Nesting Birds of Missouri – Acadian Flycatcher

Warning: although I find the material in this post quite interesting and I am pleased with the observations made and detective work accomplished, there is not, unfortunately, a happy ending.

Having the fortune of living within minutes of a few Ste. Genevieve County gems, this summer Steve was fortunate to find something we had been on the lookout for while on a stroll at Hawn S.P.  He sent word that he had found an active nest of a pair of Acadian Flycatchers.  Not only that, but it was in a fairly nice position for photography and the pair did not seem too concerned if the viewer stayed low and silent.  Needless to say, I was excited.  We visited days later to find mom on the eggs – yet to hatch.

Acadian Flycatcher - On Nest
Acadian Flycatcher – On Nest

The female would leave the nest for less than three to four minutes at a time to feed herself.  The male was primarily concerned with scouting and announcing his territory, vocalizing continuously as he traveled its circumference.

Acadian Flycatchers - Mom Taking a Break
Acadian Flycatchers – Mom Taking a Break

Once in a while both parents would be at the nest at the same time.  Gee, I wonder why dad doesn’t come around more often… 😉  We were surprised by the relatively large size of the bird’s beaks and the small size of the nest!

Acadian Flycatchers - Giving the Business
Acadian Flycatchers – Giving the Business

To give some idea of the habitat these guys were using…  These are definitely forest dwelling birds.  This section of Hawn was close to a 50:50 mix of Short-leaf Pine and deciduous trees.  The nest itself was located in a Black Gum that was approximately 30-40′ tall.

Acadian Flycatchers - Habitat Shot
Acadian Flycatchers – Habitat Shot

A follow up visit a week later found that two visible chicks were in that tiny nest!  In the photo below, one of the parents had just brought a spider back to feed to one of the altricial young.

Acadian Flycatchers - Feeding Time
Acadian Flycatchers – Feeding Time

The next photo documents the large, developing eyes of these sightless young.  Also take note of the characteristic nests of these birds.  The tendrils on these nests are strung up with spider webs and can be up to a meter long.  According to the literature, this nest is near the maximum height range from the ground (~25′) that this species will build.  As great as this was, I would love to find a nest built lower.

Acadian Flycatchers - Unmistakable
Acadian Flycatchers – Unmistakable

The following Saturday we visited during prime lighting hours for where the nest was located.  With the relatively quick fledging time of these songbirds, we gave it about a 50% chance that the chicks would still be in the nest.  We got to our viewing spot – a dry creek bed that gave us partial cover, and waited.  Other than an occasional song from dad at a distance, we had no sign whatsoever of anything going on at the nest.  After sitting silent and ready for about 40 minutes, we had concluded that the nest was no longer in use.  The chicks might have fledged?

We decided we could safely walk directly under the nest without interfering with anything.  When we arrived we were disappointed to find that both chicks were lying directly underneath the nest, dead.  For a while we contemplated what could have happened.  Could a storm or wind gust have knocked them from the perch?  As we lamented the demise of these fresh beings, Steve saw something near the crotch where the nest branch met the trunk.  Here is what we observed and answered our questions.

Black Rat Snake - Eater of Chicks
Black Rat Snake – Eater of Chicks

See that bulge in this young Rat Snake?  We hypothesized that this was a third chick that this guy had preyed upon.  We suppose that during the process of ingesting this chick, the other two were either pushed or decided they were better off jumping from the nest, then wait for the fate of the unfortunate sibling.  We were fortunate to arrive at the nest in time to spot this snake before it had moved on.  We bothered it long enough to take some images, then let him hide in peace to digest his meal.


I Got Your Oxalis Right Here!

“Violet Wood Sorrel”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 160,  f/10, 1/15 sec

Dedicated to my bros Brian K. and Jeff H.  They’ll know what I mean. ;=)

The name “sorrel” comes from the sour-like taste these plants give.  This taste comes from oxalic acid and these guys were the first source from which this compound was isolated.  I have recently read that much like most of the forbs in the Ozarks these guys were used by Native Americans and early European settlers as a food source to spice up salads as well as having intended medicinal values.  Don’t eat too much, however, as the concentrations of oxalate in these plants are even higher than in spinach and tea and apparently kidney stones could be a consequence.

Violet wood sorrel grows from tiny bulbs beginning in mid spring in the Ozarks and is usually found in acidic, rocky open woods, fallow fields, prairies and roadsides according to Steyermark.  These guys will bloom multiple times across the growing season, usually following a cool rainy spell.

I spent most of yesterday hiking Hawn State Park, where these guys were one of the most abundant wildflower in bloom.  I hiked all three loops, Whispering Pines North and South and the White Oak trail for the first time in one day.  Including the connector trail I believe this was a bit more than 15 miles.  With my 27 pound pack and lunch + water, let me tell you I felt it during the last five miles or so.  I didn’t take the camera out much, being mostly interested in the hike and not seeing too much that interested me composition-wise anyway.

I’m still stunned about the schedule spring has taken and I can’t stop talking about it.  I went to Hawn hoping to time the bloom of the wild azaleas, which usually do not start to bloom until the last week of April or the first week of May in the park.  Yesterday I found only two or three bushes that were still in bloom along sheltered north-facing hillsides.  The rest had bloomed and were nearly in full leaf!  Everywhere I look vegetation is 4-6 weeks ahead of typical schedule.  I was waiting to see if bird migration might be early as well.  We have seen some evidence of this.  There have been reports already of new early arrival state records of warblers and yesterday all the usual nesters seemed to be in the area and setting up territories.

This time of year at Hawn can be quite useful for the birder-by-ear.  Yesterday, several hard-to-discern trillers could be found and compared in the field at one time.  Within my hike I found the Pine and Worm-eating Warblers, the Chipping Sparrow the Dark-eyed Junco and Swamp Sparrow all singing their trill-like advertisements.  Every spring it seems like I have to start my ear from scratch, the Worm-eating Warbler being the most distinctive to me.  After a couple weeks I finally think I make some progress and then forget again soon after.  Usually I can go by location; the Junco leaves pretty soon and the other two sparrows are usually found in more open, grassy habitats, which leaves the two warblers to discern.  There, as its name suggests, the Pine is found in concentrations of the short-leaf pin in our region and the Worm-eating is more often found amongst deciduous tree tops.

Yesterday was a glorious day for hiking at Hawn S.P.  As usual, I was surprised but pleased that I did not see more folks on the trails.  If a day like that can’t tear you away from the couch I don’t know what can.


Crystallofolia & Armadillos: Hawn State Park Presents its Inspiration at Every Season

I spent a fantastic Saturday hiking and making images in the Missouri Ozarks yesterday.  Any day, even a bad day, in nature beats about anything else I can think of doing.  Some days I barely take the camera out of the bag, instead concentrating on hiking, birding, botanizing, etc…  Other days, like yesterday, it took me close to six hours to hike the North loop of the Whispering Pine Trail of Hawn SP because I stopped so often to set up the camera or observe some wildlife.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/13 sec

My primary photographic subject turned out to be these exquisite crystallofolia, or “frost flowers”.  I have wanted to get some pictures of these things for a while now but they can be quite difficult to find, needing specific requirements to form.  I could spend a few paragraphs attempting to explain this mysterious and ephemeral natural wonder.  Instead, I will lead you to the well-written document by Missouri’s own Ted MacRae.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 100,  f/18, 1/6 sec

As the title of this post suggests, Hawn SP is a destination of mine at least once a season.  I have rarely visited this spot in Ste Genevieve County and gone home without seeing something new, something extraordinary or at least come away renewed.  There are no shortages of photographic potentials and it is one of the closest spots to St. Louis where I really feel I have gotten away from it all.  Even on the busiest days it is rare to come across other people on the trail.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 100,  f/18, 1/3 sec

Getting near the trailhead on the way back I heard some rustling in the leaves.  I followed the sound to what at first looked like a large opossum.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an armadillo!  This was the first live armadillo I’ve seen and photographed.  When I came across this guy my camera was of course attached to my tripod and strapped to my pack.  I had Canon’s new 100mm f2.8 macro L lens attached at the time.  I did not think I had much time before this guy slipped up and over the ridge she was heading up where I would lose her to the poor light on the north-facing side.  Therefore, I did not try and swap lenses to something a little more useful for this type of encounter such as the 70-200mm or 400mm.  Of course when focus is sharp, this lens has no equivalent in sharpness and image quality; however, autofocusing this lens under this situation was challenging to say the least.  I’ve read reviews saying this lens was a slow dog for autofocus, but that’s not what we buy macro lenses for, is it?  Anyway, besides a larger portion of focus failures than I’m accustomed to, I guess I managed to grab a few images that I am relatively happy with.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 320,  f/4, 1/250 sec

Like many small mammals in the Missouri Ozarks, Armadillos have poor eyesight and must rely on their hearing and smell.  The section of the trail where this took place had a fair number of Oaks and of course at this time of year the forest floor was covered with a noisy blanket of dry fallen leaves.  I made enough of a racket running up the hillside that she was definitely aware someone was following her.  She often stopped and listened and as the previous image shows, she would raise up on her hind legs to get a good whiff of the potential predator on her tail.  Thankfully, I’ve been told I smell almost exactly like an armadillo, so she probably was not too alarmed by my presence.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, ISO 320,  f/4, 1/800 sec

As usual, I reluctantly left Hawn in the early afternoon and proceeded to my evening destination – Hughes Mountain Natural Area, which is another place that never disappoints (although I still haven’t had too many interesting skies like I hope for).  I knew there would be a full-moon rising shortly after sunset and had a few poorly conceived ideas about what I wanted to do.  I took some images of the sunset and watched as the brightest, reddest and coldest moon I have ever seen rise almost directly opposite the sky from the sun.  In the end, it got too cold too quickly.  I played around with the moon in some images but I doubt I got anything I’ll be happy with.  I believe this image is showing the four hills that make up Buford Mountain and Bald Knob to the South-west of Hughes Mountain.  I’m still not close to have the sunrise/sunset images I’m looking for from Hughes Mountain.  One of these days everything will line up and I will hopefully get closer to what I am after.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 65mm, ISO 160,  f/11, 3.2 sec

Overall, another fantastic day.  I’ll be trying to rest my legs today.