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My Life’s Birds: #111-115

August 6, 2008
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December 18, 1993 – Springfield, Mo – An important moment in every new birder’s career is that first Christmas Bird Count. That moment when the casual birding you’ve done in the past is thrown aside for an all-out assault on your personal sliver of the 15 mile radius count circle. With our recent inclusion on the activities of the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society, my dad and I were not prepared to involve ourselves in one of the oldest CBCs in Missouri, that which is centered in Springfield, Missouri.

The Springfield count is an excellent one, incorporating most of Greene County, including three reservoirs and hundreds of miles of backroads through the rolling farmland of the Ozarks plateau. We didn’t know what we were getting into when we were asked which count area we would like to get help take on. Would we choose mucking around the marshes of Lake Springfield with Becky Matthews? The sparrow filled fields west of town with Dave Blevins? The Rogersville pastures sure to be full of duck filled karst ponds? All were inviting, and were sure to be staffed by excellent birders from whom we would certainly learn much and share an excellent day in the field. But there was one underbirded area that called us. North of town, surrounding the largest reservoir in the area, Fellow’s Lake. In retrospect, it was a no-brainer.

Little did we know we would spend the day with a dream team of sorts. A stacked roster of excellent birders from which we would build the team that would hold an iron grip on the Fellow’s Lake area for years to come, to the chagrin of some GOAS members even. The motley crew?

  • Our leader, Dave Catlin, director of the Springfield Conservation Nature Center and a top birder besides. He now works for Audubon National helping set up other nature centers across the US.
  • His wife, Anne, keeper of records and bringer of snacks.
  • Charley Burwick, recently of Virginia retired to Springfield, and an avid birder. He’s now the President of Audubon Missouri.
  • Bo Brown, the very definition of a bird hippy. Bo’s a professional musician and travels around the country doing bird projects in his off time, and is one to play a gig till 3 in the morning and get up 2 hours later to go owling. As such he’s one of the best birders and guitar pickers I’ve ever been around.
  • And last but not least, my dad and I, two rookies whose enthusiasm outstripped our skill by a fairly wide margin.

We met up on the shores of Fellow’s Lake at 6:30 am after some lackluster owling to get the real birding started. As the sun rose over the water, burning off the fog, we began to see why this lake was an important first stop. Scopes came out and spotted flocks of Canada Geese on the opposite shore, but mixed in where several little Common Goldeneye, a bird I rarely see anymore in the southeast. Cormorants were easy to find once the light increased enough to scope the entire lake, and as the temperature rose to just below freezing, we split into groups to kick up sparrows, following well worn paths around the park surrounding the lake.

Mid-morning, once we’d covered the area around the lake, we split into three groups to criss-cross our area by car. My dad and I were together, and our lack of experience ran head long into reality right off the bat, when we sat flummoxed by a raptor on a fence post just minutes after leaving the group. It was an immature Accipiter, among the tricksiest of birds, who fortunately gave a fairly good look as we poured through books to find it’s identity. Looking back, it was a fairly obvious call for Cooper’s Hawk, being especially large and flat-headed in my memory. The hitch was that Coop was a documentable bird (keep in mind this was 15 years ago) and for us novices, that was something that was a little intimidating. So we wrote it up for the state, and lo and behold, it was accepted. Turns out Coop has increased its winter population in the state such that it no longer requires documentation, but it was the first state record that either of us had our name on.

Closer to noon our little group met up again, this time at Valley Water Mill, a Greene County park containing an old mill pond, and another hot spot in our area. We’d compare notes on good birds we’d seen (in our case getting confirmation and congratulations for our Cooper’s Hawk) and prepared to split up into two groups again to walk the trails and bushwhack a bit up a stream bed. My dad and I split up and I got the upland route this time. And lucky I did, as it was the hottest spot for lifers of the day. Once we got a clean view of the pond we saw flocks of dabblers, including little Green-winged Teal, but also the requisite crew of Mallards, Gadwalls, and a few stray coots and grebes. The fields along the sides of the pond were filled with sparrows, and once we got to the woods we also picked up a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a fantastically obliging immature Sharp-shinned Hawk, further confirming the Coop call we’d had earlier. The other group came back with Creepers and a Barred Owl, two excellent pickups for our CBC, and we took of for lunch and a mid-day tally.

The rest of the day was less exciting, as CBC afternoons tend to be. We didn’t see any new birds, but staked out feeders and fallow fields filled our day list with sparrows and blackbirds a-plenty. When the whole gang sped down to cover the Springfield Nature Center before sundown we had time to pick up a long overdue Belted Kingfisher, before tallying up the final list and heading to the post-count potluck where birders from all over the town would enjoy each others company, brag about our days, and put together the final list. Without a doubt, it’s a cherished tradition of so many counts across the world, and rightly so. If I wasn’t hooked on birding before then, I certainly was now, surrounded by a room of those willing to pass on knowledge to me, the youngest person in the room and a sponge for their combined experience.

I can’t begin to stress the importance of my time in the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society as a catalyst for my birding life. The things I learned there are irreplaceable, and the enthusiastic way the leadership of that organization took to me as a young birder is something I wish every young birder can experience in their formative years. My first CBC is a shining example, and a wonderful memory of just that.

photos from wikipedia

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