks that have made their home in and around the neighborhood where I live and work. They are my neighbors.

The Red-tails have had several different nests. Last year they built a nest and raised two young in Loose Park in midtown Kansas City.  Amy and I had the wonderful opportunity to see the young fledge and occasionally saw them in the neighborhood making their living on the resident squirrels and songbirds.

The Red-tails are at it again. Over the past few weeks I have seen the pair near last year's nest and then yesterday saw one sitting on the nest incubating eggs.  Its stilling to think of the cycle of life and the new life and adventure that is ahead for this family.  I'll be watching them and reporting on them from time to time.  They are my neighbors after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Woodcock Walk

American Woodcock Photo Credit D. Fletcher @ Flickr
The first big event of every ornithological year has to be the woodcock walk.  Around here they usually occur in early March.  It's a rather lewd enterprise involving darkness, flashlights and spying.  A woodcock walk is a little like strolling through a bar and listening for pick-up lines, only classier.  This drab bird of forest floors spends most of its year in obscurity, quietly avoiding attention. But early each spring it dances, sings and flings itself into acrobatic flights, all to attract a mate. Its quite a show.

This evening we went up to the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary near Liberty, Mo.  Our friends Daranya Rasa and Michael Sandy were leading the walk this evening.  It was very chilly but the woodcock's didn't make us wait for long.  On our way out we were treated to seeing 4 or 5 Woodcocks flying into the peenting grounds in the prairie near the entrance to the sanctuary.

Each spring the male woodcock selects a peenting ground where he begins his song and dance.  He dances about in a small area for a few minutes peenting at regular intervals. Then, he takes to the air spiraling in a large circle ever higher and higher.  Through much of his ascent he makes a twittering noise, not unlike the sounds that flying saucers make in the movies.  Once he reaches 200-300 feet he hovers briefly, then begins a zig-zag descent making a series of short squeaking sounds like sneakers on a gym floor. He then returns landing within a few inches of the spot where he took off.  The woodcock will perform this feat several times in the fading twilight.

If you can locate a woodcock on its peenting ground you can move closer and closer to its stage in between each of its acrobatic flights. If you do it right you can catch the dancer in mid dance with your flashlights. Its quite a treat.  As always don't disturb them too much.  There is nothing sadder than a brokenhearted woodcock.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poetry: 100 Gulls

The 100 gulls were like a small crowd I once saw, scuttling its way around a library first to one place, then another.  Moving en masse like a living organism, oozing around the stacks like an amoeba.  The gulls were a presence like the spirit of God hovering over the forsaken city.  Like men with lanterns looking for one wise man. I looked up and saw what no one else did, what no one else cared to see.  I received the gift, they went unblessed.

Seining for Birds: Missouri River Bird Observatory

It's late summer. The crisp chill of fall morning is weeks away and the heat of summer still lingers.  Along the river the forest offers a dark and comfortable haven from mid morning heat.  There is movement all around.  The Missouri river visible through the trees and brush flows constantly south.  Even when you can't see it you can sense its presence, its pull, its rush to the sea.  Fall migrants pick their way through the forest canopy and the low brush with their contact calls of chips and tseets.

Along an opening in the forest is an all but invisible mesh from knee to head height, strung between two poles seining treasures from the air.  In one net is a struggling heartbeat of feathers.  Quietly a figure approaches and cupping the bird in one hand carefully weaves the net from around his prize and slips the bird into a cotton sack and hangs the sack from his belt.

White-breasted Nuthatch
The young man moves to a nearby table and retrieves his bundle of feathers turning it over in his hands.  He works with a sense of purpose first identifying the species and sex then taking measurements of wing and tail, and checks for body fat.  He carefully records each precious fact.  Finally he selects a small silver band which contains a number and slips it on the bird's leg crimping it carefully into place.  Then he releases this little stranger to join the river in its journey southward to the sea.

The young man is Ethan Duke.  Along with his partner Dana Ripper they run the Missouri River Bird Observatory near Marshall.  They are bird banders and work tirelessly conducting a host of surveys.  Along with monitoring migrants, they also monitor the comings and goings of marsh birds, saw-whet owls and even manage to do some backyard banding. The work that they do is important because it gives us a better picture of our avian friends, their growth and health, the impact of habitat change and an idea of their numbers.

Dana and Ethan always welcome visitors and volunteers.  They are on the web at Missouri River Bird Observatory.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First Day of Spring

Astronomers and others who are concerned about the movement of planets around the sun won't pay much attention to this day.  There is no proper alignment of planets, moons, or stars.  In outer space its just another day.  To understand today you have to cast your sights a little lower than interstellar space, down to the troposphere.  That part of the universe where our weather is made.

Today is the first day of meteorological spring. Its also the first day of ornithological spring.  That's right all the birds are flipping over their calendars, packing their bags and heading north. And in Missouri the Missouri Bird Records Committee, that gallant group of wizened birders who track the sightings of rare and unusual birds in Missouri, are passing the baton between seasonal editors.  In this case Joe Eades, the winter editor, is passing the baton to my friend Kristi Mayo, the spring editor.

Looking outside the weather is much nicer than a month ago and I'm feeling the effects of winter slowly drop off like an old worn coat.  Its time to get up, get going and get outdoors.  See you in nature!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Alert! Design for Conservation Sales Tax

Missouri leads the nation in its conservation efforts.  We are the envy of every other state in the nation for our  many conservation areas.  These areas support a wide variety of activities including hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, caving, picnicking, stargazing and nature study.  Our conservation areas provide healthy outdoor activities to individuals and families.  In addition the many Missouri Department of Conservation Nature Centers around our state provide programing for children, teenagers, adults, and senior citizens on nature and outdoor recreation.  I have never met anyone on a conservation area that hasn't said,"Its the best 1/8th of 1 cent we've ever spent!"

All of this is at risk!  Representative John Cauthorn just introduced HJR 22 to sunset the Design for Conservation Sales Tax.  The Conservation Sales Tax is 1/8 of 1% of every taxable sale. For every $8 spent on taxable items, one penny goes to conservation efforts managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.  

I am asking everyone who lives in Missouri to contact your senators and representatives immediately and show them your support for conservation and your opposition for HJR 22.   You can find out who your legislators are by entering your zip code here

Please leave a comment letting our readers know if your Representative and Senator are supportive of conservation in Missouri.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We Become the Land We Inhabit

The people of the Ozarks are shaped by the land as much as they are shapers of the land.  Try it for yourself.  Stand in an Ozark valley with a clear, rocky, stream running beside you and look down-valley.  Do you sense the hills on either side?  Like muscular shoulders lifting the sky.  Does the strong close presence of those hills make you feel the strength in your legs and back? Now use this strength to climb the steep hills to the ridge overlooking the valley.  The climb will strip you, carve you. Find a prominence to look out from.  There are many to be found. See, the vista laying out before you.  Feel the open presence of the air all around you filling your lungs and lifting you up as you gaze upon the airy grandeur of the near and distant hills and valleys. Do you feel your back straighten, your shoulders rise and your chest swell?  Don't you see yourself being fitted by this land for this land? Day by day experience this and the land will carve you strong and bright and make you an Ozarker.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I touched a snake

Snakes have always given me the heebie jeebies.  The way they move and flick their tongues out have always been menacing to me.  Its truly subconscious.  I had dreams for most of my life in which I was walking down this road and there were snakes everywhere and I had to watch where I stepped for fear of getting bitten.  As a young boy I saw a Black Rat Snake eating a field mouse and freaked!  I literally ran a quarter mile to my Grandma's house screaming all the way.  What a dope!

Great Plains Rat Snake, Courtesy MDC
So, today I touched a snake.  It was a Great Plains Rat Snake, about 3 feet long.  It wasn't venomous, nor did it try to bite me.  It actually held still when I stroked its underbelly feeling the scales it uses to move forward.  It wasn't slimy, it didn't hiss at me.  It just sat there.  It was a tame snake and is often used in programs to teach children and adults about snakes.

Snakes are much maligned creatures.  They don't deserve their reputations and they truly are more afraid of you than you are of them.  There are 46 species or subspecies of snakes in Missouri and only 5 are poisonous. Only one snake, the Copperhead is commonly encountered.  Few people in Missouri ever get bitten by a venomous snake and more people die of lightning strikes each year than die of snake bite.  I've heard that most people get bit by snakes because they do something stupid, like grab the snake.

  For the most part if you watch where you walk and place your hands you'll never have a problem with snakes.  Snakes will try and get away from you if they can rather than bite.  They only bite when they have no other choice.  Snakes are actually beneficial in that they help control rodent populations.  If you encounter a non-venomous snake use a long handled tool such as a hoe or shovel to carry them to an isolated and safe habitat to be released.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a four day citizen science project each February where amateur birders get together and count birds in their backyards, parks and nature centers.  Anyone can participate and its a lot of fun.  The science behind the project is simple, it gives us a snap shot of where birds are at this time of year just before the Spring migration is in full swing.  Combined with other citizen science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, eBird and the Breeding Bird Survey we can get a dynamic picture of the population of birds across the North American continent. (Click through to find out more about these important projects).

Birders enjoying the large picture windows in the library.
Today, Amy and I went to the Burroughs Audubon Nature Center and Bird Sanctuary which was hosting one of the locations for the GBBC.   Also known as the Audubon Library for its excellent collection of books on nature with an emphasis on birds, this little gem of a place is one of my Little Edens(more about that in a future post).  There are two rooms set aside with large picture windows that make an excellent place to view birds in all weather conditions.  The many well stocked feeders make this a smorgasbord for every species of backyard bird and a few uncommon visitors as well.

Downy Woodpeckers visit our feeders.
We had the opportunity to see a number of common backyard birds.  Highlights were one lone Fox Sparrow, a small handful of Harris Sparrows, a Red-shafted Northern Flicker, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the occasional Downy Woodpecker visiting our feeders.  Some of the American Goldfinches were already showing a partial molt into their summer breeding plumages with bright black and white tail feathers and even one or two with a brightening of the yellow feathers on its head.

Birding is not always about birds.  As often as not its about the comradery between birders and the openness with which most birders pursue their passion for birds and for nature. Its about sharing time with people who know the importance of nature and our overwhelming dependence upon it for our life and happiness. As always a good time was had by all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Coming Attractions: Spring

Its like a movie trailer of what is coming soon to a park or woodland near you....

The House Sparrows are reenacting their own version of Jerry Springer.  Throwing little birdy "chairs" and raising a ruckus as the young males try to dominate one another for the coming breeding season.  Doppler radars along the Gulf Coast show echoes of northbound avian migrants and night calls of northbound birds can be heard for those who listen.  Snow geese are on the move during the day, cardinals call out their song in the early morning and American Woodcocks have begun penting over brushy fields.

Spring is coming to Missouri and the Mo-Birds Listserv, that modern front porch for bird nerds, is full of reports of early arrivals, movements and other happenings all pointing towards the arrival of Spring.  Meteorological Spring is just around the corner.  It's said to start in just over a week on March 1st although astronomical Spring, that carefully calculated point in time for those who demand exactness, must wait until March 21st and the vernal equinox, a time of equal days and equal nights.

This is the 51st Spring of my life. I am no longer compelled by the rush of hormones as I was when I was younger, unlike the migrating flocks.  Although I still look with hope to warmer weather and the promise of nature's beauty I have come to that time in my life when I can reflect deeply and take a step back and take it all in.  I am coming to understand the essential beauty of this earth, the wonder of nature and the power of evolution.  I am coming to understand just how magnificent this all is, to appreciate it more and to seek to be its guardian, protector and advocate.  I like this time of my life.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Winter's Grip

Its been bitterly cold around here for about the past month with several spells of heavy...even historic snowfall. As I get older the winter's get more difficult, or if not more difficult then more difficult for me.  The birds around the apartment tend to huddle more closely in the thicker bushes and are less visible.  But the past few days we've had milder, more comfortable weather.  The temperatures have gotten warmer and the forecast is for 50's and 60's next week.

So today Amy and I went to one of our favorite conservation areas, Jame A. Reed Memorial CA.  JAR as we call it is a 3000 acre area with 11 lakes located in a suburb of Kansas City.  Its close to home and one of our favorite places to birdwatch.  At the right time of year you can see almost anything, with its lakes, wetlands, fields and forests it provides ready habit to many species of birds.

The land was still largely covered with snow and there was a constant chill in the air.  The trees were bare and ice still covered the lakes and ponds.  Snowdrifts and snow piles were scattered along the edges of the roads.  Ice fishermen plied their craft in once last hope for a winter catch.

The occassional bare patch of ground became the collecting point for small flocks of song sparrows, robins...and a bluebird or two. And the gravel roads had turned to slush and mud.  Red-tailed hawks soared over head and every now and then a bird would burst forth into joyous song,  One field was filled with the chorus of black-capped chickadees singing their hearts out.  With the hope of the coming forecast for warmer weather and the signs of the coming spring my own heart slowly started lifting out of its winter blues.  The stark landscape took on a brighter hue.  Winter was losing its grip on me and on the land around me.  The ice and snow of the past month are slowly yielding to a new season.  Even the bleakest landscapes are beautiful if you have hope in your heart.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Little Edens

The story of the Garden of Eden, of paradise lost I think is a very human story.  More than anything I think it tells us something about our relationship with nature.  When people cast about trying to explain the origins of humanity they chose to tell the story of a garden of delight, bountiful with all we could imagine we would want.  I believe they told this story because it rang true to our need, our human need for wildness.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world"   Thoreau
Human history is filled with stories of little Edens, places where people go to look inward, find peace and to heal.  From the Greek idylls, poetry that depicts a simple life, close to the land, to the poetry of Wordsworth or to Thoreau's Walden. We find people looking for that quiet sanctuary, that place in the wild that brings peace, that centers....

I've been thinking about the little Edens I've had in my life and what they've meant to my personal growth and my understanding of nature. I think we all have our little Edens.  I hope to share some of mine from time to time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Down Home

Although I was born in the city I have always been from the hills and deep valleys of the Missouri Ozarks. Long before I was born I was stamped with a permanence that would forever bind me to the land of spring feed creeks and deep river valleys. I could no more change that, than I could change the color of my eyes. I have inhabited many places but have lived in only a few. I have spent most of my life outside of the Ozarks but the Ozarks have rarely been outside of me, not even for a moment.

Like many others of her time my mother moved to St. Louis after World War II to find opportunity.  I was born there but spent my childhood summers with my grandparents on a little Ozark's farm.  They watched after me, but as I grew older I was allowed more and more freedom to venture around the farm, down to the creek and beyond...a freedom lost to many today.  Now fifty years have gone by and those idyllic days are still with me.  In those moments when I look back, through the haze of time like the mists of fall I can still see the land, the people...still feel the cool grass and hear the summer breezes sighing through the trees.

They say you can't go home again. I guess that's true enough. Times change, people grow old and die. We change. But there are some places that never leave you. They stay with you no matter where you are. They call you back to them, even after many years.

A Tribute to Rivers

In the Missouri Ozarks there is a river that flows through some of the most beautiful country I can imagine.  If there is a heaven on earth this river and its watershed would win my vote.

It is a special river, set aside to be kept pristine.  The Current River is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR).  The first Scenic Riverways in the nation. It is a special place to anyone who has experienced its gentle beauty.  Thomas Malkowicz has created a beautiful and moving tribute to this river.

Tribute to Rivers from Thomas Malkowicz on Vimeo.