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My Life’s Birds: #362

December 23, 2009
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March 30, 1995 – Greene Co, Mo – Of all the places my dad and I regularly covered in southwest Missouri, one of our favorites was the expanse of farmland near Rogersville known as Palmetto.  When one thinks of the Ozarks, one rightly imagines old limestone bluffs and clear springs and streams, and for the most part you’d be right.  But the area around Springfield sits on a large plateau about 100 feet higher than the hills and hollows to the south as they lead to the the rugged Boston Mountains in Arkansas.  The plateau is pock-marked with karst features like sinkholes and losing streams.  They don’t call Missouri “The Cave State” for nothing, and it’s hard to grow up in the area without doing your fair share of spelunking, even if it’s limited to those caves that are primarily tourist attractions.

How does all this apply to birds?  Well, when the heavy rains would come, especially in spring or fall, the sinkholes, which up to this point had been functionally invisible, would fill up with water.  What before had been a unimpressive field suddenly became a shallow grassy marsh, a veritable neon-lighted waystation for migrating shorebirds.  So the day after a good storm, we’d head out to Palmetto to drive the county roads that criss-crossed the area, stopping regularly to scan for shorebirds of all stripes.  The regulars would include The Tringa trio and good numbers of Pectorals, Semipalms, and Leasts with the occasional Western thrown in for good measure.  It was a great place to learn to compare what are pretty difficult species to identify and the odd surprise kept things exciting.  This particular afternoon the show-stopper was a flight of American Golden-Plovers, 20 or so of them congregating in the grazed short section of a cattle paddock along with a handful of Killdeer.  Some were full-on stunners with coal black bellies and sun-dappled backs, but most were some amalgamation of winter and summer, a patchwork plumage appropriate for the late days of a March not quite out of winter’s grip.

The possibility of something like the Golden Plovers, or any other interesting shorebirds, was the reason we kept coming out to Palmetto.  For a region of mostly forested river valleys, a productive grassland ecosystem can be a nice alternative, if it allows for these spring surprises.

photo from wikipedia

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