Archive for the ‘Conservation Areas’ Category

Apple Creek Conservation Area and Citizen Science

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

I’ve been in the Audubon Society of Missouri for several years now, and ASM has an arrangement with the Missouri Department of Conservation called “CACHE”, for Conservation Area Checklists.   I’ve mentioned this before in this blog — MDC contributes some money annual to the ASM, and ASM agrees to encourage its members to bird MDC Conservation Areas and record the information in eBird.  While the MDC is happy to get data on any of the Conservation Areas, each year they select a few to promote as “target areas”, and ASM pushes especially hard on those.  This fiscal year (starting with July, that is), one of the target areas is Apple Creek Conservation Area, only a few miles from my house.    This is so satisfying for me; I’m not just out wasting time in the woods — I’m doing Citizen Science!

The only problem is that the Mississippi has been at flood stage or above since late March or so.   This means that Apple Creek is unable to drain, and backs up to whatever the river level is.  On March 26 Diane Bricmont and I drove down toward the boat ramp at Apple Creek and found that the road was under water.  In May, I took my kayak, and was able to follow the trail west from the boat ramp by paddling over the top of the gate on the service road.  So birding much of Apple Creek is sort of challenging.  Nevertheless, my friend Mark pointed out that the bar chart for Apple Creek in eBird is really skimpy for the third week of July — there wasn’t even a Red-bellied Woodpecker reported — so yesterday I headed down to see what I could do.

I could have taken the kayak, but I just wasn’t feeling up to that, so I figured I’d do what I could on land.  When I drove down the boat ramp road, sure enough, it was under water a short way past the campground.
Road to the boat ramp at Applc Creek

The trail to the west — look to the left in that photo — would have been walkable for someone with chest waders, maybe.  I birded around the campground, and walked a trail to the east that leads up a hill into the woods.  Then I figured I’d get to the west trail by another route.  I drove back up highway CC to a little parking area, and walked in the service road from there.  This road leads down to the a part of the trail that is on higher ground, at least briefly, and i was able to do a little birding there.  To the west, the trail went back under water where a small creek crosses.  I was going to turn back, but then I realized that it might be possible to cross a field, go in the woods, and get around the flooded bit.  Which I did.

From there, I was able to walk another mile back to what would usually be some shallow ponds.  Right now it’s all part of Apple Creek, and I found several wading birds, all of whom were probably wondering just how far off the beaten track you have to go to avoid these damn birders.  

Flooding at Apple Creek
Little Blue Heron

 

Little Blue Heron in the middle of its molt from immature (white) to mature (blue) plumage.

 

 

Snowy Egret

 

Snowy Egret.

I walked all the way out to the edge of the river, and by then I was hot and thirsty, and had a long walk ahead back to the car.  A little over two miles, in fact, with about 250 feet elevation gain in the process.  When I got back, I was definitely ready to head home, but I’d recorded 48 species of birds.  So tempting to just try to find two more.  I stopped at the turnoff to the shooting range, usually good for a few species, and found that House Sparrows have taken up residence in a culvert, using old Cliff Swallow nests.  49.  I’d had it, and got back in the car.  Just up the road on highway CC, I saw a bird on the wire, and stopped to look — damned if it wasn’t a Purple Martin.  If I’d had my scope, I could have seen it from the edge of the conservation area, so it goes on the list.  50 species, and the third week of July no longer looks skimpy.

 

A visit to Maintz conservation area

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Maintz Conservation Area

I first got into birding when I was 11 or so, as a boy scout, and for a few years I did a good bit of birding in my native South Florida.  Then I discovered girls, and took a 40+ year break.  I resumed birding when Robin and I went to Costa Rica in 2011, and when I came home I started learning the local birds of SE Missouri.  I soon found out about the Audubon Society of Missouri, and their CACHE/SPARKS programs (Conservation Area CHEcklist/State PARKS checklist).  At that time, before eBird was big, ASM maintained their own online birding data program for conservation areas and parks in Missouri. 

I became a frequent contributor, especially for Maintz Conservation Area, only about 10 miles from my house.   Between Mark Haas and me, we quickly built up the Maintz checklist from a few dozen to over 150 species. We did such a good job on it that I’ve lately been birding at other places to help them catch up. Still, Maintz has a special place in my heart, so when I wanted to go for an outing this Saturday, I headed there.

My first stop was the parking area off highway BB, where there are some seasonal wetlands.  They’re full of water now, of course — so is everything in this part of the state, with the absurd amount of rain we’ve had all year.   There weren’t any waterfowl or shorebirds at the wetland, but of course those birds are spoiled for choice these days; every farm field is likely to be a pond they can explore.  Still, there was plenty of bird activity as soon as I got out of the car, with Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, Eastern Kingbirds, American Crows, Common Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees competing for my attention. 

I walked up the hill to the fishing pond, where I heard the distinctive irritable chattering of a Bell’s Vireo.   Walking to the corner of the fields, I followed the service road through some woods and out into a little prairie dotted with Bitterbloom (Sabatia angularis).

Bitterbloom, Rosepink

Bitterbloom, or Rose Pink, is a native wildflower with a very compact, neat growth habit and beautiful flowers.  I’m definitely going to try growing some at home. Across the field the trail goes down into another patch of woods, crossing a dry wash that feeds into Sandy Branch.  This damp, shady area was dominated by Tall Bellflower, Campanula americana.

Tall Bellflower

These lanky, 3-4 foot tall sprays of lavender blooms would look good in my rain garden, too.  I’ll have to look for seed. As I was walking in the woods, a Red-shouldered Hawk was calling repeatedly right over my head, but I couldn’t see it in the dense foliage.  Suddenly it flew out of the tree over me and into another, perhaps to get a better view of the intruder.  

Red-shouldered Hawk

I continued past, flushing the hawk back into the forest, and when the trail opened into grassland again I realized I’d walked almost all the way across the area toward another parking lot. I decided to backtrack and get the car.

I drove around to the other side of the area and walked up a gravel service road to the largest pond on the property.  To the northeast of the pond, there’s a big bare area where until recently a very decrepit old barn used to stand.  Barn Owls nested in that barn annually, often fledging several young a year.   This shot from five years ago gives the idea:
Barn OwlsT

he Missouri Department of Conservation decided that the barn couldn’t be saved, finally, and they put up some owl nest boxes — giant white “mailboxes” on posts in the fields.  Those have been used successfully, and this year they decided to take down the old barn.  It’s too bad; while the owls may do fine in the nest boxes, they don’t provide much of a chance for observing them.

As I was leaving the area, I decided to stop and walk in the fields north of CR 472.  I used to bird that area of Maintz often, but I’d gotten used to visiting other spots lately.  When you walk in, first you pass a big field of cultivated sunflowers, planted to attract Mourning Doves for hunting season.  But to the north of that field is an area of prairie, absolutely packed with native flowers.  Right now it’s largely Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Bee Balm or Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa?).  

Monarda and Ratibida

It’s a beautiful scene, and a lot of wild sunflowers of several species are about to bloom as well.  Wild False Indigo (Baptisia sp.) are producing seed pods, having flowered earlier, and I even found a few plants of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium).
Rattlesnake Master
I’ll be sure to return in a week or two to see what new things are blooming.

Filling in the Missouri map

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

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One of the odd side effects of using Ebird is that you suddenly have access not just to your life list, but your year list, and your month list, and your state lists, and your county lists, and your county month lists, etc.  On the profile page, you can see a map of all the countries, or states, or counties you’ve birded in.  And my Missouri map has some major gaps.

So on Saturday I set out to fill in a few of those gaps with a trip to some Conservation Areas in counties I’d never birded in before.  First stop was Lesterville Access, a small conservation area that used to be a put-in spot for the Black River.  The course of the river has changed, so it’s now a bit of a walk on a dry gravel bed to get to the water.  I was rewarded with a Bald Eagle and a hunting Belted Kingfisher.   And of course my first ebird list in Reynolds County.

Next I headed for Carter County.  I had Carter Creek CA in mind, but when I saw the sign for Miller Community Lake, I had to check it out.  Glad I did, as Carter Creek is not much of a birding spot, and Miller CL is actually quite nice.

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Lots of woodpeckers, and some woodland birds.  Lots of pines too, but no Red-Breasted Nuthatches around despite my best efforts to call them in.

Last, I made it to Ripley County, where Mark Haas had suggested I try Mudpuppy Conservation Area.  I had planned to visit Little Black CA, which I visited first, but I found that Mudpuppy was a better birding spot.  It’s got a great variety of habitats; some access to the Little Black River, some wetland ponds, small streams, grassy areas, and upland woods.   I even pished up a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  This is one I want to visit during spring migration.

Sand Prairie Conservation Area (and others)

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

Sand Prairie

Because the Conservation Nature Center roped me into their Big Year event, I’ve been paying attention to my year list lately. So Friday night when I started thinking about where to bird the next day, I remembered that my friend Mark had recently mentioned that Lark Sparrow was pretty much guaranteed at Sand Prairie. Having missed that one so far this year, I decided to head down there in the morning.

I got to Sand Prairie just at sunrise, a little after 5:30 in the morning. The MDC is restoring prairie vegetation on this 200-acre plot, and it’s unlike anything else in the region. There are big expanses of sand almost devoid of plants, but a lot of it is covered with native plants that you don’t see elsewhere. At first glance, it looks sort of dull — hardly any trees, just low scrubby-looking stuff. But when you walk out from the parking area, you realize how diverse it actually is. I find that I can’t walk very fast, because I’m afraid I’ll step on something beautiful.

But this time I was looking specifically for Lark Sparrows. I got out of the car, started to spray on some insect repellent, looked up on the power lines, and there was a lark sparrow perched on the wire. Bingo. Kind of takes the pressure off. I wasn’t in any hurry, so I stayed an hour and a half, walking into the prairie a bit. Lark sparrows were everywhere, and when the light got better, one posed pretty nicely for me.

Lark Sparrow

As always, there were loads of Grasshopper Sparrows, and some interesting flyovers — a Cooper’s Hawk, a couple of Common Nighthawks, a Green Heron, a Belted Kingfisher. And lovely plants. Like this American Jointweed that decided to flower very early:

Sand Prairie

And several of these, which I’m informed are Hoary Puccoon:

Sand Prairie

After Sand Prairie, I drove back north on Highway N, and stopped at Cape Lacroix Bluffs Conservation Area outside Scott City. I know this place mainly for the trail up onto the bluff, where in winter you can set up a scope and look at waterfowl out on the slough to the north. When I got out of the car, I heard the buzzy call of Bank Swallows, which were swooping all around. They were congregating to the west of the parking lot in a pit where the port authority has been digging sand. When I looked that way with binoculars, I was excited to see the swallows climbing in and out of holes in the sandy bank.

Bank Swallows

Bank Swallows

I just hope the port doesn’t decide to dig more sand for a few weeks.

Ice storm

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Goldfinch

One of the great joys of life is getting well when you’ve been sick. Robin and I have both had this awful cold that’s been going around — I missed parts of a couple of days of work, and last weekend we both just stayed in the house the whole time. I finally went to the doctor and got some antibiotics for the secondary infection and some predisone to clear up my sinus inflammation. Along with some good cough medicine, it started to do the trick. Still, I was happy on Friday the 13th that the university closed due to freezing rain, giving me a four-day weekend.

There wasn’t much ice in Cape Girardeau, but Pocahontas is enough farther north to make a difference. We had about a 1/4 inch on the trees, though the roads were warm enough that I don’t think it accumulated. Robin and I never left the house Friday, but I had to go out and refill the feeders, because it must get pretty tough to find food when it’s under a sheet of ice.

By Saturday I was feeling much better, and I started wondering if I could get anywhere to do some birding. I thought about Perry County Lake, which is close to the highway, and thus perhaps accessible; but when I went out to run an errand mid-morning I found that the roads were pretty clear. So, if I had my choice, I wanted to see Apple Creek for the first time in the new year.

When I got to the parking area near the boat ramp, it was raining lightly. I was warm enough in my coveralls and fedora, and I’m trying out a new shoulder bag for the camera that keeps it dry. So, rain or no I started walking the path westward. The fields nearby were thronged with sparrows; lots of white-throated, and it appeared to me that there were others mixed in, but they were shy, and staying too far away to be sure. Goldfinches mixed in as well.

When I stepped into the woods, the noise was almost deafening. At 36 degrees, with some new rain, the ice on the trees was melting and falling all around — it sounded like a downpour, and I could hardly hear anything else. But one thing I could see was a Brown Creeper who flew down to a large tree trunk and worked his way up in front of me. I’m always pleased to see a creeper — they’re so inconspicuous that I always feel like I’m in on a secret.

Ice falling off trees

Walking on down the track, I crested a hill and had a view of the woods all glazed with ice.

Apple Creek after the ice storm

By the time I got to the wetlands, the rain had stopped, and whenever I was out from under the trees I was staying pretty dry. A Hairy Woodpecker squeaked loudly at me from a snag, and when I lifted the binoculars to look at it, an immature bald eagle flew by behind. There were no waterfowl on the wetland – perhaps because there were a couple of loose dogs circling the far pool making a lot of noise.

My rule of thumb, which I think I first heard from Dennis Wheeler, is that you can’t go home until you’ve seen 30 species. By that standard, I barely made it, but with a single Yellow-Rumped Warbler, a few Eastern Bluebirds, and some Field Sparrows that popped up on the way out, I did finally hit it.

On Sunday, I was so well that I was able to sing in Unitarian fellowship. I took down the Christmas tree just in time to keep from overlapping MLK day, and brought in the traditional Yellow Submarine decoration.

Yellow Submarine

Sunday afternoon I drove across the river and counted birds at Sexton Creek and Cape Bend, adding records for the third week in January to both of them. My year count is at 50.

CBCs

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Christmas Bird Counts, that is. You can read about the history of the Christmas Bird Count, but in short, for 116 years, people have gone out and counted all the birds they could find around Christmas time and recorded the data. From December 14 through January 5, birders go to count circles — 15-mile diameter circles that have been established for this purpose- and count all the birds they can hear or see during a particular day. The data provide one of the longest-term longitudinal sets of information about the distribution and abundance of wildlife. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can see the effect of, for instance, climate change on the birds.

Changes in bird ranges

The count period goes 23 days. There are a couple of people who have committed themselves to doing a count every day for this period in a given year — Kelly McKay is one, and I saw him at the Mingo count yesterday. I wouldn’t stay married for long if I tried that, but I did four counts this year: Big Oak Tree, Union County, Horseshoe Lake, and Mingo.

Take Big Oak Tree as an example. The circle includes Big Oak Tree State Park and Ten Mile Pond and Seven Island conservation areas. On December 15, we met at 6:30 AM at Boomland in East Prairie for breakfast and area assignments. There were about a dozen of us, most from the Cape Girardeau/Jackson area. The Boomland breakfast is cafeteria style;I stuck with scrambled eggs and a cinnamon roll. But I know some of my birding friends look at this as their one opportunity of the year to eat biscuits and gravy.

By the time we finished breakfast, it was getting light, and my friend Mark and I drove south toward our usual piece of the circle — Big Oak Tree SP and Seven Island. Along the way, we pulled off for each little county road, getting out and counting the birds we saw and heard.

Big Oak CBC

Best birds of the day were a group of Lapland Longspurs in a field, and a surprise Merlin at a farmhouse on State Road 102. No pics of either, but I did get one of the little cemetery next to the farmhouse.

Little cemetery on Hwy 102

March 5, 2016: Saturday along the river

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

Magnolia Hollow Lake

The MDC had Magnolia Hollow Conservation Area on its list for management plan public input the other day, and I’d never heard of it before. When I found that it was only an hour’s drive from me, I decided to go check it out. When I got out at the first parking area at around 6:!5 yesterday, it was already pretty birdy — yellow-rumps in the trees, sparrows flitting around, etc.

I walked down to the fishing lake, which is quite a pretty spot (see above).

The yellow-rumps were thick there,

Yellow-rumped warbler

and I spotted a GBHE perched in a tree way in the distance.

Great Blue Heron

I spent some time just sitting on a rock listening to the YRWAs chipping in the trees, and eventually walked back up to the parking area. I drove on, getting out briefly at each parking area. As I was pulling out of the campground parking lot, I noticed a fat little bird in the grass on the shoulder. I stopped and cautiously opened the car door, but he didn’t seem to be worried about me; it was an American Woodcock, bobbing up and down in the full sunlight. He was backlit, so my photos are a little oddly exposed, but it’s the best chance I’ve ever had to get a pic of one.

Woodcock

At the next parking area, I got out and instantly saw a raptor departing into the woods. I ran up to see if I could tell where it had gone, and I could see something perched in the distance. In the binoculars it looked like a koala, but I was pretty sure that was wrong. Fortunately, the camera gave a better ID.

Barred Owl

From the last parking area, a paved path leads to a little deck with a view of Establishment Creek emptying into the Mississippi. Between them there’s a large fluddle. With a spotting scope, that’s a good spot to observe waterfowl. I found Canada Geese, mallards, green-winged teal, wood ducks, and gadwall there, and heard a kingfisher as well.

View at Magnolia Hollow

Next I decided to move downriver a bit (and inland) by visiting Ball Mill Resurgence and its new sister area, Blue Spring Branch Conservation Area. I’d never been to the latter, and I didn’t want Mark Haas to get all the “First Seens” in ebird for it. It’s kind of a weird layout. There’s a parking lot with a sign:

Blue Spring Branch

But the path to get into the area starts about 1/4 mile down the road. I bushwhacked down the hill from the parking area through tall grass and brush, but I wouldn’t recommend that approach. At the bottom of the hill (where I met up with the path) is Blue Spring Branch. It’s a fair-sized creek, but there’s a ford that wasn’t hard to cross with rubber boots.

Blue Spring Branch

I crossed the stream, following the path when it veered across an old fence line into a marshy field. There were some sparrows, and a deafening chorus of frogs. Adding to the soundscape, someone in a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the east started practicing the flute. From there I followed deer trails uphill to the far eastern edge of the Conservation Area. While there wasn’t that much happening on the ground, a mixed flock of geese (Snow, Greater White-Fronted, and a Ross’) came over. I made a loop and wound up back at the Branch, where I flushed 5 Wood Ducks. Added 13 species to the ebird list for the area: take that, Mark!

Of course I had to go to Ball Mill as long as I was in the neighborhood. Things were pretty quiet there, but I did get a nice pic of a bluebird.

Bluebird

One of these days I need to go there after a big rain and see the resurgence in action.

Working my way southward, I headed for Red Rock Landing Conservation Area. Last couple of times I tried to get there, high water made it impossible. The MDC says you can’t get in when the Chester gauge is over 20 feet; Saturday it was at 17 and there was no problem. It was also pretty quiet — what do you expect in mid-afternoon — but there were two killdeer and a Wilson’s Snipe (new ebird record for the area) on the wetland. I walked down to the river and came back up, and saw an armadillo approaching along a side trail. I crouched down so as not to be conspicuous and got out the camera.

Armadillo

At full zoom, I got some decent pictures, but he kept trotting toward me so fast I couldn’t keep him in focus. I was starting to worry that he’d just run right into me, and even as I backed off the zoom, I couldn’t get all of him in the frame.

Armadillo

He hopped over a log just 5 feet from me, and when I turned to watch him go by he finally realized I was there. He quickly scuttled into the flood debris. Those guys really have nothing going for them but the armor — sight and hearing were clearly not priorities for them as they evolved.

Afterward I walked a mile of the trail up onto the bluffs. It was totally dead for birds except some eagles out on a sand bar in the Mississippi. Nice view, though, but it won’t be much after the leaves come out.

View from Red Rock Landing trail

It was interesting looking at the eagles from up on the bluff; one immature took off and flew across the sand bar to perch in a tree, and I was puzzled by the coloring in his wings — brown on his back, shading pretty abruptly to black on the wing tips. I’d never seen that before, but a quick look in Sibley showed exactly that pattern. Then I realized that I’m not usually looking down at an eagle in flight.

After a mile or so on the trail, it was about 2:30 PM, and I was getting a bit tired — I think my total walking distance for the day was about 9 miles. I headed back and went home. Total species for the day, 49. Not bad when neither shorebird nor warbler migration has started.