Storm-bird hunt

2005 September 25
by David J. Ringer

GREENE CO., MO. — The idea came to me last night, when I got back and discovered that our rain showers were in fact produced by Tropical Depression Rita. The storm did not stall farther south as predicted, and suddenly my hope for pelagics flickered to life again.

By one o’clock, I was on my way to Fellows Lake, armed with Sibley, a camera, and a scope sans tripod, but having, to be honest, little hope of success.

Rita’s western fringe brushed over us today, filling the sky with clouds and cooling the air with a light breeze. Tiny flecks of water accumulated on my windshield as I drove. I decided to work the lake backwards, west to east. On my way to the dam, I saw several richly colored Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a drab brown Blue Grosbeak.

I got out of my car by the flagpole at the dam. Nothing flew over the water. A handful of birds rested on the surface at a distance too great to overcome. But they weren’t what I was after. Well, I thought, I wouldn’t hang around a dam if I were a pelagic. Where’s the fun in that?

My car groaned a little on the rough, rocky roads along the lake’s edge. Big black birds in the sky were Turkey Vultures, every time. Nothing perched atop the white and orange markers, which I had thought would be just the spot for a weary Sooty Tern or frigatebird.

Even the lakeshore was quiet. Butterflies feasted on purple asters, and dragonflies zigzagged over the buttonbushes, which bore a crop of round, dry fruits. I startled occasional handfuls of bluebirds and chippies, and the sun almost came out once.

What’s this? A Texas license plate parked over there, and a foot poking lazily out the window. Did Rita push you up here?

All the motley hybrid waterfowl clamored in their usual spot by the marina. Two obnoxious geese seemed determined to hold their position in the middle of the road.

The standoff resolved, I turned my attention back to the water. That’s not a vulture! Kinked wings — oh, it’s an Osprey. And with quite a large fish, by the looks of things. That’s … nice.

Lots of empty water. And Turkey Vultures.

I made it to the parking lot by the bridge, the last stop. There was a heron in a usual spot, and a kingfisher behind it. And in the distance, hmm, must be a Pied-billed Grebe. Yes, it dove. Well, welcome back. But no tiny dark birds fluttered low over the water. And no — wait! — oh, Osprey.

Slowly over the bridge, then, waving a confused motorist around me. Something dark swooped across the water, climbing into the air with deep, powerful beats. Sooty — Osprey.

I’d tried to prepare for disappointment. Maybe we were too far west, maybe I was too late, maybe the lake maybe wasn’t big enough anyway. But I had to try. I had to know. That’s what birders do.

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