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My Life’s Birds: #438-440

October 27, 2010
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December 26, 2007 – Bois D’Arc Conservation Area and Dade Co, Mo When I was a kid birder back in Missouri, I thought my dad and I had hit most of the hotspots and wrung all the specialty birds out of our little corner of the state.  It was a silly thought, birds always surprise you, and even though the immediate Springfield area was relatively well-covered the surrounding rural counties, especially to the west out towards Kansas, were less explored.  This all started to change after I left the area, and subsequent trips to the flatlands near the border turned up such goodies as Prairie Falcon and Longspurs and open country birds of the sorts that rarely if ever make their way to the dizzying heights and alpine vistas of of the Springfield plateau.  This was the hot new winter birding site among the birders I’d grown up with, and my dad was often singing the praises of this new suite of birds that he was turning up with regularity.  Birds that would have been lifers for me.  So when I returned for a few days for the winter holidays, there was one place I had to get to, so my dad rounded up some friends and we headed out to Bois D’Arc CA just west of Springfield.

The reason we called up a couple extra people was because the bird we were looking for required a crowd.  Bois D’Arc CA is a vast grassland within which hides a tiny bird, a little orangey sparrow of a genus not well known to make itself known without work.  You have to spread out and walk through the grasslands until you flush your weak-flying quarry out of the grass.  Then you chase it and circle round it until it pops up on a grass stalk for extended views.  it took us a little time, but eventually the Le Conte’s Sparrow flew into a stand of sumac where it sat for a while before disappearing.  Nearly to a bird, the Ammodramus genus is subtly beautiful in oranges and deep streaks, but the Le Conte’s is a particularly nice species, and to this day one of my very favorite sparrows.

The Sparrow target fixed, my dad and I said good bye to our friends and headed deeper into the edges of the prairie (note: do prairies have an equivalent of foothills?), cutting down backroads past cattle feed lots that slowly turned into the fallow fields or the great agricultural belt.  We were ostensibly searching for Lapland Longspurs in the gravel road edges.  A farm pond covered with Canada Geese flashed into view on our left and something about the mix of birds caused me to make the loud case to pull the car over.  A quick scan turned up a flock of mostly Canadas and Mallards but a few tiny Cackling Geese mixed in, looking like the bastard spawn of the two, all the markings of the Canadas but rivaling the Mallards for size.  The car pulled over, I stepped out to get my scope out of the trunk for a better look maybe some photos and inadvertently put the entire flock up in the air.  The Cacklers quickly disappeared in the swirling mass of their larger co-geners as the birds headed over the horizon to search for a farm pond less apt to draw attention from sketchy bipeds.

For a good part of the afternoon we drove up and down the farm roads near the little town of Lockwood looking unsuccessfully for Longspurs.  With no snow on the ground the little birds can be maddening to find in acres upon acres of coal black western Missouri topsoil.  Other birds made up for it, however, flocks of Horned Larks caused us to stop and scan several times for the northern finches to no avail.  A big flock of blackbirds was a little more exciting though, as careful scrutiny turned several birds on the margins of the teeming mass of Redwings and Cowbirds into Brewer’s Blackbirds, a common winter resident in this part of the country but one I’d never taken the time to parse out.  It was fortunate, then, that it worked out that I didn’t see them until I was able to rightly savor them.

New birds at the old home.  Now that’s a winning combination.

LECSPA from wikipedia
CACGOO by docentjoyce via flickr (CC BY-2.0)

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16 Comments
  1. October 27, 2010 7:37 am

    If Springfield, Missouri is anything like Springfield, Illinois, the “dizzying heights and alpine vistas” must be quite the sight. Clearly North America still has a relative abundance of natural habitat. The method you describe for seeing a LeConte’s would probably get you fined or in otherwise deep trouble if applied to a bird in a German grassland.
    I saw a LeConte’s for two seconds at Point Pelee (in a setting quite comparable to your description of chasing and encircling) and agree that this is a sparrow of particular beauty. Ammodramus rules.

  2. October 27, 2010 9:03 am

    Nice! Really want to see a LeConte!!!

  3. Nate permalink*
    October 27, 2010 10:37 am

    @Jochen- Indeed. By alpine vistas I mean the Ozark Mountains, which as the oldest mountain range on the continent, have been worn down to the point of mere mountain nubs. But in their day, about 70 million years ago, they were magnificent.

    Bois D’Arc is a Conservation Area owned by the state, so would the issue with a similar spot in Germany be because it would be private property? We’re certainly lucky in North America to that end, that for all the problems with development and habitat degradation we do still have a good amount of natural habitat.

    @Ali- Well, I know where you can find one. Unfortunately it’s 15oo miles away.

  4. October 27, 2010 10:48 am

    Nate, darn – I was born a few years too late to fully appreciate the Ozarks in all their splendour.
    The trouble would be that walking through grasslands will crush protected plants and potentially harm the ecosystem, and viewing a bird by flushing it is generally regarded as being unethical, which makes sense in a very densely populated country like Germany where birds will struggle to find roosting areas without frequently being disturbed by some form of human activity. It is also probably against our nature conservation laws, although the law states that “significant disturbance” is prohibited, so there’s a certain room for arguments…

  5. Nate permalink*
    October 27, 2010 11:02 am

    @Jochen- Ah, I see. I do have to say that, at the time, the practice of flushing and chasing struck me as inappropriate. It still does to a great extent, even though I repeated the practice for the Connecticut Warbler I saw recently. For this particular bird, I remember the bird got away from us several times (4 people isn’t quite enough to encircle it properly) requiring more chases than might have been necessary had we had a couple more people. I realize that’s just a matter of degree, though, and I may be attempting to justify the unjustifiable. I do know I was glad once it was all over.

    I’ve inadvertently flushed Rails and Sharp-tailed Sparrows since, but felt better about it as the chasing portion was eliminated.

    As for rare plants, that’s thankfully not a problem at Bois D’arc, infested as it is with many non-native plants. Also, it’s managed mostly for quail hunters, who tromp through the grass with impunity to flush Bobwhite.

    The protected

  6. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 27, 2010 11:09 am

    LeConte’s and Cackling are both birds I sorely wish to see. Sweet life birds dude!

  7. October 27, 2010 12:17 pm

    Cool descripton of getting a trio of lifers in one day, especially the LeContes. I got my lifer using the same methodology in central Illinois where an annual trip to a sedgy field sometimes turns up Yellow Rail. I missed the rail (still need it and am not sure when I will have a chance at it because they dont flutter their way down to Costa Rica) but got that sweet little LeContes! Although we flushed birds, I dont think that briefly disturbing them did them any harm.

  8. October 28, 2010 3:08 am

    @Nate & Pat: Yes, agreed that flushing – althoug never a very “friendly” way of birding – is not always unethical.

    I guess we all try to do it as little as possible, after all a flushed bird will usually fly away and not afford us satisfactory views. In a vast grasslands where there are likely many LeConte’s and birders will only show up every other day, with the likelyhood of them searching the same lot over and over again and thus flushing always the same bird being minimal, flushing surely is okay. The bird that’s being flushed won’t like it, but it will get enough undisturbed time afterwards. In the case of the CT warbler: well, it was free to leave any time as it was not trapped in that certain area like e.g. on an off-shore island. The fact that it remained despite the frequent “encirclements” showed that other factors of the location (food?) outweighed the disturbance.
    So I guess ethical aspects of flushing have to be seen case-specifically, which is always a good (yeah, easy) answer to ethical dilemmas.

  9. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 28, 2010 11:50 am

    Jochen – While I agree flushing is not always bad, it’s almost appalling to see what it’s done to the Falls Lake area where the Connecticut Warbler was hanging out. So much of the sedge there has been trampled by tens of birders looking for the bird. It didn’t seem so bad at the time (and I admit, I did my fair share of flushing), but now that the bird is gone the destruction of that sedge microhabitat is quite apparent. Perhaps there’s some kind of environmental parable in there? I don’t know, but I do hope the sedge grows back, even if it takes until this time next year. To have permanently destroyed the microhabitat would be a damn shame.

    • October 29, 2010 3:52 am

      Robert – that’s of course an entirely different story and something I would brand as “unethical”, although it is difficult to draw a precise line: was it acceptable to trample 1% of the sedges, 5%, or 20% to get birders to see the CT?
      In this case, the birders themselves should have assessed the amount of trampling and the network of paths formed, and at some point just stuck to the paths that were already there instead of trampling more vegetation – voluntarily.
      The problem was probably that the degradation was a gradual process and each visiting birder only witnessed or participated in a fraction of the overall destruction. In Germany, we call a process like this “salami tactics” as the habitat (or in other contexts democratic freedom, financial funds, food, ressources, whatever) gets “consumed”/destroyed slice by slice and each slice by itself is deemed insignificant:
      The first birders surely thought that the pristine habitat was so extensive that a small path won’t hurt. The next birding party noticed the path and rationalized that another one was still okay, etc. Eventually you have a complete shift in reasoning: a birding party will arrive at the scene and notice that the habitat has already been destroyed so much that a bit of more destruction won’t make much of a difference anyway.
      This way, each and every birder has a perfect excuse why their own small bit of destruction was “ethical” or “acceptable” because each birder only saw a small fraction of the general picture.
      A possible solution is that local birders who live nearby, visit the CT site frequently during the bird’s stay and know how the sedges initially looked like can put up signs at a site of a rarity reading: “To avoid further degradation, stick to the paths already formed”, but even then we’d have to entirely rely on each birder’s feeling of responsibility.

  10. October 29, 2010 8:23 am

    If my memory is correct, the Leconte’s does not sing that much during migration, so , my comment might not apply to this bird, but in general, I think that the fact that some birders “needs” to get a view of a bird to tick it from their life list might, in some case, not be in the best interest of the bird itself.

    I have myself very mediocre ambition in term of listing, but I am taking pride in ticking birds that are heard only. An henslows sparrow or a yellow rail that is heard only is a safe, undisturbed, bird. And an audio recording is just as good (if not better) proof as a picture that the bird was there.

    • October 29, 2010 8:38 am

      As far as I know, this was one of the driving factors behind the ABA’s decision to “allow” heard-only’s on a competitive birder’s list.

      If you really want to see a rail, all you need is 2 people and a long, long metal chain that you drag over the vegetation. If you don’t want this to happen, allow those birders to “count” their rails as heard-only’s.

  11. Nate permalink*
    October 29, 2010 8:41 am

    @Robert, Jochen, etc – While the stomped down sedges certainly look dramatic, I’m less concerned about the long term effect on the micro habitat than I was about the welfare of the bird. The Sedges are the first things to grow up when the water recedes and are subject to being swamped after a big rain. They tend to grow really fast because of that so while they might be down for the count for the season, they’ll be back with a vengeance.

    • October 29, 2010 12:28 pm

      When I read in your post on the Big Blog that the bird stayed for almost two weeks, I thought this might have been caused by the bird not being able to spend its normal amount of time per day feeding compared to “untwitched” warblers.

      • Nate permalink*
        October 29, 2010 12:44 pm

        Yeah, that may have been the case. I don’t know. Certainly the last weekend it was around saw birders coming very very regularly.

        That said, there was plenty of good habitat, including the sedge groves it preferred, not more than 100 meter away from where the bird was consistently found. Its site fidelity was truly remarkable. And many people noted that they saw it feeding on caterpillars regularly, so I don’t know. It certainly had the means to adjust its habits if it needed to.

        It was an odd situation in many ways.

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