Friday 31 August 2007

What Am I ?

A little Mystery Bird Quiz for the Weekend.

No price, but a prelude to a post I have planned for early next week.

Happy birding everyone!

Genesis Of A New Nemesis: the one St. Louis bird that got away

Here we go again - on this last part of my St. Louis travel account - and talk about the Nemesis bird, the one we always miss when all around us they show such a massive presence that other birders are annoyed by them.

I don't think I have a North American Nemesis Bird, yet. I mean, this is a difficult thing to define when you've never seen so many of the region's species.
But now, after my trip to St. Louis and a few birding outings here in Michigan, I have a certain feeling deep down in my guts that maybe, just maybe, I am just experiencing something each birder dreads:

The Genesis of a Nemesis!

For a species to qualify as a Nemesis Bird, two criteria need to be fulfilled:

A) It must be a bird we know from the book and that somehow fascinates us, so we are particularly aware of the fact that we haven't seen it yet and we would really appreciate an encounter.

B) This encounter never comes.

Within the context of this post, here in North America, I am talking about no other bird then the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Here's a bit of a historic background:

When I was a 16-year-old birder, I went to New York City and there I visited Central Park, where I sure got two lifers, Northern Mockingbird and Tufted Titmouse but no Yellow-crowned Night-heron.
When I returned to North America in May 2005, my wife and I went to New York City, this time though we didn't have the time to visit Central Park but had a short look at it from its Southern end.

No harm done...

However, about a year later, I found this post that disturbed me quite a bit.
I had missed it. I had been twice in an area where the species occurs and hadn't realized it. Otherwise, I might have searched for it specifically and - who knows - seen it!

"Oh well", I thought, "there will be other times".

Wait a minute, there had been other times!
In May 2005, while staying at Ontario's Point Pelee, there were reports of an immature Yellow-crowned Night-heron from nearby Hillman Marsh.


Of course I went there a few times and saw a huge array of great birds, ranging from a multitude of shorebirds to a flock of majestic American White Pelicans, but despite looking for it specifically, I never located the Night-heron, although it was reported on and off during my whole stay there. I didn't consider this incident to be very significant as there were so many new impressions to be gained, such great birds to see, that missing out on one particular species was something that just happens.
But looking back now, I can't help but wonder...

Then came my trip to St. Louis and of course by now, the Yellow-crowned Night-heron had gained a more dominant presence in my thoughts and wishes. It was not one of the specials I was particularly keen on seeing, as it occurs widely in other parts of the world I hope to one day visit on birding trips, but nevertheless I had decided that I wanted to see this bird this time.

Yes, I did!

The book "Birds of the St. Louis area" had something very interesting to say about the Yellow-crowned Night-heron:

"Yellow-crowned Night-herons ... are most reliably found near Holten State Park..."

So on my second day in St. Louis, on the road to Horseshoe Lake, I payed Holten State Park a visit, just to find it was nothing more but three ponds with a very small rim of trees and vegetation embedded in a Golf Course. To me this looked more like the habitat of European Starlings, House Sparrows and Killdeer than anything else, but hey, I tried.

For about two hours.

In vain.

There was nothing there, not even other species of note.

I didn't even write down anything in my note book.

Too bad.

But then, I thought, I had been there around noon in bright daylight, with the sun blazing down from blue skies. And although Black-crowned Night-herons have a wacky sense of humour, Yellow-crowned Night-herons might not. They might indeed take pride in their name.

It seemed I had missed out once again on seeing that species.

But on the last day, after the Bewick's Wren incident, I unexpectedly got another chance:
My wife was attending the final feast at the end of her meeting, you know, these happenings where everyone is celebrating themselves with lobster and champagne (except for my wife who is a very humble person and just went there for the food and company).
She asked me to pick her up and take her back to the hotel around 9 p.m. (21:00), which was after dark.

Well, I could also have gone for the lobster, but somehow - strangely - decided that this was my best chance yet at seeing Yellow-crowned Night-herons, and off I went yet again to Holten State Park.

I parked my car at a spot that allowed for easy scanning of the ponds and waited for the appearance of the herons.

And waited.

And then decided to wait some more.

But not after I had done some additional waiting.

And then finally decided it was no use and that I just had to wait.

Finally it was too dark to see and I knew another shift of waiting would likely produce the same results: zilch. No Night-herons of any sort, let alone the ones sporting a yellow crown.

I returned to the highway that was to take me back to the city and drove towards the bridge crossing the Mississippi when suddenly I saw three Night-herons crossing the highway, coming (roughly) from Holten State Park heading North.
Now, I don't usually try identifying flying birds when doing 50 miles and hour myself, but these night-herons were strange.
I have seen probably a few hundred Black-crowned Night-herons, many of them as silhouettes in flight, but these looked remarkably different. Although clearly being Night-herons, they showed a stronger curve in their neck and the legs appeared longer, just like a hybrid between a Night-heron and an Egret.

Funny, in a very peculiar way.

Back at the hotel, I checked the Sibley guide and found, to my utter frustration, that the differences I had noticed were exactly what differentiates the flight silhouette of a Yellow-crowned from a Black-crowned Night-heron.

Well, terrific!

I finally got to see likely Yellow-crowned Night-herons and wasn't able to pin down the identification with an adequate amount of certainty. Just what I needed, and thank you very much I am fine, how about you?

Sadly, this is how the last of my St. Louis lifers got away, just before it could be turned into just that: a lifer.

If some of you who are reading this are not entirely convinced yet that the Yellow-crowned Night-heron is starting to evolve into a Nemesis bird, I have one more thing to add:

There have been reports of one hanging around Point Mouillee, a nice wader and shorebird area on Michigan's part of Lake Erie.
I have been there twice now and seen plenty of ... Black-crowned Night-herons. In bright day light.

These are black(-crowned) days ... the rise of the New Nemesis.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Modern Marvels

I am mostly glad to live in a modern, advanced world. Sure, the times when Africa was still largely unspoiled by European "discoverers" were surely nice, or the times when all you had to do every few days was go for a walk with your buddies to hunt mammoths. No office hassle, no stressed out wreckage on a jammed highway trying to make it to work on time and all these other nasty things modern times are tied to. But honestly, could you say farewell to so many of civilization's wonders for the sake of a less stressful life?
And if your answer is yes, how certain are you you're not going to regret swapping with a cave man?

Take, for instance, coffee.

Don't you think those ice age hunters 10,000 years ago would not have liked to sit alone on a hill, wind in their face, overlooking the plains in front of them and then take out their thermos can and have a nice zip of freshly brewed coffee? Sure beats cold muddy swamp water if you ask me.

Oh, but coffee has been around for ages, right? At least in Ethiopia, it's been known at least since the 9th century, so it is not something we can freely attribute to modern times and therefore it is not suitable to demonstrate the advantage of today over yesterday. So wouldn't it be much nicer to live somewhere in the - say - 12th century and have the advantage of drinking coffee plus a general lack of modern nervousness?

Simple answer: nope!

Know why?

Coffee Creamer.

Yes, many of us - possibly even the majority - enjoy their coffee with a shot of milk or cream. And this was quite a difficult thing to do in the times of old. There were no fridges, no cans of condensed milk and surely there was no powdered coffee creamer.
Imagine again those ice age hunting parties: do you think it was practical for them to take a cow along on each hunting expedition? Might have earned them a but too much attention from the local pride of sable-toothed tigers.

No, I tell you, coffee creamer is a true modern wonder that has changed the world.

Here we see a prime example of a classic Coffee Creamer. Small, light, convenient and sure not to turn into cream cheese if you're out in the sun for longer than you had expected.
What an advantage!

But here's the best, if we turn the paper bag around and take a look at the ingredients:

Oh wonderful progress of our food industry! Now we don't even need milk anymore to put some cream in our coffee!

Ain't science something?

There's modern marvels even in the smallest things.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

The One I Deserved: The last of the St. Louis lifers

As I have mentioned in a recent post, I prefer to see all the specials of a particular area instead of striving to add as many species to my list as possible, and to me these special bird species - but of course all of them are special in one way or another - are species one is most / only likely to encounter in that one particular area. Now, the Heartland of North America only harbors a limited number of these special birds as most of the local breeding species can be seen further South in winter or also occur at more popular birding destinations.
Let's be honest here, I thoroughly enjoyed Missouri. But once I am back in Germany and birding in North America will mean a somewhat costly holiday, I am more likely to consider trips to Colorado, California, Arizona or Florida (and of course upstate New York) than to, say, Kansas or Iowa.
So now that I was right in the central part of the Continent by lucky chance, I tried my best to see the two birds most special to that particular area. These two bird species can actually be found over much of South-Western North America, but the forms occurring in the central part seem rather distinct and, with today's approach to taxonomy, might be viewed differently in the near future.
Of course I am talking about the eastern/central forms of Bell's Vireo and Bewick's Wren.

Bell's Vireos had been easy enough as the local birder's guide gave quite detailed descriptions to good sites. This was however not the case for Bewick's Wren, and the species therefore was my main reason for temporarily joining the Missouri bird forum and ask for help and assistance.
Sadly I got no response regarding Bewick's Wrens and remained clueless on the morning of my very last day birding around St. Louis.

That's bad.

Okay, I had been given directions to a Western Kingbird and had looked up a nice site for Yellow-throated Warbler and Fish Crow, so I had a few nice plans for the day. However, these were species I could probably encounter in other parts of the country I was more likely to visit in the future, like Alabama's Dauphin Island or California. But the Eastern form of Bewick's Wren?

Very bad, indeed.

Lifer No. 8: Bewick's Wren

So I sat there in front of my laptop in my St. Louis Hotel, ready to hit the road to the Western Kingbird, and knew that I had to make a plan all by myself.

In a last desperate attempt I googled "Bewick's Wren Distribution Missouri" and got to this link.

It clearly had to be the West I should head for, but it didn't look very promising to be right at the edge of its Missouri range, where there had only been between 3 and 5 encounters out of 100 "stops", statistically.

I checked the St. Louis birding guide and the only birding site in the South-West that seemed fit to potentially hold the Wren was ... Shaw Nature Reserve, a place I had been to 2 days earlier.
Therefore, I quickly scanned through the Nature Reserve's checklist I had bought but not read yet and Bewick's Wren was actually listed as an "uncommon" breeder. The fog was starting to clear and I could sense some light.

Now, Shaw Nature Reserve is so small that "uncommon" can't mean anything else but less than a handful of pairs, yet it is big enough to hide these pairs quite well.
I therefore had to get more information on its habitat to narrow down the possible corners of Shaw's Nature Reserve worth searching.
So, again, I returned to this wonderful link and found the following description:

"Open woods, thickets, brushy areas & gardens"

Trying to remember what the different parts of the Reserve had looked like two days ago (and were probably still looking like now), I came to the conclusion that I would spend my last few hours of birding in the woodlands just above the slope towards the lowland forests. Some parts of these woodlands had been cleared recently by park staff in an effort to restore native habitat and I figured that these open scrubby areas were my best bet.
The plan was made:
1. Western Kingbird
2. Castlewood Park
3. Shaw Nature Reserve

After successfully ticking off the first 2 point of my day's checklist I arrived at the parking lot just next to the cleared woodland areas of Shaw Nature Reserve, with about an hour left for birding until I had to return to the hotel.
I surely thought I had a certain chance, but my luck had to run out at some point and I had this nagging feeling Bewick's Wren would be it, the precise point at which my luck was bound to fail me.
First, I walked a short bit to a nice view point over the surrounding areas and scanned for the part I thought was best (seen below on the left).

Feeling satisfied with my choice, I started to walk to the target area, which took about 5 minutes, probably less.
Arriving at the edge of the target area I turned off the main path onto a small track, walked another 10 metres and spotted some movement in a scrubby patch 15 metres away, a brownish and long-tailed bird, surely a Field Sparrow.
I waited patiently and calm (as I always do in situations like these, like any other birder) for about 20 seconds until the Field Sparrow reappeared: dark brown above and heavily barred in parts, paler brown below, whitish supercilium, slender and slightly down curved bill, very long tail with small white tips.

I was left with three choices regarding its identity:

a) the most aberrant Field Sparrow of all time
b) a hybrid between a House Wren and a Gnatcatcher
c) a typical Bewick's Wren

Call me a stringer, but I opted for Bewick's Wren, two of them to be more precise, an adult feeding/attending to a young bird.

This felt good.

It felt very good.

Actually, extremely good.

Here are a few pictures, taken at a considerable distance and heavily cropped, so they are really bad, but they might allow those in favour of a House Wren X Gnatcatcher hybrid to summon more arguments for their case.

And then something remarkable happened. As I was approaching the birds to get better pictures, my camera switched off. I had been so busy birding lately that I had forgotten to recharge the batteries, and right there, in front of the Bewick's Wrens, the batteries were goners.
Now, you might think this upset me, or the fact that I had a Red-eyed vireo perched at eye-level 3 metres besides me for prolongued periods on my way back to the car, but I was actually somewhat happy:
This - the Wren - was a species I had searched for so intensively, wanted to see so badly and felt so happy to see that I really didn't mind not being distracted by trying to get the perfect picture.
Instead, I went for the perfect observation and just looked at it, soaking it in.

What a fabulous bird!

Monday 27 August 2007

A New Room With A New View

The Bell Tower Birder has moved.
Not to Germany, at least not yet, but to a hotel on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.
Those who may care to wonder may wonder how that came to happen. Well, it has something to do with fulfilling lease agreements, redeeming a deposit and all of that crappy uninteresting stuff you don't really want to know. At least I didn't want to know but I had to as it all pertained to my own fate, so I do know now or at least have a rough overview of the situation, but it is too complex to explain here, so I just toss it to you like this: me and my lovely other half moved to a hotel on the outskirts of Ann Arbor where we'll be residing until our return to Germany in a bit less than three weeks.

Oh lovely.

Well, it is not so bad. Here's a picture of my new work space.

I do miss the big panorama windows we had at our downtown flat, but in front of the window, invisible to you due to my inability to take proper photos, is actually a bit of grass and I can see three trees, none of which are native I guess but they are better than the Maynard Parking Structure. The hotel is right next to an Interstate, so even though the "rocky gorge" impression of downtown is gone, the background noise is reminiscent enough of a waterfall to still make me think once in a while I am residing close to Victoria Falls.

As this is an Extended Stay Hotel and we are here over an extended period of time, our room gets cleaned by hotel staff once a week. We got to choose which day we want that to happen and chose Monday, quite randomly I confess. So there I was this morning happily writing on my reports when the room cleaning staff knocked on the door and I had to vanish for about an hour. This was necessary so the lady was able to clean the room properly and check our belongings for things worth gossiping about.

What does a birder do with an hour's time to spare?
Well, go birding I guess and so I took off to do just that.
And I must say, this wasn't so bad after all. I surely found again that not all the places in North America are like Point Pelee, but hey, I am going back soon, so any North American bird species is worth a good look.

This is our hotel with a nice pond in front of it, the highway is behind the line of trees on the left.

The first hotel bird was a European Starling, surely to get me in the right mood for my return to Germany, but native species were soon to follow - not after the second species was logged though: House Sparrow.
Walking around the little pond, I was pleased to see 2 Green Herons, depicted below.

I also flushed - darn, I hate to flush birds, makes me feel like the unwelcome intruder I am - a Great Blue Heron on the same pond and had a fly-over Great Egret.

This isn't really bad at all.

Other species were also present, like Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Common Grackles, Song Sparrows, House Finches and Mourning Doves, but none posed as obligingly as these two American Goldfinches.

Lovely birds, right?

The second pond held the star bird of the day, a species I haven't seen more than - say - 10 times during my year in Ann Arbor, a Belted Kingfisher.

I know this is a crappy shot, but then again, I presume you haven't come here to view excellent pictures anyway, so take it for what it is: a ... well ... picture, alright?

Turning away from the ponds, we can see this:

The parking lot of a Shopping Mall, in other words:

Globally important Ring-billed Gull habitat.

The problem was apparently that Ann Arbor has done so much to improve the status of Ring-billed Gulls by building a multitude of Malls that the birds are constantly scattered over vast expanses of habitat. I therefore was only able to find 2, one of which can be seen below.

I'd love to present my hotel list now, which I am sure stands at 20 species after just 1 hour of birding the surrounding, but my bird guide is somewhere I can't find it now, buried deeply in the vaults that are my half-packed luggage, so I can't. But take my word for it:

I may be away from the Bell Tower, but that won't stop the birding!

Monday 20 August 2007

Bad timing...

Very bad timing, indeed.

I will be going back to the German Baltic Sea coast, namely the area around the cities of Stralsund and Greifswald, in about 3 weeks.

It's a good time to return there with the onset of the fall migration of geese and cranes. August however, which is now, is a truly miraculous month there - just like about everywhere else in the northern hemisphere - for watching the migration of shorebirds (or waders, if you prefer, a subject on which I am rather indifferent, although the German expression translates to "waders" as well).

Anyway, today I received an email through our local Baltic Coast birders forum about a Grey-tailed Tattler that was observed in my Baltic home patch north of Greifswald, the salt marshes of Karrendorf.

Well, not only would this have been a lifer for me.
It is also a first for Germany, and that doesn't happen all that often anymore.
And it is a species so rare even in a European context that I got an email from a friend from the UK inquiring about it as it was on their pagers as well.

Aaaand ... it is grey and cold outside, raining rats and hogs and I am stuck in front of my computer covered up to my neck in work.

You just have to agree: something here didn't work out the way it should have, something along the string of time went awfully wrong!

Tagged Again...

David over at Search and Serendipity has tagged me with a bird blog meme started by Cogresha from Earth House Hold.

7 nice and easy questions, and at the end I get to tag others, fair enough!

1. What is the coolest bird you have seen from your home?
Sounds like a simple question once I have established where my home is! And that might indeed be somewhat of a difficulty... And even if I reach a conclusive opinion on this first sub-question, it might be difficult for me in particular to define which bird species was "coolest". As Laurent pointed out to me recently while we were birding, I always start with "Now that's a very cool bird..." whenever he asks me a question about a bird species, no matter which one.

So it is not so simple after all.

I therefore will answer this question for my two most recent homes:

In Stralsund, Germany, where I have lived for the last 5 years before moving to Michigan and will go back to in a matter of a few weeks, this is probably the Caspian Tern. We lived right next to one of the ponds surrounding the inner city and these ponds regularly attract Caspian Terns during late summer/early fall. Yeah, that's a neat bird to see from your living room. Common Swifts or Barn Swallows are cool birds too, but are seen on a regular basis in settlements all across Germany and everyone can see them from their homes, but a Caspian Tern, that's cool.

Here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I have lived for the last 10 months, I would say the coolest bird species I have seen is the Turkey Vulture. There were other candidates, like Red-shouldered Hawk or the Peregrines nesting (without success, yet) nearby, but this is not about the most unusual or rare bird you've seen, it is about the coolest. And frankly, I think TV's are just particularly cool birds.

2. If you compose lists of bird species seen, what is your favourite list and why?
Just like David, I only really keep a life list and I haven't even updated that one lately. I suppose if you grew up in a region of Europe where international borders are merely an old road sign that's easy to miss as you drive by and where your "home patch" extends over parts of Germany and France, regional lists don't make that much sense so you just never get started on one. So, the answer to the first part of the question (which list) is clear: my only list, the life list.
And why?
Well, because it's my only list, but that's too flat for an answer.
Maybe I can twist that question a bit by asking myself why I keep a life list?
I think because I have always been a collector even as a kid before I seriously started to bird. My style of collecting however was always that I wanted to have everything - in the sense of a complete set - of what I was collecting instead of having as much as possible. And this is also the case when it comes to my life list: with the ultimate goal being to see every species in the world and knowing I have only a limited amount of birding trips to achieve this, limited by financial constrains as well as a general lack of immortality, I try to see every bird species in a certain region first before moving on to the next. To give you an example: traveling along the East Coast of North America would possibly lead to "only" around 50 lifers in comparison to very well over 150 if I went to the West Coast. But as I have already been birding in the North-East, I'd rather first "finish off" here by going for the fewer lifers than traveling somewhere completely different. That's my way of working on my life list and why I like it.

3. What sparked your interest in birds?
That's difficult. I'd say I went through the normal, average evolutionary process of being interested in animals as a kid (as far back as I can remember, through the inspiration of my parents), then getting interested in the birds at the feeders we had outside our kitchen window or at our grandparent's home and finally moving on to the colourful ducks along the river Rhine. However, the one thing that probably pushed me onto the path of what one could call "serious birding" was a holiday to Southern France when I was 10 years old with a bunch of other young bird enthusiasts on a tour organized by the German "Society for the Protection of Birds" (then DBV, now NABU).

4. If you could only bird in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?
Ha, easy: planet Earth! Why? Because I don't have access to other planets that I know hold birds.
Okay, that was a stupid answer, here's the real one:
I don't know.

Two spots come to mind, possibly three.

Steward Island off New Zealand just blew my mind completely, one of the most amazing landscapes and exciting birding areas one can imagine. But then again, for the rest of my life? New Zealand is wonderful, but bird diversity in rather limited, so I can imagine even Steward Island might not be fit to surprise me anymore after 30 or 40 years of birding only there, so that's the "possibly three".

Now, the two spots that come to mind:

First up, the surroundings of Lake Erie, with Crane Creek in Ohio, Point Mouillee and Lake Erie Metropark in Michigan and Point Pelee and Rondeau in Ontario. This is an area that would still be exciting after decades of constant birding as there is so much migration going on, the warblers in spring, waterbirds, raptors at Lake Erie Metro Park in fall,... so the only predictable thing to birding in this particular area is that it is completely unpredictable each day you venture out to seek birds.

But then again, the surroundings of Greifswald on the German Baltic Sea coast is mind-blowing as well. After all, this is an area where you can easily see 260 to 270 species a year within a 7 km (5 miles) radius around the town, you don't even need a car. And it's good birds as well, with 10's of 1,000's of geese, all sorts of raptor species, passerines abound and it is not so very unusual to see somewhere between 26 and 28 species of shorebirds a day in an area no larger than a square kilometre. That would also be a very nice spot to be trapped in, and even though I am sad to leave North America soon, I am also looking forward to being back at the Baltic again.

5. Do you have a jinx bird? What is it and why is it jinxed?
I don't really have one particular jinx bird at the moment. I do have difficulties actually seeing owls and rails and these two groups are mostly on my life list as "heard only"s, which is rather unpleasant. In Germany/Europe, I'd say Lesser White-fronted Goose is a bird that seems to be jinxed as it occurs in extremely low numbers but apparently regularly in fall amongst the 100,000s of Greater White-fronts we get along the Baltic Coast.
I once came across a very, very probable flock of around 10 birds but the air was too hazy to certainly identify such a high number of this extremely rare species, so I had to "let them go". Yes, that's one species I hope to see and if/when I do, it will be the result of more then 10 years of constant searching. And that's pretty jinxed to me.
Why is it jinxed?
Because I don't get to see it while most other birders do at some point in their birding lives. Why it doesn't like me is beyond my comprehension. I don't think I have done anything nasty to offend the species, and I try to be nice to geese in general. Go ask the goose!

6. Who is your favourite birder and why?
I don't have a favourite birder and am unlikely to ever have one as I didn't even have childhood heroes when I was a kid.
Because birders are humans and no human is perfect. I admire certain abilities of distinct birders, but I am sure that if I got to know these persons better, I'd find aspects in their way of birding I'd not be so fond of. So I don't look up to idols but I surely find inspiration in selected abilities of certain birders that exceed my abilities in this particular aspect.

7. Do you tell non-birders you are a birder? What do they say to you when they find out?
Birding in Germany is a very, very unusual hobby. Chances are that if you tell someone about it, they'll never have heard of it and be completely puzzled, not knowing what it is or how to respond. I therefore only tell others about my hobby when it is inevitable or when a conversation just happens to lead to our past time preferences. In this case I usually tell them birding is very much like hunting or fishing (which they know or have heard about) without the killing factor. If they then go on by asking me where the point is in watching something that you end up not eating, I ask them in turn what the point is of visiting a museum to look at a famous painting or traveling all the way to Paris just to stand there and look at the Eiffel Tower.
At this they usually say this was something of a different matter and a lame comparison and we change the subject of our conversation.

Okay, I am done, these were the 7 questions.
Now, to the fun part: I get to tag a few fellow bird bloggers!

I tag Larry and Wren! Go for it, I am curious!

Saturday 18 August 2007

The Heart of Darkness: the next episode of the St. Louis series

Having searched in vain for any lowland forests along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the vicinity of St. Louis, I turned my attention and the focus of my search for Fish Crows and Yellow-throated Warblers to the smaller tributaries, namely the Meramec River which harbors the wonderful Castlewood State Park on its banks.

Yet again, the Birder's Guide to the St. Louis area had been the driving force behind driving me there. Here's what caught my attention:

"Castlewood Park is a good location for seeing (...) Yellow-throated Warblers. "

And then, two sentences further on:

"This stretch of the Meramec River is also a good spot to hear and see Fish Crows."

Excellent reading, I tell you, not even Poe could have put it any better. And that is saying something when, after all, Poe's writing is so sublime it makes Shakespeare's works read like an early experimental comic series that's lacking illustrations.

Lifer No. 6: Fish Crow

Following the book's directions, I drove all the way through the park to the last parking lot, stopping only shortly en route to watch a Broad-winged Hawk soar above as you can see below.

Once there I switched off the engine, grabbed my birding gear and got ready to enter the - grasp - beautiful lowland forests, when I was immediately distracted by a goose-like call of a crow. Surely not the mature call of a grown maxima Canada Goose, but reminiscent of the puppy-like call of a White-fronted Goose. Oh come on, it just can't be that easy again, can it?
Sure bet it can, Fish Crows, and judging by the calls a small group of them right at the banks of the river.

As the parking lot was separated from the river by just a small line of trees, I decided to leave the forests for later and check out the river first, quite understandably for fellow birders reading this.

But then I encountered difficulties, distractions of the most severe kind, just before reaching the river.

First up, a gang of Carolina-chinned Black-Chickacaps for the serious birder, or Carolina Chickadees for someone who just wants to have some fun birding and doesn't give too much of a toss about hybridization zones or rather seeing those birds just a handful of miles away from such a zone.

The pictures of those - and of course I had to take some - were shown in my first chapter of the St. Louis Story and will not be repeated here, but still the crows were calling.

I had just reached the small beach section of the river and started scanning for the crows which were calling - not visible to me just yet - from a few trees right on the opposite bank when again, distraction hit me on the back of my head, and so I turned around to see this...

The Warbler.

Wait, make that: the Warbler.

Or rather: THE Warbler.

This could go on now, with adding adjectives like "ultimate", highlighting it all in colours or printing it in huge letters, but I'll just leave it at this and continue, shall I? You surely must know what I am writing about anyway:

A pristine amazing male Prothonotary Warbler, the most dangerous animal in North America, the one bird that has killed more innocent and young birders than any other, by demanding so much brain power from an observer who is trying to comprehend the sight that maintaining a regular heart beat is simply forgotten and people just drop to the ground, stone cold, stiff, and dead.

Scary, right?

Scary may be, but amazing as well.

But as dizzy and entranced as I was, I remembered there was something else, a higher goal I had come here to achieve, yes, it all came back to me now, slowly: seeing Fish Crows!

I closed my eyes just in time, re-started my pulse, turned my head, shook it a little, opened my eyes again and was back on the bank of the Meramec.

Having danced with Death and escaped as well as taken this crappy shot for future generations, I turned my full attention to the bunch of crows to finally catch a glimpse of them...

just to notice that all of a sudden, they had turned silent.

Hmmm, this was not how I had intended things to go when the crows had started calling 15 minutes earlier. Maybe I should have gone directly ... immediately ... neglecting the chickies, the Prothonotary and the Indigo Bunting (I haven't even told you about that one as there were so many everywhere, but I still looked at all of them, just like White-tailed Eagles: no matter how often you have seen them, it is impossible to turn away), ... but I got distracted again.

Where was I?

Yes, you see, even now I lose my focus on the crows!

There I stood and watched, waited, scanning for movement through the silence of the crows.

Then suddenly, a silent crow emerged from the trees and flew across the river, deep and wide, flew across the river to the other side, and then another one, silent as well, and a third crow, not uttering a sound.


Now, were those the Fish Crows that had called earlier? Or by a nasty twist of fate a bunch of ordinary American Crows that just so happened to fly along here innocently where some Fish Crows had called just minuted earlier?

We might have never known were it not for me getting a lucky photo of one of the crows in flight, and for one of the few distinguishing field marks being the wing formula.

First up, the pic from St. Louis, followed by an American Crow photographed at Ann Arbor's Arboretum in late April this year.

Comparing both wing tips, we can see that the outermost primary of the St. Louis Crow is clearly shorter and that the 5th primary (counted from the tip towards the body) of the St. Louis crow is relatively (compared to the other primaries) shorter, and that is exactly what distinguishes a Fish Crow from an American Crow, as was nicely illustrated here.

Indeed, I do not find the differences in wing formula very obvious in my flight shots, and still have some doubts that those were really Fish Crows. Maybe and by unlucky chance, those were indeed - and as I had speculated - just American Crows flying past a spot where Fish Crows had been calling earlier.
Opinions welcome.
However, I later saw 2 Fish Crows in flight that were calling diagnostically, so at least those had been my first ever Fish Crows.

Not bad, I can tell you so much: not bad at all.

But I had come for more:

Lifer No. 7: Yellow-throated Warbler

As I have mentioned earlier, my trip to St. Louis happened around my birthday. And no other bird reminds you of an advanced age as much as a Yellow-throated Warbler on the breeding grounds.
It's not that I had to venture into the Heart of Darkness, the impenetrable lowland forests of the Meramec seen below (incidentally, "The Heart of Darkness" is also a neat song by Iron Maiden, in case you didn't know...).

It's also not that the Yellow-throated Warbler is a small bird in a big tree, nope...
The problem is that the Yellow-throated Warbler is a blinking canopy dweller.

You see, when you're 16 or something, it may not bother you to walk around a forest for hours throwing your head backwards just to the point where you think your neck might snap any moment. But when you've reached an age when hair density becomes an issue, this is not something you commit to light-heartedly.
Indeed, I did feel my neck in an unpleasant way after about two hours of canopy scanning, but at least I was entertained once in a while by not-so Northern Parulas and Red-eyed Vireos, so I also knew- aside from the pleasure of seeing these birds - that generally my method for spotting canopy birds was working.
But each method has its limits, and when I eventually located two Yellow-throated Warblers, it was not by sight but by sound, as there were two males singing on both sides of the trail.

I was a happy chappy.

However, especially when it comes to wood warblers, hearing is only half the fun - at best - as I knew all too well from having only ever heard Palm and Worm-eating Warblers.
So I stood there and scanned as the day wore on. The birds were singing alright, on both sides of the trail, but far off and I wasn't even sure about the tree they were singing from, let alone the rough area of the canopy to give me a better chance of spotting them in the sea of moving leaves - it was a bit windy. Besides, the canopy level was full of magnificent and large butterflies, and as much as I appreciated them, the constant false alarm because of "a hopping warbler in the canopy" was becoming more and more of a nuisance.

Eventually, I gave up.

Yes, it is true.

I simply walked away with the birds still singing, regarding my chances of actually seeing them too slim to be anywhere near reality. Besides, they were so far off that a sight would have only meant a small moving dark dot against other moving green dots (leaves).
This was simply not the day to see and experience the beauty of the species and I knew I had to leave it for another trip to the East of North America, some other day, maybe on a Florida vacation, who knows, at a time when the leaves weren't out yet.

To say I gave up isn't quite right though. It all happened for the greater good, a higher goal as it was getting a bit late and I still had another plan, something I wanted to try before leaving St. Louis.
What that plan was however will be the next chapter of the St. Louis story.

Friday 17 August 2007

Great News!!

Brilliant news indeed!!

To celebrate the return of Cindy "WoodSong", here's a small gallery of WoodSong... I mean Woodcock pictures I took on several visits to Ohio's Crane Creek.

All the very best, Cindy!!

Saturday 11 August 2007

Test the West around St. Louis

When I depart for Germany in a few weeks, I will have spent a total of around 2 years in North America:
One year in a small town east of Toronto, Canada, as an exchange student in 1987/88 with a short trip to New York City,
4 weeks in Michigan/southern Ontario in May 2005 with a short trip to New York City and
almost one year in Michigan now with a few short trips to Northern Ohio and southern Ontario.

Two years, that's quite a mighty long time actually, but if you quickly check your map of North America, you will not fail to notice that basically all of this time has been spent in the same corner of the continent: the North-East.

It is getting quite difficult for me nowadays to still see new birds around here (about which I am not complaining) but I have noticed for quite some time now that those bird names I have on my life list are quite uniform with regard to their geographic description. Here are a few examples:

Northern Shrike
Eastern Wood-pewee
Northern Harrier
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Northern Bobwhite
Eastern Bluebird
Northern Flicker
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal

Spruce but not Sage Grouse, Cape May but not Colima Warbler.

You see what I mean?
Monotony in their names, always the same North-East-North-East-North-East...

What I think about this?

I'll give you one more bird name: Mourning Dove!

But then came the short trip to St. Louis!

No, I am NOT talking about Eurasian Tree Sparrow to break the American Robin, American Tree Sparrow, American Crow,... routine.

I am talking about this little bird here: The Western Kingbird.

Lifer No. 5: Western Kingbird
The normal range of the Western Kingbird is quite a bit to the West of St. Louis as can be seen here, but there has been a small breeding population around the city for quite some time now.
And the temptation of seeing something that bears the word "Western" in its name was too much to resist: that guy was on my most wanted list for sure!

An inquiry on the local Missouri birders forum was met with a precise description by Mike Grant, and I sincerely hope a few Sharp-billed Sandpipers will fly his way this fall:
A pair with young had been seen on the utility wires of a nearby Municipal Athletic Complex, a mere 10 minutes away from my hotel.

Well, as the title has already revealed - or rather has never helped in concealing - I drove there first thing in the morning of day three and found it.
One bird, with another one calling nearby, were found and have thus taken their place in honour and glory on my life list, the great first "Western" North American bird species to have achieved this mile stone.

Okay, it wasn't too easy as I actually had to drive around the athletic complex for five, maybe ten minutes until I found it, and it was indeed on the last stretch of utility wire, so I did feel a certain amount of anxiety until it appeared, but yet again, seeing it was pure decadency and I was starting to feel a bit guilty about not having to work hard for a lifer.
I will however get back to this particular topic later.

Looking around, it was easy to see why the Western Kingbird had chosen this particular stretch of landscape.

Couldn't this very easily be part of California's Central Valley, with a few Yellow-billed Magpies just around the corner?

It sure felt very Western to me there between the fields and the athletic complex.

And here finally are the pictures of this very magnificent creature.
I do like it when birds not only appear as I had planned them to, but when they also pose like this for a few nice pictures.
Decadence all around... and beauty.

This, again, is how not to scratch your ear if you're not a Cardinal or a Kingbird but an airline employee

Oh yeah, in the background around a few greenhouses, there was also a bunch of Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
Thought some might be interested, but I'll soon see plenty of those again.

Friday 10 August 2007

Easy at Last, another St. Louis lifer

The Bell's Vireo - one of my main "target species" or rather one of the species I had sincerely hoped to see - had been very easy once I had gotten into the right habitat. This habitat however had been just a large expanse of fallow fields with a few bushes and not the precise reason one might consider driving 8 hours for if one is not a birder but a person in their right state of mind.

Lifer No. 4: Mississippi Kite
The next day was my third day in St. Louis, my second day birding there and I had not really been on the banks of the Mississippi yet, in those surely overwhelming lowland forests of this most majestic of North American rivers, a wilderness that was even a former haunt of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, so it must still be overly impressive for sure. And you know what? Chasing after birds certainly is a nice thing to do, but some landscape elements should also be taken into account when traveling, and so I decided to head for the Mississippi valley on this second birding day.
Okay, of course I was hoping to find a few lifers there as well, like Mississippi Kite, Fish Crow and Yellow-throated Warbler. But experiencing the wild side of the Mississippi was surely going to be an immensely satisfying adventure as well.

Oh boy.

Well, you see, the Mississippi valley around St. Louis ... how shall I put it ... might indeed be more comparable to New York City's Battery Park than the Bayou deView or Cache River, if you know what I mean?
To say I was disappointed would be a bit harsh, but honestly, I was.
Anyway, after a bit of driving around and searching for anything even remotely similar to a natural landscape, I finally got to the so-called Horseshoe Lake, one of the prime birding destinations of the St. Louis Area.
A small cut-off section of the lake was drying out or rather the water was being pumped out and what was left was a huge mass of mud, puddles and dead/dying fish, bordered by reeds and cattail.
The smell itself was already an experience for itself that is not easily described, but the assembly of wading birds was truly outstanding, and I am dead serious about this: unimaginable if told, barely realizable when seen.
Here are my rough estimates:

Great Egret: 1,000 I would say is a conservative estimate
Little Blue Heron: 250
Great Blue Heron: 70
Snowy Egret: 50
Green Heron: 30
Black-crowned Night-heron: 2

Add to this around 300 Pied-billed Grebes in a tight flock and 26 American White Pelicans and the smell is barely noticeable anymore.

Oh, I see you raising an eyebrow in disbelief, surely it was the heat and the foul smell of rotting fish that hindered my realistic perception, you are thinking?

Seeing is believing, I know, so here are a few images of the scene, sadly taken against the light...

A truly and believe me very tiny fraction of the heron/egret assembly

The big dead fish and the Little Blue Herons that do have a sense of smell

Florida? Where's Florida and who needs it anyway?

Black-crowned Night-heron, not liking the heat - or was it me?

Spot the difference:

Snowy Egret

Immature Little Blue Heron

Adult Little Blue Heron, this time with a decent hair do

It had been a nice day so far, and no doubt about that, but even though seeing 250 Little Blue Herons when you've only ever seen one before was rather pleasing, it wasn't precisely like seeing a new species. And search and seren... pity-me, there was neither Fish Crow (despite all the dead fish!) nor Yellow-throated Warbler nor Mississippi Kite around.

Good thing I had been given the St. Louis guide to birding sites. So at the end of the day before I had to return to the hotel, I consulted it again and shock and awe: Mississippi Kites - it read - were frequently seen over suburban areas of St. Louis, e.g. over University City.

University City?

Not bad, as this part of town was right in between Horseshoe Lake and the hotel I was headed for.
So I turned off the highway onto one of the smaller roads leading through University City, checked the sky and after about 30 seconds was treated to this:

After a bit of a struggle at first, it had been easy again.
I like it when a plan works out.
And I particularly liked the shape of the Mississippi Kite's tail.


...he's back!

Next time, Charlie, don't try to scratch your ear the Cardinal way, please?
We couldn't bear bird blogging another 6 weeks without you!

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Belltower Birder's Birthday Bell's, the next Chapter of the St. Louis Story

As a matter of fact, and I might not have told you before but I'll tell you now as it makes for a nice introduction, the first birding day around St. Louis just so happened indeed to be your humble Belltower Birder's birthday.
Before you ask: I am frankly glad to be one year older because it makes coping with an increased resemblance to Bald Eagles (by name) much easier.

Lifer 2: Bell's Vireo
It sure was nice and highly appreciated to have a Carolina Chickadee as my first bird-thday gift, but always striving to achieve a stylish life, I wanted something else:

Your BELLtower Birder had come to St. Louis ... because his wife had to attend a meeting there if we're honest, but if we are not, just for a short moment ... only to be able to add BELL's vireo to his life list right on his birthday.
That sure sounded like a cool idea, something you can tell your grandchildren one day to make them laugh at how weired grandpa is!

I had not expected to find Bell's Vireos at Shaw Arboretum because the birder's guide to the St. Louis Area doesn't mention it as a likely species there. But this is what it said about a certain part of Weldon Spring Conservation Area [L1 in the book]: "The weedy fields are good for Loggerhead Shrike, Bell's Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, Dickcissel, and sparrows."

It does sound quite tempting, does it? Particularly so when you're only a 15 minutes drive away.

So, this is what greeted me 15 minutes later. There surely are more attractive landscapes to go birding in, but as long as these don't hold Bell's Vireos, they'll have a hard time competing...

Weldon Spring Conservation Area, more widely known as "The Place where Bell's Vireos Rock"

So I got out of the car, walked fifty metres along the gravel road, saw a Field Sparrow and then some movement in a bush, checked it out more closely and this is what I got:

Dull Brown with a hint of a white eye ring...

...two white bars on the folded wing...

... could this innocently looking...

...conspicuously inconspicuous little critter really be...

... a Bell's Vireo??

I shall very much think so, indeed and thank you very much!

This was so easy it made me laugh! Admittedly, there was no Loggerhead Shrike and I also didn't find a Blue Grosbeak there, but Dickcissels put up quite a show and actually seeing a Sedge Wren was also more of a treat this time than the nasty tricks it had played on me in 2005 at Michigan's Upper Peninsular.

A Dickcissel doing its dickcisseling

The prefect birthday present! Man, did I feel good doing my job exploiting the planet on that particular day.

Lifer 3: Northern Bobwhite
This one will be rather short: as if the place described above, with Bell's Vireos (8 in total), Sedge Wrens, Dickcissels and a whole lot of other neat birds like Orchard Orioles, Hummingbirds and Purple Martins hadn't already revealed itself to me as a fabulous birding destination, there was more to come.
On my way back to the car, and while it was getting late in the afternoon, I was brought to a full stop by a distinct call, best describes as "Bob-white", "Bob-white".
Some birds really make identifying them easy.

Identifying maybe, but catching a glimpse?

Well, that finally was too much even for such a neat area, and I never managed to see the Bobwhites themselves (there were actually 2 calling) as they were calling away from the gravel path in an extensive field with a few scattered trees and bushes.

Not complaining though, just something else to pursue next time...