by Joanna Reuter

Audrain County swans & more

A large pond/small lake on private land in western Audrain County, just east of Highway 151, has been a magnet for Trumpeter Swans the last few years. Even in years with deep cold, the water has remained free of ice, and nearby corn fields offer sustenance. County Road 116, on the south side of the lake (map), provides a good viewing angle with safe places to stop.

Trumpeter Swans make distinctive vocalizations. I made the following recording from the field to the east of the lake, with approximately 140 swans in view. Unfortunately, the wind messed with recording quality, so this is just a short clip that has a minimum of wind interference.

This is also a good location for other waterfowl, including geese and ducks; a scope is very helpful for viewing here. Some keen observers (for example, see this eBird list and this one) have picked out occasional Tundra Swans from amongst the Trumpeters.

Eric and I visited this location on January 4; part of our motivation was to check out whether the massive blackbird observation reported here last January might not have been an isolated occurrence. Sure enough, as afternoon progressed, we started to see blackbirds streaming across the sky in narrow, smoke-like “ribbons” that stretched from horizon to horizon (as illustrated in this admittedly terrible photo):

These blackbird streams were continuous enough that we were able to follow them by vehicle to their roost location about 10 miles away (see next item). Those are some long streams of blackbirds!

Millions of blackbirds in northern Boone County roost

In January, Eric and I twice observed a mind-bogglingly huge group of blackbirds coming in to roost in miscanthus fields in northern Boone County. The observations came about because we were inspired by what I learned when writing about flocks of blackbirds/starlings for the January Chat. (By the way, the “quiz” photo in that article generated no response, so there are no results to report.) I wrote up two MOBIRDS posts containing lengthy descriptions of the observations: post #1 describes the January 4 observation and post #2 describes the January 16 observation (eBird lists are linked therein). The best documentation we managed are the two videos below. The first is ~9 minutes (with the first 1 minute 40 seconds being perhaps the slowest bit, though the things in the trees that look like dark leaves are all blackbirds); the second video is ~3.5 minutes of non-stop blackbird action:

From the videos, it should be possible to get some better estimate of how many birds we saw to replace the abhorrent “x” on our eBird list (but we simply have not had time to deal with this task to date). Our rough estimates suggest that the miscanthus fields collectively are hosting millions of blackbirds.

For a variety of reasons, the destination is sub-optimal for an organized CAS field trip at present, but it is easy enough to get to; North Barnes Road is a gravel road with safe places to stop near the miscanthus field (see map). I would be really thrilled if others would visit and report from this site. Questions I’m curious about include: How long will they keep using these miscanthus fields though the season? Does day-to-day weather affect roosting patterns or numbers? Will activity persist until flocks break up for breeding season, or will birds eventually head to other roost sites? What numbers estimates do others come up with? What is the ratio of Red-winged Blackbirds to Common Grackles, and are other species included in the mix?

On my list of lifetime most-incredible bird experiences, this observation ranks up there with Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska (though admittedly behind walking amongst Magellanic Penguins in Patagonia). We found it to be an amazing experience, quite worthy of an outing.

 American Robin with partial leucism

No, that’s not snow on the bird! This unusually pigmented American Robin is partially leucistic, a term explained on the All About Birds website.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

January reports for Eurasian Tree Sparrows came from Bradford Farm, where they’ve been reported multiple times recently as well as in past years, and also from Thomas Hill Reservoir (photo below), where they had not been previously reported on eBird. As its name implies, this species is not a North American native, but was introduced into the St. Louis area in 1870. Range expansion has been occurring, primarily in a northward direction. Sporadic eBird reports have occurred in central Missouri and as far west as the Kansas City area. The notes on the eBird list by Pete Monacell and Paul McKenzie indicate that enough birds were present at Thomas Hill Reservoir to potentially indicate a local breeding population.

Favorite photo of the month

I love this photo of an American Kestrel feeding on a rodent at Eagle Bluffs CA:


About 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.