Thanksgiving birds and why we’re thankful for them

I am definitely thankful for birds.  I love all manner of wildlife, but birds were my first love and although I’m very polyamorous with taxa, I still favor the birds.  This Thanksgiving week found me in a very birdy mood.  I decided to challenged myself to bird every day of this holiday week.  I did not get every day off of work, but my job allows me chances to watch birds.  I was able to bird at least a little every day.  However, my two big days were on the 22nd and 23rd of November.  This post will focus on those two days.

November 22nd

On this glorious and cool day, some of the family decided to bird it up at Lake Saracen, in Pine Bluff, AR.  One of my favorite birding locales did not disappoint on this outing.  We started out at the usual trail head, at the southeast corner of this mostly square lake.  Scanning the lake, we found Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, and American White Pelicans.  Before starting the trail, we had a flyover of Rock Pigeons and heard the distant chatter of a Belted Kingfisher.  These are the winter staples of Lake Saracen.  We started off on the trail and listed to a small tract of bottomland hardwood that sits next to the trail.   This part, which is normally filled with sparrow and wren calls, was quiet.  We finally heard a Winter Wren calling. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers grew tired of hiding and called “chup” from a large black willow (Salix nigra).  We moved ahead and focused on an island, close to the trail.  A few Killdeer roamed around this island, but the highlight was a lone Wilson’s Snipe.  These snipe are by no means uncommon, but I have not seen one at the lake in a few winters.  Back in 2010-11, these snipe, plus a overwintering Greater Yellowlegs, were present every time I visited.  I was glad to see this bird and hoped for a snipier winter on the lake.  After adoring the snipe we looked beyond the island and watched as a group of Bufflehead flew in from the north.  Again, these past couple of years have not yielded many ducks on Saracen, so I was happy to see these, though the Bufflehead are pretty reliable at Saracen.  The bank vegetation, which consists of Hibiscus, Chinaberry, Chinese Tallow, and Heartleaf Peppervine, is a great hiding place for sparrows in the winter.  Today was no exception, as we saw several Song Sparrows in this mix of native and non-native, woody plants.

We stopped just before the wetland area to view an American Kestrel that was looking for birds, just like us!  We tried to be sneaky, but we failed and scared the kestrel away.  The birds were quiet until the kestrel was well away.  After a few seconds of continued concealment, the birds began to pipe up.  There were several Song Sparrows that were joined by singing White-throated Sparrows.  A House Wren gave its hurried rattle of a call and Swamp Sparrows gave their percussive “sweet” calls.  In yet another willow we found a sizable group of Yellow-rumped Warblers, just chilling.  Upon a quick playback of a Song Sparrow song, the birds got all stirred up.  I try not to do too much playback, and only wanted to elicit a song from the famed songsters.  I achieved this by riling up many sparrows.  I not only heard the song of the Song Sparrow, but also of the White-throated Sparrow.  Even an Eastern Towhee popped up to see what was going on.  This marshy area leads to a larger tract of bottomland hardwoods that has an edge dominated by Chinese Privet, hooray for Chinese imports.  We had Ruby-crowned Kinglets give their prolonged rattling call from this edge.  Cedar Waxwings accumulated in the canopy of this tract.  We could see their flocks whisking about the canopy and could here their high-pitched contact calls, but once they landed in the trees they were concealed.

After getting our fill of the woods, we turned to the lake.  We saw a handful of American Coots and a scattering of Pied-billed Grebes.  This was all expected.  What was ahead was definitely unexpected.  Just off of the bank, we saw two Great Blue Herons within a few feet of each other.  This in itself was odd, for they had miles of unoccupied shoreline to forage.  Maybe this was where the fish and inverts had gathered.  I figured we could explain there proximity, but what happened next was a complete surprise.  I don’t know what a mating dance of GB Herons looks like and I’m not terribly positive about when it takes place.  I would assume that the dance, if there is one, happens shortly before copulation, which happens a few weeks before nesting, initially.  I’ll admit that, even as much as I love birds, I am not well-studied on the nuances of individual species’ mating procedures.  I do know that Mallard, and probably other ducks, mate on the wintering grounds and on stopover points during migration.  Many don’t wait until they reach the breeding grounds to copulate.  Female Mallards typically winter farther north than the aggressive males and usually a mate choose from the less aggressive males.  However, they can pair with more aggressive males, who would possess more ideal genes, on stopover points (I need to cite all of this info, but I can’t find my list of resources from my mallard research paper; look for edited versions of this post).  We have both migratory and resident GB Herons.  However, it seems a little early for mating.  Owls are notoriously early nesters, but I’m not sure of the advantages of this early nesting.  Sorry, I got carried away…What we saw was one heron approach the other with a stooping body and neck-craning motion.  The other heron watched intently.  When egrets get ready to breed, they show off lovely, plumose feathers.  There were none of these, and I don’t believe that GB Herons possess these to the extent of the egrets.  We watched as the one heron repeated this odd dance.  The dance ended awkwardly and both herons kind of ignored the other and resumed foraging.  This may have just been an aggressive posture, similar to defensive Canada Geese.  Whatever this was, it was new to me.

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Great Egret

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Great Blue Heron

We rounded the first leg and headed back to the car.  The first leg ends at the northeast corner of the lake.  Looking north, one immediately sees Brump Bayou, beyond that is an agri-field.  In this field we saw a large group of blackbirds, the majority of them were Common Grackles.  This flock also brought out the Red-winged Blackbirds that had been nestled in their reeds.  We made our way back and heard many of the birds we had seen on the walk out.  We got good looks at a Belted Kingfisher as it moved from power line to power line, rattling all the while.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Obscure Bird Grasshopper

November 23rd

I went alone on this day before Thanksgiving.  I didn’t want to get too far from the house, for we were cooking on this day and it was all hands on deck.  I decided to hit the combo of locales of southeast Little Rock.  These include Harper Rd., Frazier Pike, David D. Terry Park/Lock & Dam, and Thibault Rd.

I set out on Harper and immediately got into a sing-off between White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows.  These “cousins” sing a similar song but have different habitat preferences, so I don’t get to hear them side-by-side often.  White-throats are observed just about anywhere there are woods and understory cover, in the winter.  White-crowns like more open country with grown-up fence rows providing adequate cover.  Here, we had both.  I traveled along woods and by fields.  An Orange-crowned Warbler called from the edge of a bottomland hardwood tract, then a Killdeer would sound off in a nearby field.  I had a decent-sized flock of blackbirds that was definitely a duke’s mixture: 12 Common Grackles, 6 Rusty Blackbirds, 7 Red-winged Blackbirds, 3 Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a handful of European Starlings.  I was pleased to see a Northern Harrier gliding along near an irrigation ditch.  This one was either a female or immature male.  The powerlines held Mourning Doves, an American Kestrel, and a Loggerhead Shrike.  It was a decent run but I struck out on the Inca Doves that I sometimes see here.  They had been reported earlier in the week, and have since been reported, from this location.

Once I reached the end of Harper Rd, I turned south on Frazier Pike.  My destination was a series of fields that often held overwintering Sandhill Cranes.  I got to the field and was elated to find that there cranes were present and closer than I have ever observed them before.  There were five of them foraging about 100 yds away from the road.  I sat in the middle of the road for several minutes just watching them.  I saw headlights in my rearview mirror and decided it was time to move on.  I snapped a few pictures and headed down the road.  I turned around less than a mile away and headed back.  The turn in I used had a power line over head, which held my second Loggerhead Shrike of the day.  I stopped again and watched the cranes.  I obtained the address so I could report them to the Arkansas Birders listserv, I and continued on to the lock and dam.

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Sandhill Cranes

I stopped just before the entrance to David D. Terry Park and surveyed the topsoil pit.  There were gobs of sparrows.  Swamp Sparrows gave their clear, “sweet” call, one or two Song Sparrows sang, Savannah Sparrows flew back and forth from the willows to the nearby pasture, and White-throated Sparrows called “cheak” and sang “O, Sam Peabody-peabody-peabody.”  I stopped at various points along the river, in the park, and saw a handful of Ring-billed Gulls, Great Egrets, and Great Blue Herons lazing around.  Back at the topsoil pit, I found two Red-headed Woodpeckers.  This was a nice surprise.  I hadn’t seen this species since late summer.  This species seems to be somewhat nomadic, when not tied down to a nest.

I got back on Frazier and head north.  Shortly after turning on to this road, I found another light-colored Red-tailed Hawk.  Unlike the one I saw in Cleveland Co., this one resembled a Krider’s subspecies, more than a light-morph Harlan’s.  I read an article, I believe it was by Jerry Liguori, focused on ID-ing Red-tail subspecies.  It states that these subspecies can be tough to differentiate.  I used 3 traits in my final decision of Krider’s over Harlan’s:

  1. White throat with white crown (Cleveland Co. hawk had a dark crown)
  2. Mottled white on upperwing coverts
  3. Reduced belly band and slightly reduced patagial band (patchy, at least)

If this ID holds, it is the first Krider’s I have seen.  That puts my Red-tailed Hawk subspecies list to 3:  Eastern, Harlan’s, and Krider’s.  However, sometimes the Krider’s is just considered a light-morph of the Eastern subspecies.

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Krider’s Hawk underside

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Krider’s Hawk in flight

I followed Frazier until it turned into Thibault Rd.  Annually, there is a Merlin that overwinters on this road.  There are reports of an overwintering Merlin on Frazier Pike, as well, so there may be two Merlins in this area.  For whatever reason, I annually miss this Merlin and have to get my fix elsewhere (they aren’t rare, just uncommon winter residents in Arkansas).  Today was different.  I stopped at the spot that it had been reported (right next to the “Arkansas’ Best Topsoil” sign) and found it sitting about 20 yds away from its smaller cousin, the American Kestrel.  The two birds are somewhat similar.  They are proportioned quite differently.  Comparatively, the kestrel has a melon head.  The kestrel is kind of the cartoony falcon, while the Merlin is shaped more like a traditional falcon.  In flight, they both look equally ferocious and agile.  The kestrel features lighter colors, blues and tans.  The Merlin is dark blue or dark brown, with heavier streaking.  I stopped to take pictures of the two of them after admiring them for a minute or two.  I had just snapped a few shots when a car came speeding around me.  The Merlin fled to points unknown, and the kestrel moved down the power line, making it a poor photography subject.  Getting to see the Merlin up close was exciting and educating.  I only see about one Merlin per year and they don’t usually let me get as close as I got to this one.  Our encounter was brief, but enlightening nonetheless.

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Merlin

I finished the day, and the week, with several awesome outing and 68 wonderful species.  The cranes were flagged as “rare” by eBird.  They have become annual winter residents at this locale, but I believe that this was their first report of their arrival.  I normally start hearing reports about them and subsequently chase them around the first of January.  This was definitely a week of which to be thankful.

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