Friday, February 22, 2013

Prairie Ridge, Chickens and a Tree Sparrow, February 5

I got up early enough to get gas and arrive at Prairie Ridge before first light.  Google maps focused on the preserve rather than the office complex and took me to a spot by open fields.  I negotiated the rest of the way to the office complex on my own in the dark.  That's why I left extra early!  As per instructions on the Prairie ridge website, I parked by the gate on the right side so that I did not block entry when the gate was open.  I pushed my camera, scope and tripod under the gate, climbed over the gate  and walked toward the northwest corner of the fenced in area to the designated viewing area with wooden cross-hatching.  As I waited, there was a little light in the east, but there was cloud cover.  When I arrived I could hear a Short-eared Owl (SEOW) calling/barking.  As the light increased, I saw at least two Short-eared Owls, one as close as 10-20 feet from the fence. However, it was still too dark for photography.  I saw several more SEOW hunting in the distance as well as several Northern Harriers.  With more light, I found the display area to the northwest about 300 yards distance, where there were dark figures that were apparently Greater Prairie Chickens.  I could hear them clucking.  One of the staff arrived, and came back to talk with me.  So far I had seen a maximum of 7 chickens, which he stated were only half of the current population.  He told me that these birds were young males trying to establish spots on the display area before the adult males arrived later in the season.  The current population had been reduced by a heavy hail storm two (?) years ago.  He suggested that I stop in the office before I leave.  I stayed and tried for some photos, even though the conditions were not optimum.  At first, a clearing in the clouds low to the horizon in the east increased the light on the display area as the sun rose.  However, this did not last long as the cloud cover moved.  Through the scope, I could see birds chasing each other on the ground and in the air with raised feathers behind their head and yellowish orange sacs bulging on their neck.  This would happen only occasionally, and then the birds would settle down and crouch on the ground.  A harrier  flew in, scattered the birds briefly and then landed on the ground nearby.  After the harrier arrived, there were only five Greater Prairie Chickens that remained.  Below are the best photos I obtained showing five birds as well as raised feathers and sacs.  These require extensive modification in Photoshop due to the poor conditions for photography.  I also heard a Northern Bobwhite call out over the prairie, saw and heard Eastern Meadowlark, both new for the year, and Lapland Longspurs calling as they flew over.

I saw flocks of American Tree Sparrows in the area, and large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds flew over heading out to feed in the farm fields.  As I walked back, Starlings on the barn roof partially imitated bobwhite calls, but the one I heard out on the prairie from a different direction was the real thing.  I stopped in the office and talked to the two staff guys.  They do have Northern Bobwhite in the preserve.  We chatted about my big year.  When I mentioned that I was headed toward St Louis for Eurasian tree Sparrow, one of them suggested Horseshoe State Park as a good place and slightly closer.  After picking up a bird checklist and some information about the preserve, I headed back to Super 8 for a continental breakfast.  On the way, I found large flocks of Snow Geese with both blue and white phase, but no smaller birds to check for Ross's Goose.   After breakfast, I packed my car and headed west to Horseshoe Lake SP.  It was only about 1.5 hours west on I-70 and then north.  Google maps failed me again taking me around in a circuitous route that could have been avoided.

Horseshoe Lake State Park is small.  I drove around the park and tried areas of brush and bushy areas, looking for American Tree Sparrow flocks.  The information I had gleaned indicated that Eurasian Tree Sparrows are often found with American Tree Sparrows in winter and may be found near agricultural fields.   I found a flock of American Tree Sparrows on Walker Island but no Eurasian Tree Sparrows along the nature trail that skirted the west side of Horseshoe Lake adjacent to a harvested corn field.  I did find a flock of eight Northern Shovelers, new for the year, and a Merlin, also new, which flew by on a direct line, causing a feeding flock of Robins and Starlings to freeze, where they were feeding on the lawn near the park office.  That is how I found the Merlin, and was able to look up quickly and see the all gray back, wings and tail as it made a beeline across the lake.  Typical for Merlin.  Because I was having no luck in my search, I decided to do an internet search on my Droid Razr.  I found a previously published paper by Randy Korotev, updated 2006, which suggested Horseshoe Lake SP, and to check nearby School House Road only 0.2 miles south of the park off of Rt. 111 and Bruns Road, if the birds were not found in the state park.  I took School House Road east checking near farm buildings, etc.  At the intersection with Bruns at an airpark, I found eight Eurasian Collared Doves in a leafless deciduous tree.  At first, I almost passed them off as Mourning doves until I checked closely.  I turned south on Bruns through open fields until I came to a very thick leafless bush covered thickly with leafless vines.  As I approached, I saw a sparrow jump up into the back of the bush low to the ground.  It was a White-crowned Sparrow.  However, as I scanned the bush, I noticed other birds and found a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which soon disappeared into the depths of the thickest part of this bush.  This bush seemed promising because it was the only one on this road accept for two houses with some landscaping up ahead.  I decided to drive south on Bruns, let the birds rest a bit, come back and try again.
On my return, I parked beyond the bush away from the nearby houses and on the right side where the bush was located.  As I scanned the bush again, a flock of at least 50 sparrows flew out of the agricultural field, winter wheat apparently, and landed in the bush.  All of the birds were Eurasian Tree Sparrows!!  Below are the best photographs I obtained, the first showing the spot on the face and brown crown and the second showing at least 17 Eurasian Tree Sparrows!  At about 5:00 - 5:30 pm, I headed back to Cincinnati.  The total is 132. 

I would need a 6000 mile oil change and anything else my new car require under warrantee.  I arrived back home at abut 10:00 pm.

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