The Accidental Bird Watcher

By Jim Auckley | December 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2002

I have spent a lifetime admiring birds, sometimes from the windows of my home, sometimes while fishing or hunting. I have watched bald eagles patrolling the North Fork of the White River on 10-degree winter mornings. I experienced the same delight in discovering a pair of wrens nesting in a little birdhouse on my porch only a week after a family of chickadees successfully raised a family in the same house.

Sometimes I think the world is divided between people who have held a living bird in their hands and those who haven't. I can't imagine not having had that experience.

I'm not the kind of birdwatcher who keeps a list, but if I did, there would be several species I would put at the top. The first would probably be a Clark's nutcracker, a Rocky Mountain native I saw while quail hunting in central Missouri (I have a witness to this sighting). Next would be an upland sandpiper, a bird called an "uncommon migrant" in the Conservation Department's Birds in Missouri. I saw it in a prairie pasture along a road in western Missouri.

Also on my list would be a flock of white pelicans I saw at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Missouri. These regal creatures pass quietly through the state while on migration. They forage across the water in a tight formation, driving bait fish ahead of them.

Equally pleasing to these rare sightings are the birds I enjoy on a seasonal schedule. Each spring I find myself fishing on a day when the bottomland trees along the river seem to be groaning under the weight of migrating warblers. These birds are often hard to see without binoculars, and regrettably, I have never learned to identify them by their songs.

In spring, too, I will never think of camping in woods during turkey season without hearing the reassuring, if incessant, calling of whippoorwills. I once wiggled out of my sleeping bag in the night to discourage one that was actually calling from the peak of my tent. I've spent hours in those same woods waiting for a wild turkey, but passing the time watching big pileated woodpeckers hammer at the bark of an oak, or frenetic hairy woodpeckers chasing one another down the trunk of a nearby tree.

Most dramatic may have been my introduction to prairie chickens on a gray November afternoon. I was quail hunting, and my partner and I had split to work both sides of a long, wooded fence row. My little setter suddenly slowed to a trot and began picking her way into an adjoining field of tall grass. She had her head held high and was definitely scenting something, her tail going from dead still, to a slow side-to side motion.

Then, the world around us erupted in prairie chickens. Not all the prairie grouse came up at once, but about every two seconds a new one burst from the grass. They seemed so much bigger than the bobwhites I was expecting. They all flew in the same direction, uphill, alternately beating their wings and gliding. I kept expecting them to drop back into the field, but they went to the skyline, finally cresting out of sight over a little country cemetery.

My dog's eyes were as big as saucers, and my heart was beating like a jackhammer. Prairie chickens have long been a protected species in Missouri and, sadly, their range, despite the best efforts of conservationists, seems to be shrinking. I have since seen them on other occasions and feel privileged to have done so, knowing that, 50 years from now, Missourians may not be able to share my experience.

When I first moved to central Missouri, the Conservation Department was working to restore Canada geese. Having had no experience with these birds, I found myself fascinated with them and spent time watching the birds on local ponds. They apparently mate for life, are incredibly vocal and are excellent parents. A subspecies nests in cliffs along the Missouri River, and even now, while riding a bicycle on the Katy Trail in spring, I will hear some of these cliff nesting geese calling from the river bluffs.

While fishing or canoeing, I always enjoy seeing kingfishers, the jaunty birds with the Woody Woodpecker topknot and saucy personality. They most often pass overhead, making a chattering noise while following the stream. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to see one plunge in the water and come up with a minnow wiggling in its pointed beak. On canoe trips, too, I see wood ducks, the most colorful of all waterfowl. In early summer it may be a female with a brood, racing ahead nervously at my approach with her offspring following frantically behind.

Much later in the season, when winter sunsets paint the western sky in dramatic colors, I watch flocks of mallards coming in to a lake to roost after they've spent the afternoon in some corn field. They fly in high at first, then circle and finally drop to the surface of the water with cupped wings. They seem to struggle to remain upright. These are big ducks that catch the last rays of sun on flashing wings.

Little winter wrens often entertain me while I'm wading a stream. The brown and tan birds with black bars seem to love picking in, around and under the tree roots that often jut from river banks. The wren's scientific name is Troglodytes troglodytes. A troglodyte is defined as "one who creeps into holes, cave dweller."

My wife, Carolyn, and I once launched a canoe on a sunny fall day for a last of-the-season cruise when we spotted a large bird wheeling over the lake. I had never seen such a bird here before. It occasionally plunged into the water as if hunting fish. The bird did not have the bulk of an eagle, but was more streamlined. Going home to a birding field guide I discovered we had been watching an osprey, an individual that was probably pausing on our local lake during its migration.

The Conservation Department now has an active program to reintroduce osprey with birds brought from northern states and "hacked" on Missouri lakes. Descendants of those birds now nest in Missouri on their own.

How many of my hours in the outdoors have been filled with the sound of crows? I doubt anyone keeps track, but it seems to me that there are more crows now than there were in the past. I see them in rural areas, and I see them walking in the grass along urban interstates.

Crows may be the most intelligent of all Missouri birds. They share a family with more than 15 other birds, including bluejays. They are said to be able to do a variety of incredible things, such as counting. One often repeated story has them learning how to steal fish from holes made by ice fishermen.

I often see, and hear, crows "mobbing" a hawk or an owl, alternately diving and screaming at it. Crows are noisy, but not always. Last spring I saw a pair of crows silently fly into the strip of woods behind my house. I was suspicious, and later went to investigate. I found a large nest halfway up an oak tree. As spring progressed I watched these birds come and go, tending their nest without ever making a sound. This uncharacteristically silent pair were the "black apparitions" that Henry Thoreau often wrote about.

I am fortunate to live in an area that includes a fair amount of green space. Beside the strip of woods between me and the next row of houses are undeveloped lots covered with mature trees. The houses are nicely spaced rather than cheek by jowl, and we have a large park nearby. The deer that sometimes appear in the yard can easily pass from one strip of forest to the next. I owe my joy at seeing hawks at close range to this green space. One recently landed in a large oak near the house, its white breast glowing in focused sunlight. There are owls, too. My son and I once met in the kitchen early on a morning after we had both been jarred awake by the sound of a great horned owl calling from the yard. I tried to figure out where the bird was. Chris said it was on his side of the house, in the wooded lot directly across the street.

On another winter day, a small group of mourning doves settled on the deck as I sat drinking my morning coffee. Sitting as still as any turkey hunter, I watched their gray, pear-shaped bodies negotiate a thin coating of ice on delicate, bright pink feet. They were foraging seeds thrown from my feeders by smaller songbirds.

Watching one bird fluff his feathers against the cold, then waggle his tail, I thought that I might not ever have any valuable art hanging in my house, but I've got birds - living art - everywhere I look.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler