Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Everyday Birding

I work as a Naturalist at the World Bird Sanctuary, in Valley Park, Missouri.  Each day as I drive to work, I observe birds and bird behavior, and I try to guess what I'll see based on the season and the weather conditions.

Have you noticed that the Starlings are no longer traveling by themselves or in their single family units of 3 to 6 birds? European Starlings are chalkboard-eraser sized birds, and are generally blackish as adults and brownish as juvenile birds. They have short tails relative to Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles.

Many Starlings have now joined other family groups, and the flocks are quite large--some as many as hundreds of birds. You may see them perched on wires, or in large groups foraging in the grass alongside the roadway. When the birds are startled, they take to the air. It looks like a big ball of birds, wheeling and turning in the sky, seeming never to touch, yet inches or less from one hundred other birds. How do they maintain their distance from each other. How do they not crash? I've never seen a Starling fall out of the flock after a crash...have you?

This Starling flocking behavior is common at the end of the summer. I suspect more eyes to find food and more bird eyes watching for potential predators contributes to this phenomenon. They are survival techniques. What do you think about when you see so many Starlings flying together?

Lately, as I travel on Highway 141 Southbound and cross the bridge over the Meramec River, I look to the right and check the roadside wires for birds. I often see Cliff Swallows. These birds are very small and look mostly brownish as I travel 30-40 miles per hour over the bridge. Some of the Swallows will give me a flash of orange on their cheek, throat or rump. Sometimes as many as twenty birds will sit in close proximity to one another on the wire - about 6 inches apart. They fly launch themselves off the wire to chase insects over the Meramec River. Cliff Swallows are known to build gourd-shaped mud nests under a few bridges in the St. Louis area.

Every day as I drive past I wonder if yesterday was the last day that I would see the swallows for the season. Migration beckons. Which day will they slip away to the south? My guess is many drivers never notice. The birds winter in South America from Brazil to Central Argentina.

I last saw them on August 17th, 2009. Will I see them again this season? Most Cliff Swallows leave the St. Louis area in September and the rest are gone by mid-October. Do you drive over a bridge on the way to work? Do you see Cliff Swallows on the wires over or next to the river? Let me know.

American Goldfinches are nicknamed the "Wild Canary" for their vibrant yellow color, and I have recently seen them feeding on the seeds of the Chicory flower. Earlier in the season they seem to favor the hot pink Thistle flowers. The Chicory is the beautiful bluish spindly flower that grows right next to the asphalt, on highways and outer roads. We travel the North outer road of Highway 44 to get to work at World Bird Sanctuary. The yellow Goldfinches have been feeding on the blue Chicory flowers at the road's edge, on the shoulder. The birds have been seen as close as two feet to the road and one foot off the ground. The yellow birds on the blue flowers is vibrant and eye-catching. The Chicory are beginning to fade now. Have you seen this feeding behavior on your way to work?

Tell me what you have seen on the way to work. If you need help learning how to identify birds, come join us at one of our Sunrise with Songbirds birding walks. Click here for more information.
Our next dates for Sunrise With Songbirds are: September 13, October 25, November 14, and December 13, 2009. Call 636-225-4390 to make a reservation.
Let's talk about the birds you see on the way to work.

Submitted by Mike Zeloski, Naturalist for the World Bird Sanctuary


DNLee said...

very nice "eye-post". i play that game too and talk about urban wildlife sightings on my blog.

Photog said...

Photographer, Jason Harrison, relayed this story....I was fortunate enough to spend about a week during the prime mating season and several times observed and photographed a Cooper's Hawk pair during many matings. It was funny that I quickly learned that the female would not allow the male to mate unless he brought her a DE-feathered piece of meat back! No kidding…he brought in a fresh kill, no luck, brought it back all clean and was allowed to. This happened about 7 other times, each time it had to be cleaned up before she would eat it and allow him to mate. Which by the way occurred WHILE she was eating.