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.