It’s Officially Spring!

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

Along with finding the typical rarities that everyone looks for during spring migration, I will not count spring as arriving until I lay eyes on a male Blackburnian Warbler.  This past Saturday, not only did Miguel and I find my prize at Carondelet Park, but I got my best photos to date of this tree-top dwelling, piece of greased lighting.

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

With a throat this bright and luminous, a song that is so high-pitch that dogs aren’t safe for blocks and a never resting habit, more than one birder has assumed these guys must be powered by a battery.  Seriously, there’s a reason these guys eat all day long.  They have to!

Blackburnian Warbler, Carondelet Park, May 2017

Well, hopefully I might have another before the season has completed springing.  If not, I’ll always have something to look forward to next year.


Three Random Birds

Before we get to a few birds from this spring… Why do people like Adobe Lightroom so much?  I know it definitely helps in cataloging my images and I am better off than what I was before, but the hassle and bugs I have to deal with…  Just yesterday, we lost power during the storms and then next time I was able to load up LR, all my settings went back to default!  I guess I should be thankful that all of my images appear to be in the right spot. Computers…

Hermit Thrush

Such a silent bird.  Whenever I am lucky enough to cross its path, it is almost always found by eyesight.  This guy patiently hung out with me for a bit.

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush

Mallard Drake

Pretty much a staple in the pond at my working location.  Sometimes I don’t seem to bother them, while others I cause them to flush.

Mallard Drake in Repose
Mallard Drake in Repose


Brown Creeper

I have seen these guys all over the place this spring.  Always one of my favorites, it has been a real treat to seem them so regularly the past two weeks.

The Creeper
The Creeper


Nesting Birds of Missouri – Pine Warbler

Perhaps the most appropriately named warbler, this special bird is said to nest almost exclusively in pine trees and is one of the earliest nesting warblers within it’s range.  These special birds were a thrill for us to find and watch.  Closeup images of the male bird were taken at Big Spring State Park, while the nest was located in a Short-leaf Pine located on a parking lot within Shaw Nature Reserve.

Male Pine Warbler, Big Spring State Park, April 2014
Male Pine Warbler, Big Spring State Park, April 2014

The chicks were adorable and near-helpless, only able to open their gigantic craws at anticipation of a juicy insect meal.

Pine Warbler Chicks, Shaw Nature Reserve, May 2014

During the time Steve and I strained our necks watching the child care from ~50 ft below, we were able to observe that when dad visited the nest he always approached from the side of the nest facing us as seen in the image below.  Mom always visited on the opposite side, affording us poor looks.  It was interesting to observe that both parents approached the nest in a slow and indirect manner, usually starting low in the nest tree or an adjacent neighbor.  They would then hop from branch to branch, often in a spiral up the tree to reach the nest.  I do not remember watching either parent make a direct flight to the nest.

Pine Warbler Father with Chicks, Shaw Nature Reserve, May 2014

I’ll leave you with the Pine Warbler advertisement song and with hopes of seeing them as soon as possible in the next spring.

Male Pine Warbler, Big Spring State Park, April 2014



April Remembered

About three months ago Steve and I made a trip to southern Missouri in perfect time to catch the songbird migration near its peak.  Our primary areas of focus were the two largest springs in Missouri – Big Spring and Greer Spring, two areas located within Ozark Scenic National Riverways.  This National Park contains some of the best habitat in Missouri for newly arriving nesting birds as well as good stopping grounds for those birds heading to more northerly destinations.

I was very fortunate in being able to take first photos of several new species during this trip, one of which was this amazing Broad-winged Hawk – a species whose diagnostic vocalization is often heard among the treetops in densely wooded areas but is less frequently seen.

Broad-winged Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk

Another species that I finally captured on camera was this Yellow-throated Vireo.  This species advertising song is quite similar to the Red-eyed Vireo.  The difference being that the Yellow-throated will give you a chance to answer his questions, whereas the Red-eyed won’t shut up long enough for you to respond!  😉

Yellow-throated Vireo

Next up is a species that was just passing through, on its way to nest in northern Canada or Alaska.  The Grey-cheeked Thrush is the least studies of North American Catharus species.

Grey-cheeked Thrush
Grey-cheeked Thrush

Greer Spring is always a place of great beauty, although usually stingy with pleasing compositions.  On this visit we took the plunge into the first deep boil immediately outside the cave opening.  An unforgettable experience!

Greer Spring in Bloom
Greer Spring in Bloom

At the trail-head on the way down to the spring, Steve found this Pheobe nest with mom on eggs.  She patiently sat while I took a few photos.

A Step Back In Time
A Step Back In Time

Probably the most exciting find and photographs for us was this resident Swainson’s Warbler.  This warbler is likely the least common of Missouri’s nesting songbirds and is considered endangered in the state.  Loss of its preferred habitat of thick shrubby understory within flood plain forests has caused this species to decline across its entire breeding range.  The boat dock at Greer Spring is one of the few locations that this species can be expected to be found every spring in Missouri.

Swainson's Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler
Swainson's Song
Swainson’s Song

This last image, which may be my favorite of the trip, shows a singing Ovenbird, a species of the understory within high-quality hardwood or hardwood/conifer forests.  It’s song, often described as teacher, teacher, teacher, can be confused with the similar sounding song of the Kentucky Warbler.  We have noticed the difference of habitat preference between the two species, which may aid the novice birder.  The Ovenbird is most often observed in dry upland areas with sparse vegetation, whereas the Kentucky Warbler prefers lower, wet areas with dense undergrowth.

The Ovenbird

In my opinion, one has not experienced anything in the Missouri Ozarks until having spent a sunrise on an April morning listening to the newly arrived nesting songbirds and those just passing through.

There could not possibly be enough Aprils in a lifetime.

An April Morning
An April Morning

Blackburnian Warbler

Relying highly on the abundance of spruce budworm populations in their boreal forest nesting grounds, Blackburnian Warblers numbers will rise and fall dramatically with numbers of this insect prey.


“Blackburnian Warbler, May 2013”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera,  EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/200 sec

Sutton Bluff Recreation Area

I have driven past signs for Sutton Bluff Rec. Area dozens of times speeding past on Highway 21, but had not visited until recently.  Located in Reynolds County about five miles or so from Centerville, it  is quite a drive over hilly and windy roads to this creation of the Black River as it bends its way across this hill.  This is a view on top of the bluff following a quick mile or two hike that is on an OZT spur.  Unfortunately, this is about as scenic a view you’ll find from here as the blacktop-covered recreation area covers the majority of this valley.  The rec. area is nice and clean, one of the nicest camp sites of this type I have seen.  I spoke briefly with one of the camp hosts and he was very helpful with some information and maps.  If this type of place is your scene, then it looks to be top notch.  It seems to me the best time to visit here would be in full autumn colors and the best compositions will likely be from the riverbanks below shooting up at the tree covered bluffs.


“Sutton Bluff Recreation Area″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 67mm, ISO 100,  f/11, 1/30 sec

Enjoying the Gems Under Your Nose

I have often said I am more interested in the places the Ozarks have to offer compared to the possible visits to iconic destinations in the rest of the country.  I know I would love and appreciate those spots, of course.  But the millions of photographs generated are probably enough without my lousy contributions.  I am more interested in showcasing the animals and habitats that can be found in the Show Me State, the places with names that so many who live here have never even heard.  I’ve come to realize lately that I am guilty of ignoring a few places less than an hour’s drive from my doorstep that have a lot to offer, passing them by on my three hour drives to more exotic Ozark locations.  These places include Castlewood, Washington and Babler State Parks, Emmenegger Nature Park, Bush Wildlife and a handful of other Conservation Areas.  The place I’ve gotten to know much better this spring is the location spotlighted in this post, St. Francois State Park.

St. Francois SP, located just north of Bonne Terre, MO, has a lot to offer the nature lover.  I have now hiked the three primary trails and they each offer unique features that should satisfy any true Ozarker.  Sarah and I enjoyed a nice hike on the Swimming Deer Trail a couple weeks ago and stumbled across the best bunch of Bluebells I have seen personally.  I did not bring the camera on that hike, but later that week we took a few days break to travel south and made sure we stopped back here again.  I was hoping the show would still be ongoing and I was not disapointed.  We were even fortunate to have a nice overcast sky and relatively little wind.  So the poor photography is my own blame.  Picking out compositions that worked was more trouble than I anticipated, of course.


“Bluebells and Limestone″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 23mm, ISO 320,  f/13, 0.3 sec

This trail also contains the largest number of Ohio Buckeyes that I have seen at one location in Missouri.  These trees and their emerging, distinctive leaves were found everywhere.  Along with Pawpaws, these small trees fit in perfectly beneath the larger oaks and hickories that dominate the upper canopy.  Pictured below is one of the larger buckeyes I found on this day.


“Bluebells and Buckeyes″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 70mm, ISO 320,  f/18, 0.5 sec

Along with this great display of wildflowers and trees, the Swimming Deer Trail offers nice views into the Big River valley from atop tall bluffs that are adorned with the characteristic Eastern Red Cedars who are so adept at holding on to cracks and crevices to get the best possible looks as the seasons fly by.


“Bluebells and Woody Vine″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 400,  f/16, 0.4 sec

I apologize for so many vertical compositions.  I once read a photography e-article that suggested this tendency was more typical of the “stand up, aggressive, masculine” (male) photographer, whereas women photographers (and painters I assume), who are assuredly the “weaker sex” are more apt to produce horizontal landscapes, obviously the more passive and prostrate the compositional choice.  If there is any truth to this hogwash, I wonder what it says about the artist who prefers the square ratio?  😉

Anyway, back to the nature stuff, right?  Well, any nature photographer who still cares to keep his union badge has to shoot the cliched Bluebell macro shot, right?  Here it is.


“Nature Porn″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, ISO 160,  f/8, 1/10 sec

Of course, anywhere in the Ozarks at this time of year is going to be heaven for any birder who is worth their salt.  St. Francois SP is definitely no exception.  During my several visits over the last month, I loved listening and watching the nesting wood warblers and other songbirds as they busily setup their territories, build nests and feed themselves.  I used to think the Romanticists’ metaphorical descriptions of spring as a bunch of overly sentimental hogwash.  Now I find myself just as captivated by this line of interpretation as I do the underpinning that natural history presents.  What heaven is spring!

A week or so following Sarah’s and my trip, Steve gave me a guided tour of the last trail I had yet explored at St. Francois SP: “Mooner’s Hollow”.  A beautiful sloped-shelf waterfall, rocky outcrops and wonderful examples of spring ephemeral wildflowers along the river bottom of Coonville Creek Wild Area were the expected highlights.  What we were not expecting was the fortunate stumbling upon of a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher’s nest!  The second smallest bird in the state, these guys build a nest that is similar in size and construction to that of the state’s smallest, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  In the picture below you can hopefully get a look at the construction materials of plant fibers, spider webs, fur and lichen, which is used so beautifully to camouflage the nest.

I watched the nest for a couple of hours.  In this little time I noticed the pair did not stay at the nest, which makes me believe there were not yet any eggs.  The pair stopped at the nest for no more than 60 seconds.  During this time one of the pair would enter the nest, add a bit of lichen or other material they had brought, do a little manipulation and then they would leave again.  This would be repeated every 15 – 20 minutes.  I hope to visit the nest soon to see if eggs, or perhaps even chicks might be found.


“Not Just Gnatcatching”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF500mm f/4.5L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/6.3, 1/320 sec

This spring I have been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time in the rugged, karst topography that is so unique to the Ozark Highlands.  This continues to bring to mind what it must have been like to travel and exist in this country before ‘modern conveniences’ were introduced to muddle the experience.  A great series of roads can take you to within a ten mile hike or less to basically any spot on the map in Missouri.  For now, I leave with a great quote from that Confederate bushwhacking bastard, Sam Hildebrand.  This is in reference to a cave that is apparently located within or nearby St. Francois SP.  A reason for further exploring some day.

“We passed quietly through Butler County, along the western line of Madison, then through St. Francois and across Big River to those native hills and hunting grounds of my boyhood, known as the Pike Run hills.  The reader must bear in mind that these hills possess peculiar advantages over any other part of the country between St. Louis and the Arkansas line.  They look like the fragments of a broken up world piled together in dread confusion, and terminating finally in an abrupt bluff on the margin of Big River, where nature has left a cavern half way up the perpendicular rock, now known as “The Hildebrand Cave,” mouth to which cannot be seen either from the top or bottom.”

IMG_4082 2

“Fragments of a Broken Up World″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM @ 24mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 1/8 sec

First Bloodroot of the Year!

Putting close to 15 miles on the trails this glorious weekend, I was noticing just how delayed spring was this year compared with the past several.  Harbinger of Spring is about at its peak at the St. Louis latitude, and Spring Beauty and Cutleaf Toothwort are a few days to a week before their peak will be here.  But, it is coming.  I saw thousands of these plants pushing there way up through the leaf litter along with Dutchman’s Breeches (very cute little buds, I must say).  I finally tried the rhizome of the Toothwort today while on a hike at LaBarque Creek C.A. near Eureka.  A member of the mustard family, the Toothwort’s small, fleshy and crisp rhizome has a tooth-like appearance, hence its common name.  Another colloquial name associated with this plant is Pepper root, also in description of the rhizome.  I found the taste to have hints of horseradish and green onion, with a little peppery heat.  The perfect size and flavor makes me think it would be perfect in a variety of dishes, including stir-fry and salads.  But since it would require killing a lot of plants, I doubt I will make a habit of it.

As I was coming to the last mile or so of my hike today, I thought I would once again strike out on my first Bloodroot of the season.  But, just in time, I saw a single, fully-opened bloom a couple of feet from the creek.  This was the only subject I photographed all weekend, but it was still a grand couple days for a walk.


“First Bloodroot of the Year!″

Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, ISO 200,  f/22, 1/15 sec

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.