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.


Anonymous said...

Fish Crow and Prothonotary Warbler both would be lifers for me! WOW looks like you had an excellent time! Great report!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great day...and I got my life Protho within 10 minutes of my life Hooded Warbler, and, let me tell you, it almost killed me. Those warblers ARE dangerous and should come with a warning label or something.

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting to read your perspective on the birds I know a love so well. Thanks much for all the detailed accounts.

Now as for the crows, I'm afraid I don't have any encouragement to offer -- the opposite in fact.

As you may already be aware, juvenile American Crows have nasal begging calls that sound completely different from the calls of adult birds. They can easily be confused with the calls of Fish Crows if you aren't expecting it, or even if you are. Maybe you know this and had already eliminated the possibility, but I didn't see that mentioned in your post.

I've read about the difference in flight feathers, but your bird is obviously in molt, and I personally would not find it possible to analyze the proportions of flight feathers when some are showing significant wear and other are growing in. Perhaps it's possible for someone who knows more about molt timing and sequence in the two species, but I sure don't.

So I'm firmly in the agnostic camp on this one.

Rurality said...

Nice post! "Heart of Darkness" is also a nice song by John Wesley Harding. Who is nothing at all like Iron Maiden.

You should take a trip to Dauphin Island (Alabama) in the spring. If you see a crow there, it's definitely a Fish Crow!

I've been told that before - about the begging call of the AC sounding like the regular FC call. I'm not an expert on AC begging calls but from the clips I've heard they really don't sound that much alike! Maybe the clips are just bad though.

I've had the same experience with Yellow-throated warblers... the later in the season, the worse luck I have at seeing them. (They like to taunt you, did you notice?)

Jochen said...

Hi Mon@rch!
You have not seen Prothonotary Warbler yet? This bird is truly worth a birding trip somewhere to its breeding grounds! Just pay Rondeau Provincial Park in Ontario a short visit on your way to Pelee (and then Crane Creek) in May, a short tour of the great lakes, and you'll lose your grip on reality seeing it!

Corey, it was a fabulous day, the same day I had the Western Kingbird (and Eurasian Tree Sparrows) earlier and yet another special bird later, about which I'll report soon. Glad you agree about the warblers. They should at least put up warning signs at the entrances of parks. I mean for goodness' sake, there were playing children there!

Hi David!
I am so glad you enjoy my posts! I still have two more and then a few other post with pictures taken around St. Louis! I just don't have the time...

About the Crows, I am aware of the calls of American Crows. The easy thing about those crows was that I heard them from my car, so I immediately played the Stokes' bird CD and was able to directly compare the calls. Even though the young American Crows sound a bit similar, it was rather clearly Fish Crow. Besides, I never even once heard the classic Am. Crow call during the whole observation which lasted - as I mentioned - 15 minutes.
About the flight shots. Yes, the Crow is in a rather heavy molt, but judging by the relative length of the primaries and the even change in length, my impression is the only the innermost few primaries are moulted and that a comparison amongst the outermost is still possible. However, establishing the wing formula on a bird with "fingers" in flight is rather difficult as the "fingers" tend to bend upwards during the downstroke of the wing, making them appear shorter when seen from the side.
Looking at the picture from Missouri, the wing formula seems not pointed enough for a classic Fish but too pointed for an American. So I am also not entirely satisfied with calling this silent crow a Fish.
But as I said, luckily 2 calling Fish Crows flew by while I was waiting/hoping for the Yellow-throated Warbler to make an appearance...

Hi Rurality!
I surely wouldn't mind paying Alabama a visit for a multitude of reasons, but of course the time of the year would be entirely focussed on the best chances of seeing a Yellow-throated Warbler. And some more Fish Crows. And now I have to go and look up John Wesley Harding on the internet...
I hope it cools off at your place down south. It is very miserable and cold here in Michigan now, I even had to exchange my shorts for some pants!

Rurality said...

Dauphin Island! In the spring! I think the only eastern warblers that I have NOT seen there are Kirtland's, Connecticut, and Mourning. Of course you will not be guaranteed to see them all at any given time... and I'm not sure of the state of the island post-Katrina. We don't get to go on long-distance birding trips much anymore, since we got all these animals. I haven't been to D.I. in several years. But it's a great place for spring migration. And a much friendlier environment than the Texas locations. I found those to be nothing but "no trespassing" signs!