Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 2010, report from Joe Neal in the field

9 degrees at 9:00 in Siloam Springs. But sunny. But northwest wind – light. I’ve run across a small mixed species sparrow flock on the sunny, south-facing, out of the north wind side of 5 huge chicken houses. There are Savannah Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows, a few meadowlarks and Starlings, 1 Harris’s Sparrow, plus one American Tree Sparrow, all red-capped, bright and sprightly on our coldest day of the year so far. Like Field Sparrows today, tree sparrows seemed sprinkled among the other flocks, with 1-2 associated with at least 3 flocks dominated by White-crowned Sparrows.

Big fields all have a thin crust of ice and snow. The chicken houses are steaming. Trucks have been driving in and out servicing the chicken houses. There’s short grass, bare ground, spilled chicken feed. That’s where the birds are. Except for Bald Eagles perched up on stout limbs of leafless oaks, and except for 25 Ring-billed Gulls standing on an iced-up pond. Even the harriers are sheltering out of the wind. Of 4 today, two were perched low and protected, on the sunny, south-facing sides of dense thickets.

From Siloam I’m headed for Maysville. In the distance, a big plume from the SWEPCO plant rises from the stack, forms a hammer-headed cloud, drifts south. It’s all the way up to 12 degrees at 1:30 according to folks at the Maysville handi-stop. The old Beatie Prairie here is mostly wide open, so no one will be surprised this trip is mostly in car, heater blowing, window down ONLY when I use the scope. Bald Eagles overhead, adults and immatures, and Bald Eagles everywhere I drive.

The biggest flocks are Savannah Sparrows (100-150 in one flock, plus many smaller flocks) and White-crowned Sparrows (50+ in one flock, plus many other flocks). The two flocks of American Pipits are on the sunny sides of chicken houses or in a dairy feedlot, also protected from the wind. During the day I find 2-3 flocks of Horned Larks, with Lapland Longspurs. The first lark flock also includes a bunch of Savannah Sparrows and at least 8 longspurs. Later, I find another flock, actually a cloud of longspurs, spiraling a harvested bean field, then settling into short, snow-free grass and a big driveway, adjacent chicken houses. I get one count of 85 of them on the ground.

The spot with 8 longspurs is part of the Chastain Cattle Company operation. A friendly, curious Mr Chastain himself drives up, very busy hauling big round bales of hay to his cows. I’ve met him before; we talked eagles then. This time we brave the cold and wind, set up my tripod, and get the spotting scope on Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Savannah Sparrows enjoying the sunny side of one of his barns. We have good looks; the birds are too busy trying to survive to overly worry about us. But here comes a nosy kestrel, swooping low, driven by hunger like all these birds. The little birds are off with longspur rattles, savannah seeps, and the see-lits, see-lits of larks.

They’ll be back. For wild creatures of the old prairies, there are few alternatives on a deep winter day like this one.

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