Newsletter of the Columbia Audubon Society | January 2020 | Volume 62, Number 5

Wed. Jan. 1, 2020

News and Notes for January 2020

New Year, new events

The Columbia Audubon Society (CAS) event calendar will kick off 2020 with an afternoon First Day Hike on the Grasslands Trail at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, in coordination with Missouri State Parks.

On January 15, the first CAS meeting of 2020 will feature State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick. She has exciting news to share about the re-introduction of Brown-headed Nuthatches to Missouri, plus updates on the Motus tracking system and the Missouri Bird Conservation Plan. This meeting is sure to be a good one!

The field trip calendar has nothing currently scheduled for the rest of the month, as the goal is to set up trips with shorter (~5–7 days) notice based on weather forecasts and leader availability/interest. Please feel free to suggest destinations and/or volunteer to lead a trip by contacting Field Trip Chair Eric Reuter. Until decisions about field trip liability insurance can be made, the focus will be on nearby trips that do not require carpools.

Remembering Harold Anderson

by Eric Seaman

Harold Anderson passed away November 26, 2019 at the age of 79. He was the CAS Nature Areas co-leader for 16 years. The active Chimney Swift tower at Wild Haven Nature Area commemorates his contributions. A popular and award-winning chemistry and physics professor at Stephens College, Dr. Anderson was more known to Audubon members as the very hard worker you would encounter on work days. The nature areas benefited from his vigilance. When controversy occurred with tenants or management of nature areas, or angry Tree Swallows attacked him while doing nest box counting, his calm and affable personality helped restore peace.

Harold stepped down from leading the nature areas only after many years of dealing with Parkinson’s Disease. For this, too, Harold was an inspiring and brave leader to us all, showing strength and determination. He is survived by his dedicated wife, partner, and caregiver Kathleen Anderson who has served CAS as a great volunteer and Board Secretary.

Wild Haven Chimney Swift tower. Photo by Eric Seaman.

Christmas Bird Count recap

by Allison Vaughn

On December 14th, CAS hosted its 60th consecutive (and 63rd overall) Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The wind was bitterly cold in the early morning hours, but the bluebird skies allowed for great visibility for over 70 birders who fanned out across the count circle. At the subsequent chili supper, birders and area leaders met at the Fairview Christian Church to pull together all of the day’s data to add to the master spreadsheet that was projected on the screen for all to see (photo below). The total species count was 98, including a count week bird (the Anna’s Hummingbird) that member Jean Leonatti had been taking care of at her warmed feeders for all these cold weeks. In 2018, we tallied 93 species, so while some birders were audibly upset with the low numbers of birds they were seeing, this year’s count yielded more species than 2018. Here are a few summary points:

  • Black Vultures, new to Columbia in 2018, were back in low numbers in 2019 with 2 total hanging out with Turkey Vultures at Capen Park in Area 2N on the cliffs leading to Grindstone Nature Area. Area 2 North also saw 79 Turkey Vultures sunning on the cliff at Capen Park, the high count this year.
  • Missing this year—and everyone’s highlight last year—were the Red-breasted Nuthatches; in 2018 (an irruption year) we tallied 21, and in 2019, 0.
  • Area 5, which includes the KATY Trail, once again recorded the only Eastern Screech Owls on the CBC with a total of 4 (eBird list). In 2018, this area recorded 26 individuals using playback recordings.
  • Area 5 also recorded the highest numbers of Mallards, over 15K (Eagle Bluffs eBird list, Eagle Bluffs–Buck and Katy Pools eBird list), but down from 21K+ in 2018. Area 1 North saw the only Canvasback and Ring-necked Duck on the count this year (eBird list).
  • Looking over the completed spreadsheet and comparing it to 2018’s numbers, it’s nice to see that Blue Jays are really rebounding after the lows in the early 2000s due to West Nile Virus. This year, counters recorded 479 Blue Jays, down only a little from 2018’s 507 individuals.
  • The Bald Eagle numbers were up slightly from 29 in 2018 to 33 in 2019.
  • Area 5 observations set two new eBird species high counts for Boone County: Song Sparrows with a tally of 161 (eBird list) and Northern Cardinals with a tally of 101 (eBird list).

Overall, it was a nice—though naturally cold—day for birding with the high temperature only reaching 30ºF. Most counters attended the chili supper and enjoyed many different kinds of chili, including Chase Darr’s tofu-based vegetarian chili and a rich assortment of desserts.

CBC participants at the chili supper gather around the projector to tally the day’s count. Photo by Allison Vaughn.

 

Many thanks to our CoMoGives donors!

by Nancy Bedan, CAS CoMoGives Committee

The 2019 CoMoGives fundraiser for area non-profit organizations ended at midnight Dec. 31. Columbia Audubon participated in the fund drive for the fifth year. Although we won’t have final totals for the number of donors and dollars received until January, Columbia Audubon is very grateful to our supporters. As of December 30, we had received over  $8,500 from 85-plus online, and offline, contributors. The dollar amount was bringing us close to our ambitious 2019 goal of $10,000.

The funds received through the CoMoGives drive help support:

  • maintenance and expansion of our nature areas, including the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary on Bray Avenue,
  • the Band with Nature field trip for Columbia-area second-graders, and
  • scholarships for students and teachers to attend science and nature-education programs.

Brief notes

  • Eagle Bluffs access: Hunting season is winding down at Eagle Bluffs, and full-day access will be resuming soon. Here are the details from refuge manger Brady Lichtenberg: “Most of the area roadways and levee top trails will re-open for all day access on Jan 13. The only areas that will still be off limits are the waterfowl refuge pools and the roadways and levee top trails that surround them. Those areas will re-open on Feb 7.”
  • Nature-themed films don’t often seem to be shown in movie theaters, so I was excited to see that a film called Fantastic Fungi will be showing at Ragtag Cinema for one week starting on January 11.

December board meeting unofficial summary

A special board meeting (December 18, 2019) focused on the topic of the Boone County Nature School. Nature School representatives presented information about the school, along with more details about an opportunity for CAS to make a financial contribution that would grant naming rights to a roofed gathering place, either in the style of a pavilion with a concrete floor and electricity or a more rustic “council house” facility. See this article in December’s issue of The Chat for background information, and look for more details in February’s issue of The Chat.  Official meeting minutes for November and December will be posted to the website after approval. Please contact a board member with any questions.

Supporting CAS

Carrying out our mission through education, conservation, and outreach takes a wide variety of resources, from the valued time of dedicated volunteers to the financial support of members and donors. We welcome and appreciate all participants and supporters of our work through their generous donations of time, money, or other resources.

Submitting material to The Chat

The Chat is published online on the first of every month from September through May. Submissions are welcome, including photographs, stories, and brief notes about bird or nature observations. Please contact News Editor Joanna Reuter with submissions, feedback, or suggestions for content. The submission deadline is the 25th of each month.

Wed. Jan. 1, 2020

Destination: Audubon, Iowa

by Louise Flenner

John James Audubon statue in Audubon, Iowa. Photo by Louise Flenner.

John James Audubon statue in Audubon, Iowa. Photo by Louise Flenner.

In September, George and I decided to travel home from our RV vacation on the North Shore of Minnesota by taking the long way home down the western side of Iowa along Hwy. 71.  The destination I was looking for was the town of Audubon, Iowa.  I had noted this place on a map a few years ago and it stayed with me that it would be an interesting stopover.  Turns out it was very enjoyable.  Audubon, IA is all things John James Audubon.  The town plaza has a bronze statue of him painting in a natural environment with his dog at his feet.  The downtown walkway has over 200 bird mosaics inset in the brick sidewalks.  Each mosaic recreates one of his famous bird paintings.  There is a 21 foot tall lighted stain glass picture of him with a clock on the corner of Broadway St.  The public library, post office and meeting hall all have tributes to him.

Mosaics in Audubon, Iowa. Photos by Louise Flenner.

Mosaics in Audubon, Iowa. Photos by Louise Flenner.

 

Albert the Bull in Audubon, Iowa. Photo by George Flenner. Louise Flenner for scale.

The other highlight that can’t be missed when visiting Audubon is Albert the Bull, the world’s largest bull.  We spent the night in the Albert the Bull campground that sits in his shadow.  I’ve included a picture as it says a thousand words about his size.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: Thanks to Louise for submitting this article! Have you been to an interesting bird- or nature-related destination lately? Please consider submitting a short summary and some photos to The Chat. With your submission, this can become an occasional series.

Wed. Jan. 1, 2020

Birds in Big Numbers: Flocks of Blackbirds and Starlings

Part two in an occasional series, Birds in Big Numbers

by Joanna Reuter

Blackbirds can congregate in enormous numbers, sometimes in mixed-species flocks with starlings and other birds. In eBird’s current dataset, Red-winged Blackbirds hold the world record for the high count of a single species, with an estimate of 40 million individuals during a Christmas Bird Count in Arkansas in December 1964 (eBird list). Let’s take a look at what’s been seen in the Columbia Audubon Society (CAS) six-county region:

High counts: Dusk on January 5, 2019 in Audrain County:

This was a ‘river of blackbirds’ that contained millions of birds. The river flowed broadly and continuously for over 20 minutes. We described it as looking like a black cloud of smoke being carried out of a smokestack…only it wasn’t smoke. It was all birds…. Any attempt to count the number of blackbirds present is truly a guess.

This is how Jean Leonatti, Susan Hazelwood, Cathy Harris, and Betsy Garrett described their observation. Their rough estimate, at ~10 million “blackbird sp.”, ranks this observation at the top of the high-count list for a single taxa in Missouri as reported on eBird  (full eBird list here).

Another enormous “river of birds” was observed by Ryan Douglas and Vic Bogosian at Eagle Bluffs during the December 17, 2011 Christmas Bird Count (full eBird list here). Here’s a video clip that captures ~2 minutes of a colossal flock that they observed for more than 15 minutes:

They estimated a flock size of 5 million birds, with 75% Common Grackles, 20% Red-winged Blackbirds, and 5% European Starlings.

What: The term “river of blackbirds” is commonly used, but flocks are not always exclusively blackbirds in the taxonomic sense. For example, dark-colored European Starlings often mix with blackbirds, but belong to a different family (Sturnidae) than New World blackbirds (Icteridae); starlings may be black birds, but they aren’t blackbirds. Of the true icterid blackbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles are the species most likely to be seen in large numbers in Missouri, while Brown-headed Cowbirds can also mix with other blackbirds. Rusty Blackbirds are worth watching and listening for; this declining species winters in Missouri, but eBird reports for the CAS region rarely report more than a few dozen individuals at a time. American Robins (family Turdidae) also flock in the fall and winter, sometimes associating with blackbirds.

The term “murmuration” describes sizeable flocks that fly in tight formation in complex patterns, often related to predator avoidance. The term is used most frequently to describe the acrobatics of European Starling flocks, but true blackbirds can fly in murmuration style, as well (YouTube has some examples). Murmurations are a subject in which the realms of birding, particle physics, and art collide—but the birds don’t. Online videos abound, and live performances over Columbia by flocks composed of at least hundreds of starlings are not uncommon.

When (time of day): The two observations featured at the beginning of this article occurred at dusk, a common time to see large flocks, because blackbirds (and associates) congregate at roosts for the night. During the day, smaller flocks may split off to forage. Thus, observations with the highest counts tend to be near dusk or dawn.

When (dates): Late fall and winter are when the largest flocks of blackbirds have been reported on eBird in central Missouri. During the spring and summer breeding season, blackbirds are reported on a high percentage of eBird lists, but typically not in huge numbers; they tend to be dispersed in favorable habitats, carrying out breeding activities. During late fall and winter, a smaller percentage of eBirds lists report observations of blackbirds, but of those that do, some of the observations are large.

Where: In more southerly states, blackbirds and associated species form winter roosts that are used persistently over a period of time; sometimes the roost territory is reoccupied from year to year (reference). In Missouri, flock use of a given roost location seems to be more temporary, but eBird data are insufficient to provide full details of flock and roost dynamics. Perhaps transient flocks are migrating and/or moving opportunistically to look for food resources (including corn) in the landscape. Some blackbirds that breed in Missouri migrate south; others may arrive in our area from the north. (Wouldn’t it be fun to have some Motus data on this?)

So, where to look? One obvious place is Eagle Bluffs, with its wetland habitat, trees for roosting, food resources, and past history of large flocks (~75% of eBird observations of >1,000 blackbirds/starlings in the CAS region have been from Eagle Bluffs). Keep in mind, however, that hunting season access restrictions do not allow for dawn and dusk observations in the heart of the conservation area. In 2020, most roads and trails will re-open for all-day access on January 13, and the remaining areas will re-open on February 7. Don’t rule out locations other than Eagle Bluffs: stay alert whenever you happen to be outside, especially near dawn and dusk.

Reporting to eBird: Due to a variety of challenges, I suspect more observations are made of large blackbird/starling flocks than are reported on eBird. (Count me guilty.) When millions of birds are sighted on one day with little followup, I wonder where the birds went from there. Did they disperse? Fly to another state? Stay around unobserved? More reporting to eBird would enhance the potential to understand the location and dynamics of these interesting flocks. Here are some challenges and suggested solutions:

ChallengeSuggestion
Estimating numbers.Consider using photos and video (which can be reviewed later to refine count estimates), and descriptions of flight duration to document your observation. Accept that the number you come up with is a bit of a guess and report anyway (but err conservative). Also, hone your estimation skills by practicing with online photos (see below).
Identifying species in mixed flocks.Use of “blackbird sp.” can help, but European Starlings are not blackbirds and should not be lumped under this category. Get to know the distinct triangular profile of starlings in flight by watching them in urban Columbia. If unsure, report “passerine sp.” with a note of explanation.
Making observations when you are not otherwise birding.If driving, find a safe place to pull over. If the flock is interesting but you don’t have time to pay attention to other species, don’t hesitate to report to eBird as an incidental list.

Count quiz: How many birds are in this photo? What is the first value that comes to mind? And after studying the photo a bit longer, have you revised your estimate? Send your estimate(s) to my email, and I’ll reveal the results of the “popular vote” in the February newsletter, along with results from my best attempt to count the birds shown. (Please do email me; it also tells me there’s a reader!)

How many birds? Click on the photo for full resolution. Flock in a sorghum field in Amish country east of Clark, MO, January 13, 2018. This location is not far from the enormous observation of January 2019: coincidence or not? Photo by Joanna Reuter.

Implications of large blackbird/starling flocks: As I started to research big blackbird/starling flocks, I thought about them from a bird-watcher’s perspective, as a phenomenon exciting to observe. From a farming perspective, I naively hadn’t thought much about the implications of these flocks, partly because I’ve only encountered large flocks in the winter, when my small-scale crops have long since been harvested. However, blackbirds and starlings are viewed by many as an agricultural menace (sometimes justifiably so; example), and the large flocks are perceived to be vectors of dangerous pathogens (again, sometimes with justification; reference). Even members of the bird-watching community can view these flocks with disdain, particularly when backyard bird feeders are overrun with them. European Starlings, in particular, receive the ire of many due to their non-native status here.

Control measures, including lethal ones, are legal for European Starlings, due to their non-native status. In addition, I was surprised to learn that control measures are also legal for several species of native blackbirds (reference). A bit more online research yielded a window into another world: numerous businesses specializing in bird control (examples, 1,  2, and 3), extension/government advice on how to control these species (examples, 1, 2, and 3), and products, ranging from repellent to lethal, aimed at the control of these species (examples, Methyl Anthranilate, Avitrol, and Starlicide).

Learn more: Here are some additional resources to explore:

  • Practice estimating numbers and identifying species. Use these photos, linked from the Macaulay Library, to hone your estimation skills. Do you see any mixed flocks? Click the link for the eBird list; many contain additional photos, as well as a the total list estimate (which may, of course, include individuals not photographed). Many of these are Missouri photos, but I included a few from farther afield for good measure.
  • Starling murmurations: It’s easy to spend a little too much time watching murmuration videos online. Here are three impressive ones: from the Netherlands, from Rome (with actively hunting peregrines), and from the UK. Noah Strycker’s book, The Thing with Feathers, has an interesting chapter on murmurations.
  • Here’s a story about what happened in Jefferson City in 1967 when an intended attempt to control starlings went very wrong.
  • Here are a couple of links to help with looking for and identifying Rusty Blackbirds: Sibley and Audubon.
  • The MOBIRDS archive contains various postings that describe or mention observations of large flocks (mostly of blackbirds), including: Dec. 2002, another in Dec. 2002, Feb. 2003, Dec. 2003, Nov. 2004, Jan. 2008, Jan. 2011, Feb. 2015 (not a comprehensive list).

Text © Joanna Reuter 2020

Wed. Jan. 1, 2020

Sightings: December 2019

Raptors: Winter is a good time to view raptors, and many photos demonstrating their winter diversity were submitted to eBird and the Macaulay Library this month from Boone County. Here’s a selection:


The final photo in that sequence is a Prairie Falcon found by Shelby Thomas at South Farm on December 7. This was a good find; eBird records show only a few prior Prairie Falcon records in the CAS region (Nov. 1996, Jan. 2009, Dec. 2013, Feb. 2014, and Dec. 2017).

Flocks of American Robins: Robin flocks have been around over the last couple months, both in town and in the rural parts of Boone County. Josh Mosteller observed about 1,800 and 2,000 on two consecutive evenings near the solstice, and he raised some great questions about robins and their roosting habits in this Columbia Audubon Facebook post. The photos below show a flock of robins on bare agricultural ground at Bradford Farm (left) and a robin eating what appears to be the fruit of of an invasive Bradford Pear (right).

Anna’s Hummingbird, continued: The Anna’s Hummingbird that was first seen in November made some additional appearances in the neighborhood in December. It stuck around long enough to qualify as a “count week” bird for the Christmas Bird Count; here’s the relevant MOBIRDS post. I suspect this bird is in the running for the most photographed individual bird of the CAS region for 2019:

Trumpeter Swans: Trumpeter Swans are back in the area. Kathleen Anderson reported the highest count of the CAS region for December, with a flyover of 58 (spread among 3 groups) at Finger Lakes State Park. From our home (a bit west of Finger Lakes), Eric and I often see/hear them flying over, usually on a north-south trajectory, especially on colder weather days.

Rusty Blackbirds: This is the time of year to keep an eye out for Rusty Blackbirds. Here’s a great photo of one from Howard County:

Eastern Towhees: My experience with towhees at our place in northern Boone County has been that they usually migrate out for the winter, but this year, there’s been a continuous presence so far, with the birds routinely announcing their presence with a one syllable twee. Quite a few towhees have been reported throughout Boone County and the region this December.


Please submit sightings! The “Sightings” column has evolved into a summary of the past month’s bird activity as told by photos and audio submitted via eBird lists to the Macaulay Library. Emphasis is on the six-county region (Audrain, Boone, Cooper, Howard, Monroe, Randolph) served by the Columbia Audubon Society. If desired, feel free to make direct submissions to Joanna Reuter by email.

Columbia Audubon Society is supported in part by a generous contribution from


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Upcoming Events

February meeting: Visiting Magee Marsh, a presentation by Bill Palmer

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 | 7:00 p.m.


March meeting: Robin Hirsch-Jacobson

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 | 7:00 p.m.


April meeting: Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 | 7:00 p.m.


May meeting: Picnic

mid-May, exact date to be determined