A Flamboyance of Flamingos

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A flamboyance of flamingos in Celestun, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you see a group of birds together and call it a ‘flock’, you may be missing an opportunity to brighten your language and impress your friends.  You’re probably familiar with a few of these alternative names for a collection or group of birds, like a ‘clutch’ of chickens or a ‘covey’ of quail, and you may have advanced to knowing a ‘parliament’ of owls or a ‘murmuration’ of starlings. But be honest, did you know a group of sparrows are also known as a ‘host’ or a bunch of hummingbirds is a ‘charm’?  Dating back at least to medieval times, collective nouns for flocks of birds or bands of other animals have been used to associate those creatures with folklore, behavior, characteristics or other connections, and in some cases they may just be the product of someone’s creative imagination.  A ‘chain’ of Bobolinks is cleverly appropriate, for example, while a ‘pandemonium’ of parrots makes perfect sense to anyone who has run into a bunch. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen a mass of flamingos, ‘flamboyance’ is an excellent descriptor.  A ‘parliament’ of owls might make you wonder, but picture a group of self-important legislators wearing eyeglasses and skepticism. A ‘murder’ of crows or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens are less obvious, but ravens and crows have been associated with death and murder for centuries.

 

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A tuxedo of penguins, Falkland Islands (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

 

Some of my favorite other collective nouns for birds are a ‘kettle’ of vultures (circling in the air like a large black pot), a ‘scold’ or ‘party’ of jays, an ‘ostentation’ of peacocks, a ‘pod’ of pelicans, a ‘gang’ of turkeys and a ‘tuxedo’ of penguins.  And birds have no exclusivity when it comes to colorful group names. How about a ‘cauldron’ of bats, a ‘pounce’ of cats or a ‘bloat’ of hippos?  Or a ‘scurry’ of squirrels, a ‘prickle’ of porcupines and a ‘dazzle’ of zebras?  Each of these evocative terms seems perfect. And this cleverness doesn’t stop at mammals, either.  Rattlesnakes are a ‘rhumba’, cobras are a ‘quiver’, trout are a ‘hover’ and sharks are a ‘shiver’. It’s a ‘kaleidoscope’ of butterflies, a ‘bloom’ of jellyfish and a ‘cloud’ of grasshoppers. A ‘scourge’ of mosquitoes is certainly appropriate, as is one we all know, a ‘plague’ of locusts.  You can even find names for groups of people, like a ‘blush’ of boys and a ‘hastiness’ of cooks.

 

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A dozen Colombian hummingbirds qualifies as a ‘charm’ (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In fact, who says you can’t make up your own names?  Get creative and join the fun.  I gave this a little thought and came up with a few of my own:  a ‘flutter’ of doves, a ‘swirl’ of swallows, a ‘buzz’ of hummingbirds and a ‘glitter’ of goldfinches. An ‘obsession’ of birders certainly fits, though that would work for golfers, gamblers and sports fans as well. Feel free to dream up and share your own. Just don’t suggest a ‘pain’ of column writers; it’s taken.

 

This article was originally published in the March, 2019 issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

 

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When the Red, Red Robin

american robin (photo prudy and bob bowers)

The American Robin, bobbin’ along (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Desert rats like myself don’t handle cold well, so after two and a half inches of snow and a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures in early January, my thoughts turned to spring. Warmer weather, fields of flowers and beautiful birdsong. It was still January, but in my mind spring had sprung, and that led to thinking about the classical harbinger for spring, the robin. Unlike most of the rest of the U.S. and Canada, we don’t see a lot of robins in this part of Arizona, which usually surprises folks who move here from other places. It’s not that we never see them; one February day a few years ago a flock of 14 paused for a breather in our mesquite tree on their way north. You can also find them, especially in winter, in Catalina State Park and other nearby spots, but they’re more common at higher elevations or beyond the desert scrub.

american robin (photo bob and prudy bowers)

Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut’s state bird (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers) 

Those who retire here probably miss watching these colorful thrushes meticulously working their way around a yard, pausing to listen for earthworms and then nailing those they discover. Come to think of it, with yards of rock instead of grass, little wonder we seldom see them. Regardless, it’s unlikely you’d find anyone who doesn’t know the American Robin, which is found in every state, most of Canada and all of Mexico. It’s also the state bird for Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut, and it’s one of the top four or five most abundant land birds in North America.

 

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Migrating robin eating hackberries, Catalina State Park, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The scientific name for the American Robin is Turdus migratorius, or ‘migrating thrush’, and most live up to the name by wintering in the southern U.S., the Pacific Coast and Mexico from August until February.  The bird in the photo above was one of thirty that flocked into Catalina State Park in Tucson, Arizona on January 26, this year.Some have even wandered as far as the U.K., the Netherlands and Belgium, perhaps appropriately, since our bird got its name from the European Robin, another bird with an orange breast but in no other way similar to our robin. Nevertheless, early colonial settlers saw the orange breast and gave it the same name, which stuck. That explains our bird’s name, but what about the European bird?

european robin (photo by kaz, with permission)

The European Robin (photo courtesy of Kaz)

The scientific name for the European Robin is Erithacus rubecula, or ‘little red unknown bird’. Although the bird’s breast is orange, red was the designated color and the bird became the Redbreast. The interesting reason is that when the bird was named, the word ‘orange’ didn’t exist in England; not appearing until the sixteenth century, when oranges were first introduced there. In the fifteenth century, human names began being used for common species, and the Redbreast became the Robin Redbreast, ‘Robin’ being a diminutive for Robert. Robin Redbreast eventually was shortened to Robin and then changed to European Robin. However, unlike our ground-probing worm eater, the European Robin is a small chat, or Old World flycatcher. Its territory ranges from Great Britain to Western Siberia and south to North Africa, rarely leaving home, though it’s been found once in Pennsylvania (2015) and once in Florida (2018), possibly as a shipboard stowaway. It has never visited Arizona.However, a foreign cousin of our American Robin, the Rufous-backed Robin, has visited Arizona many times and is increasingly found here.

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A Rufous-backed Robin in Sonora, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Rufous-backed Robin, Turdus rufopalliatus (rufous-cloaked thrush) is a Mexican endemic that looks like our robin, but with a yellow eyering instead of white around the eye and, unsurprisingly, with a rufous colored back. The Mexican bird was first recorded in Catalina State Park in 1975; and again in 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2016. When we saw our first Rufous-backed Robin in Arizona on New Year’s Day, 2008 (in Catalina State Park), we were part of an elbow-to-elbow crowd of 200 birders watching it wolf down hackberries. By the time a Rufous-backed Robin returned to the park eight years later, this Mexican visitor had become a more frequent sighting across southern Arizona and the crowds were gone. I guess its fifteen minutes of fame are up.

(The above article appears in the February, 2019 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Caring for our Birds in Winter

A Costa's appreciates thawed sugar water

A male Costa’s Hummingbird appreciates a thawed winter feeder  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Not that long ago it was thought that putting hummingbird feeders out in the winter would encourage birds to hang around past the time they might normally migrate south.  This concern has been proven false for quite some time, but unfortunately some folks still think a feeder will cause a bird to forget to migrate, which can have serious consequences, especially in southern states like Arizona where hummingbirds are resident year round. Here in SaddleBrooke, some of our migrating hummingbirds leave late for Mexico or arrive abnormally early in the spring, and three of our species spend every winter here:  our Costa’s, the male with a purple gorget, Anna’s Hummingbirds (the male’s gorget is ruby red) and the brilliantly blue-green iridescent Broad-billed Hummingbird. These birds don’t wait for spring to nest, and sugar water feeders can make a life or death difference when temperatures plunge.

A winter feeder with frozen sugar water

Even sugar water will freeze if it’s cold enough  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Even in some of the coldest winter states, such as Wisconsin, late or lost migrant hummingbirds have been documented in the middle of winter, but with three year-round species of hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke, we clearly need to keep our hummingbird feeders cleaned and filled regularly.  Winter in the Sonoran Desert can sometimes be brutal, as it was in February of 2011, when our thermometer dropped to 17 degrees.  When temperatures drop below freezing or if our plants and feeders are buried under an atypical snowfall, all our birds are at risk.

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Without a thawed and clear feeder, Hummers can die  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although hummingbirds rely on insects and spiders for protein, up to 90% of their diet consists of flower nectar or the artificial equivalent, sugar water.  Considering that these lightweight wonders (our Costa’s Hummingbirds weigh about two and one-half grams, the same as a penny) routinely beat their wings 70 times per second, it’s little wonder they thrive on high energy sugar fuel.  When freezing weather hits or snow covers flowers and feeders, hummingbirds are particularly vulnerable.  They put themselves into a dormant, low metabolic state during freezing nights, slowly absorbing sugar stored in their crop, but if replacement sugar is not available in the morning, these birds might die.  If an overnight freeze is predicted, bring your feeders in after dark and replace them at first light.  If daytime temperatures persist below freezing, keep a close eye on your feeders, and thaw them out if ice crystals form.  Feeders without metal parts are especially useful, since they can be thawed quickly in a microwave.

A Red-winged Blackbird at a suet feeder

This Red-winged Blackbird is one of many suet eaters  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although hummingbirds are most vulnerable, severe weather impacts all birds.  Sunflower and thistle feeders should be kept clean and full throughout the winter, as well, and winter is a great time to hang suet, which provides high calorie fat.  Suet cages are inexpensive, and suet cakes are cheap as well. If you want to provide a special treat, make your own suet.  Email us for an easy suet recipe, and watch your birds wolf it down in a fraction of the time they spend on commercial cakes. We make suet with lard, bacon drippings and a wide variety of other ingredients including peanut butter, cornmeal, flour, oatmeal, seeds, berries, cereal and nuts.  This is a great way to dispose of nuts, cereal and other foodstuffs that have outlived their shelf life. Another ingredient that your birds will thank you for is freeze-dried mealworms, which can be purchased at Tractor Supply or online at Amazon.  As much as birds appreciate mealworms, you might find it a little difficult to stir them into a simmering suet mixture on your stove.  At the very least you will probably want to dedicate the pot exclusively to suet.

 

This article was first published in the January, 2019 issue of Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson

 

 

 

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The World of the Owl

Great Horned and babies

Great Horned Owl and babies  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Since owls and hawks are both raptors (from the Latin ‘rapere’, to seize) and they share morphological and behavioral traits, originally they were thought to be close relatives.  However, with the emergence of DNA analysis, owls are now known to be only distantly related to hawks and far more closely related to nightjars and nighthawks, a similar group of mostly nocturnal birds.  Owls have probably fascinated and captured the imagination of humans from their first encounter.  These mysterious birds of the night, with their silent flight, large eyes, spooky calls and deadly predation figure prominently in folklore and religion from ancient Greece to Native America.  Owls are simultaneously associated with wisdom, prophecy and death.  In some cultures they are revered, or at least considered good luck and wise, whereas in others an owl and its call are feared as evil and a prophecy of doom.  Birders find them fascinating as well, often giving up a nice dinner or an evening at the theater for an opportunity to go owling.  Some of my birder friends could be considered obsessed with owls, but I’m pretty sure most of them view owls as good luck rather than harbingers of doom.

Wise-old Great Horned Owl

Our most common owl, the Great Horned  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

About 164 species of owls are found worldwide on every continent except Antarctica, and in virtually all habitat including farmland, forests, deserts, islands, tundra and cities.  Of those 164 species, only 19 breed north of Mexico, and these range from the Southwest’s 6-inch Elf Owl to the 27-inch Great Gray Owl of the northern U.S. and Canada.  The most common owl in SaddleBrooke is the Great Horned Owl, widespread from Canada through Mexico and often seen sleeping in a mesquite or palm tree during the day or calling from a chimney top at dusk.

Heart-faced Barn Owl

Heart-faced Barn Owl  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Owls don’t build nests, but use platforms, cavities or other birds’ abandoned nests instead.  Local Great Horned Owls have ‘nested’ on the flat patio rooftop outside a second story SaddleBrooke restaurant, in the crook of a forked saguaro or in a regular nest of sticks built by Common Ravens.  Owls are carnivorous, eating a wide range of invertebrates and vertebrates, and are one of our best friends when it comes to controlling the spread of white-throated wood rats, commonly called pack rats.  Great Horned Owls can eat a rat daily, which amounts to more than 9,000 rats during their 25-year lifespan.  Think about that the next time a pest control salesman tries to talk you into using a poisoned bait box to kill a rat in your yard.  The poison they use is a slow acting agent that doesn’t kill a rat for two or three days, while he staggers around looking like an easy prey to owls, hawks and bobcats.  Kill one rat with poison that then secondarily kills a Great Horned Owl, and you’ve unintentionally added thousands of rats to our population.

Burrowing Owls, Rocky Point

Ground-dwelling Burrowing Owls, Puerto Penasco  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

An owl that roosts and nests in burrows rather than above ground is the appropriately-named the Burrowing Owl, a small 10-inch owl that can be found perching in the open or peeking out of a dirt burrow built by prairie dogs or ground squirrels.  Burrowing Owls eat small rodents, lizards and birds, and I’m guessing prairie dogs and ground squirrels.  Like other small owls, Burrowing Owls are cute and often sought after by birders.  However, they line their flea-ridden burrows with cow chips, horse dung, food debris and pellets, and, not surprisingly, they often choose a new burrow a couple of weeks after their young emerge.  And by the way, if their housekeeping habits don’t discourage visitors, they also mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Lopez Island Barred Owl

Barred Owl, Lopez Island Washington  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

(This article originally appeared in the December, 2018 Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Mimids

 

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher, Tucson (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

What do catbirds, thrashers and mockingbirds have in common?  If you answered they all mimic other birds, you’d be right.  Although a number of birds play at mimicking other birds, mockingbirds, thrashers and catbirds are specialists, to the point of having their own family, Mimidae, Latin for ‘mimic’.  Mockingbirds have earned their name, spending hours sometimes, relentlessly expressing their remarkable repertoire of the songs of other species, singing a seemingly never-ending series of short phrases which are repeated two to six times before moving into a new series.  How many songs does a mockingbird sing?  Easily hundreds, and each bird continues to learn and perfect new songs as he (or she) is exposed to other birds. And not just other birds; mockingbirds as well as other mimics are also expert at copying almost any sound from ringing telephones to swinging flagpole chains.  We were having a hamburger on In ‘N Out’s patio one day when we heard a cell phone ring. Since we were alone, we assumed a guest had forgotten his phone until we saw a Curve-billed Thrasher doing a perfect telephone imitation.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird enjoying an orange (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although the why and wherefore of vocal mimicry by birds is still a subject of debate among ornithologists, it appears to have nothing to do with deceit but rather much to do with sex (what’s new?)  Studied evidence suggests that the more a bird’s song repertoire is expanded, the more successful that bird is in intimidating rivals and attracting and stimulating females.  Here in Southeastern Arizona, we’re fortunate to have both mockingbirds and thrashers when it comes to avian opera, although when springtime rivalry gets mockingbirds up at O-dark thirty, some light sleepers might take exception.  Of the five thrashers found in southeast Arizona, the most common is the Curve-billed Thrasher, our backyard bird with the signature loud and sharp two or three whistles.  Many newcomers to Arizona are pleasantly surprised when they discover that this noisy brash and bullying ‘pack rat with wings’ is also a closet Pavarotti, perched high in the open, singing his heart out where you expected to find a Northern Mockingbird.  As much as these two birds seem to sound alike, it’s actually easy to distinguish one from the other.  The song of a mockingbird is a regular repetition of short phrases, while that of a thrasher is more chaotic, irregular and occasionally punctuated with that signature sharp whistle. Sort of like amateur hour when it comes to opera.

Gray Catbird in Virginia

Gray Catbird, Alexandria, Virginia (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

You’ll have to travel east to find Gray Catbirds, the third member of the Mimid family, since they’re rarely seen in Arizona.  Often, they’re rarely seen where they live as well, since they are darkly colored, solitary and elusive in brush and heavy vegetation. However, when a male catbird chooses to sing, he seeks the limelight like other prima donnas and finds an exposed and open perch.  We had no trouble finding these striking and beautiful birds on a trip to Virginia last May.

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

When birdsong fills the air, but you have trouble identifying the bird, think ‘Mimid’ and look for a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird.  You should also consider these same birds when you hear the ‘phone’ ring, a flagpole chain or a barking dog.

(This article will appear in the November, 2018 issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Rocky Mountain High

Double-crested Cormorant in a Denver trout stream

Double-crested Cormorant in a Denver trout stream  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Forty six years ago, John Denver celebrated the state of Colorado with a mostly incoherent song called ‘Rocky Mountain High’.  The lyrics stumble around the mountains, singing about getting crazy, trying to touch the sun and watching fire rain from the sky. Colorado’s Amendment 64 wasn’t implemented until 2014, but ‘friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high’ sounds like Denver and his buddies might have jumped the gun on legal marijuana.  Nevertheless, you don’t need drugs to feel high in Colorado.  Literally, it’s a high place to hang, with 115 Mountains higher than 10,000 feet and 25 higher than 14,000 feet.  Figuratively and emotionally, it’s also easy to feel high in Colorado—vistas are sweeping, the scenery spectacular and summer wildflowers are glorious. The birding isn’t too shabby, either.

 

a young male Pine Grosbeak

Young male Pine Grosbeak  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Colorado is smaller than Arizona both in area and population, but the birding is surprisingly comparable.  According to eBird reports, 500 species have been documented in Colorado compared with 554 in Arizona, almost equal in spite of the regular influx of Mexican birds into Arizona.  Reported eBird sightings (checklists) are also comparable, with more than 600,000 in both states.  However, for one metric, eBird hotspots, Colorado surpasses Arizona at many sites.  For example, Arizona’s Catalina State Park is a single eBird hotspot. Admittedly, the variety of habitat within the 5,000 acre park suggests more hotspots would be in order, but some Colorado sites choke with hotspots, complicating reporting and research.  For example, Denver’s Chatfield State Park is less than 4,000 acres (and a reservoir accounts for 1,500 of those acres), but a visiting birder is confronted with no less than 31 eBird hotspots.  Regardless, the birding is great, whether you are looking for Mountain Plovers or Lark Buntings (the state bird) on the Pawnee National Grassland, Blue Jays in Denver, Black-billed Magpies anywhere or camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigans on Mt. Evans.

 

Summer camouflage of the White-tailed Ptarmigan

Camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mt. Evans  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In addition to Pine Grosbeaks and Gray Jays, Colorado is home to the near-endemic Gunnison Sage-Grouse (next door Utah has some as well), and is one of the few states where you can find the yellow-crowned American Three-toed Woodpecker. Summer in the mountains is the definition of delightful. Colorful birds compete with colorful wildflowers.  Mountain Bluebirds, Western Tanagers and the magenta-splashed Calliope Hummingbird, North America’s smallest bird, mix well with lupine, scarlet gilia and the state flower, Colorado blue columbine. One of our favorite high-altitude birds is the White-tailed Ptarmigan, a hearty bird found in alpine tundra year-round. Females are a little less macho than males, wintering just below treeline along willowed streams, while their daredevil mates tough it out above treeline winter and summer. Both sexes are masters of camouflage, turning speckled yellowish black on white in summer, blending perfectly with the rocky tundra, and reverting to pure white to disappear in the high country’s winter snow.

 

The state flower, Colorado blue columbine

Rocky Mountain state flower, the Colorado blue columbine  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you’re lucky enough to spend some time in Colorado this summer, try not to touch the sun, avoid crazy and watch out for fire raining from the sky.  Spend your time with birds and flowers instead, and any lyrics you write probably will make more sense than John Denver’s.

(The above article first appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, July, 2018)

 

 

 

 

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Vacation Birding

Bald Eagle circling the Nature Sanctuary

Bald Eagle soars above Martha Lafite Thompson Sanctuary (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you’re a serious birder, you don’t just pack your binoculars and camera for long trips to exotic places like Brazil or South Africa; you take advantage of every opportunity to see birds during even the shortest of getaways.  We recently traveled to Liberty, Missouri for a brief four-night visit in order to attend a college fraternity dinner. The three-day stay was heavily packed with visits with friends and family as well as the dinner, and we didn’t expect to fit any meaningful birding into such as short time, but we were pleasantly surprised.  Knowing our free time would be limited, we planned ahead (always a good idea) by searching eBird.org for birding ‘hotspots’ in or near our hotel in Liberty.  Liberty, Missouri, the county seat of Clay County, is better known for its bank robbers and jails than as a birding hotspot; after all, this is where the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was jailed for five months and where Jesse James pulled off the first daylight successful peacetime bank robbery in the U.S., on February 13, 1866, killing a college student in the process (not one of my fraternity brothers).  Nevertheless, there are dozens of eBird hotspots within a 15-mile radius of Liberty, which includes the major metropolitan center of Kansas City.

Male Downy Woodpecker, Missouri

Missouri Male Downy Woodpecker at Martha Lafite  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

These hotspots range from parks and prairies to lakes and rivers, but our favorite was a relatively small 100-acre wildlife preserve, the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary located just a few minutes east of the Jesse James Bank Museum in downtown Liberty.  157 species have been reported on eBird since it opened, with a broad variety of birds ranging from water birds like Blue-winged Teals (Rush Creek meanders through the sanctuary grounds), forest dwellers like Blue Jay and Tufted Titmouse to Raptors like Red-shouldered Hawk and Bald Eagle.  In the few short visits we enjoyed at the park we found 40 species, with many unknown or at least uncommon to the Sonoran Desert we bird back in Arizona.  These included Red-bellied, Pileated and Downy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, American Goldfinch, Brown Thrasher and one new life bird, the Swamp Sparrow.

Blue-winged Teals on Rush Creek, Missouri

Blue-winged Teal Pair on Rush Creek  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Sanctuary is well staffed with a pleasant and very helpful crew of knowledgeable naturalists, overseen by the resident Executive Director Michael Sandy, who somehow fit meaningful time into a crowded schedule to guide us around the nature center and grounds.  The Nature Center, which provides classrooms, a gift shop, nature library and a feeder-viewing deck, attracts more than 10,000 kids each year from schools, scouts, churches and 4-H groups to learn more about local wildlife preservation.  We managed to squeeze in birding at three or four other eBird hotspots, including Smithville Lake and a park along the banks of the Missouri River, but none of these sites was more satisfying than Martha Lafite Thompson.  My only regret was the decision to leave my heavier telephoto lens behind, a mistake I won’t make again.

Swamp Sparrow at Martha Lafite

Swamp Sparrow on Rush Creek  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you’re a birder, the next time you plan a short vacation to someplace different don’t forget to take some time to research nearby birding hotspots. And don’t forget your binoculars and good camera.  You won’t regret it, and you might even learn something about notorious bank robbers.

(This article will be published in the June 2018 Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

 

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