Birding Year Round in NE Missouri — January - March
Spark Bird Vol. 1, Issue 5
The holidays are over and I’m excited to get out and explore. The birds at my feeders are cute and interesting to watch, but the start of the new year inspires me to find other birds in their natural habitats. However, my usual birding spots are difficult to access. The roads are often icy, and slowly, quietly wandering around a forest in below freezing temperatures just doesn’t sound fun. I’m not likely to see a whole lot of birds anyway, only a few species that overwinter here, because nobody is coming north for a good while yet.
So I have to dress warmly, find open water, and look for waterfowl.
I’m lucky to be living only about a mile from the Mississippi River. Between St. Paul, MN and St. Louis, MO, the great river averages around ten feet deep in the middle, and it is about a half a mile wide near my house. It often freezes in areas where the water is moving slowly, along the shores, but it never does at the lock and dam. The rushing water that comes south through the open locks prevents ice from forming, and also aerates the water, which attracts lots of fish. The Bald Eagles often spend the winter here in great numbers. Sometimes as many as fifty of them catch fish near the dam, using their strong feet and sharp talons, then fly up to the big cottonwood trees to eat.
Ring-billed Gulls catch smaller fish with their beaks, and unlike the eagles, they eat them in the air. Sometimes other gulls or American Crows try to take the fish from them, and I like to watch how the gulls outsmart the thieves and keep the fish for themselves. The small fish are also prey for a few species of ducks wintering on the river — Lesser Scaup, Canvasbacks, and most numerous are the Common Goldeneye. At the lock and dam just north of us in southern Iowa, I was once able to spot a Long-tailed Duck.
Lakes present another opportunity for seeing birds on water. There are lots of natural ponds around here, most formed after the ice age when the runoff water accumulated in the trenches that the glaciers left behind. Sadly, these ponds are usually frozen for several weeks, so January is not a good time to see birds here.
However, there is a state park near us, Wakonda, that was developed from a former quarry, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come from such history. It has many lakes, and the biggest one, Lake Agate, hosts winter waterfowl from late November through March. One would think that there is an aerator, but it’s really the wind and the birds that maintain a hole in the ice all winter. I’ve noticed that the birds sit out on the edge of the ice to keep it from expanding inward and the lake freezing over completely. While one bird couldn’t do much alone, the body heat and movement of hundreds of Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Common Mergansers, and many other ducks and geese are enough to fight the cold and allows all of them to spend the winter months in the safety of open water.
Some of the riverfront Bald Eagles are already leaving this area. As the ice starts to melt farther and farther north, the eagles that spent only the winter here move with the opening water to their breeding grounds. American White Pelicans take the eagles’ place on the river, arriving by the hundreds from the south. The ducks also become more numerous as the weeks go on, both at Wakonda State Park and on the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, February is not a good month for the small birds on land. Nothing is growing yet for them to eat, and last year’s seeds and nuts are mostly gone, difficult to find. They appreciate the sunflower seeds at the feeders as they move around, often many different species together.
At my feeders, I often see as many as twenty sparrow-like birds on the ground, picking up the seeds that nuthatches, cardinals, woodpeckers spilled. This group under the feeders is usually dominated by Dark-eyed Juncos, interspersed with White-throated and American Tree Sparrows, Song, Fox, as well as some House Sparrows. They eat in a mixed group, but when one junco flies to the bushes along the edges of our woods, all the other juncos, but none of the other species, follow. They seem like one flock, but tend to behave as separate groups — just like the waterfowl on the lakes.
When the trails are good enough to walk or ski around the lake at Wakonda, I notice the little birds behaving the same way. They fly out of the bushes in front of us, then land back in the dense vegetation in the field. Like the birds at my feeders, this loose group includes some birds that are only here in the winter, such as the Dark-eyed Juncos, and others that spend the whole year here, like the Song Sparrows. They seem to hang out together in the same bushes, but when they move, they gather by species.
On warmer days this month, some of our permanent residents start singing. I wake up to the song of Northern Cardinals, American Robins, and Black-capped Chickadees, and I know that in the next few months, many more interesting species will join them!
In the several weeks before the big excitement of warblers migrating through here, I take every chance I get to watch the behavior of raptors — especially those that will be leaving soon, just like most of the eagles.
I like how both the Rough-legged Hawks and the Northern Harriers show different male/female coloration, unlike the resident Red-tailed Hawks. The harriers are especially exciting for me to see, because they have taught me something important about migration patterns. If I lived just a couple of hours north of here, I could see the harriers year round. Those individuals breed there and also spend the winter there. The ones that I get to watch here in the winter come from somewhat north of the year-round birds, while others come from even farther up north, “leapfrog” my harriers and winter south of me. This is way different from what I used to think of when imagining bird migration.
The Red-tailed Hawks are easiest to notice on power line posts as we travel by car on the highways — they are watching the field underneath them for any rodents. When they spot one, I've noticed that they often fly out above the field, make a wide turn, and then facing their perch, swoop down and catch their prey. Unless they have young ones to feed, they usually eat what they caught right there on the ground.
The American Kestrel, another resident raptor, can often be seen along the roads, too. They are light enough to balance on the power lines, instead of using the posts. When they spot their prey, they fly off, doing a circle similar to the hawks, but they don’t glide to their prey — they tend to hover in the air, waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch up their lunch. They don’t eat on the ground, either, they return to their original perch to eat.
Another exciting thing about raptors is that they are starting to have hatchlings by this time of the year — Bald Eagles can be seen on their nests, feeding and guarding their young ones. We have owls around here, too, such as the Eastern Screech Owls and the Great Horned Owls, and I know they have little ones, but I have only seen them on nest cameras.
About This Story
This story is the first part of an essay written by Zita Robertson (13) in 2021 as one of her submissions for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder Mentoring program. Zita lives in northeast Missouri, and when she’s not birding there, she goes on field trips just across the border in Iowa with the Iowa Young Birders.
All earnings from reads, any tips or pledges to the Spark Bird series here on Vocal.media fully and directly support the work of the Iowa Young Birders, a not-for-profit organization that promotes engagement with our natural world and conservation issues by empowering young Iowans to study and enjoy birds and birding.
The Iowa Young Birders does not endorse any of my other stories or series published here, and they remain independent of the views expressed in those.
To connect with the Iowa Young Birders, find them on the web @ iowayoungbirders.org.
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