LN Gardening

Juvenile green heron fledging on Tea House Island in the Japanese Garden.

Well, we finally got our January thaw—on the third week of February. When the weather turned, getting back outdoors was glorious. In a park near her home, over a big, open field, Julie watched as a hawk descended from its lazy circles, swooped over her head and rose again to the sky. Looking for the telltale red of our most common raptor, the red-tailed hawk, she instead saw the tail was bright, crisp white and attached to the largest ‘hawk’ she’d ever seen. Later, looking through Peterson’s Guide, Julie realized that she had been strafed by a bald eagle, right in the heart of Crestwood.

    Our area is a rich environment for birds; and you may observe or attract birds in your own garden by providing feeders, nesting boxes and a constant water supply. Great spring birding may be found in many parks, reserves and special facilities in the St. Louis region, as well. We are lucky to live in such a biologically diverse area, with the confluence of the rivers creating unique eagle habitat and the Mississippi River flyway bringing a rich variety of migrant birds.

    Right now, three cardinals are splashing in a puddle right outside my window. I love brightly colored birds because they are easy to spot and identify. We have both blue birds and blue buntings. The Missouri Botanical Garden also is a popular breeding spot for many other birds including wood ducks, Canadian geese, mallards and mourning doves.

    Several years ago, a wave of West Nile virus ran through St. Louis, leaving a wake of dead crows, blue jays and hawks. As these large, more aggressive birds died off in tremendous numbers, the bird niche was filled with many more resistant (and desirable) small birds. Goldfinches were everywhere, and hummingbirds appeared in greater numbers. Julie even spotted a rose-breasted grosbeak down by the pond. She planted Echinacea for the finches and anything tubular for the hummingbirds as fast as she could, hoping to maintain their numbers once the big bully birds got back. It worked to a certain extent, but the numbers of both small species have gone down since the return of the crows and blue jays during the last two years.

    Two of our most meddlesome birds here are the starlings and grackles. Both are black, medium-build birds; the starlings have iridescent spots and the grackles have iridescent brown-green heads. The starlings are an introduced species that has adapted quite nicely to local conditions. Both of these birds roost in large flocks, where noise and droppings can become a serious problem. If your garden should be the unfortunate choice of their evening roost, you can contact the Department of Natural Resources and get a recording of a distress call for whatever bird you happen to be afflicted with. We used a ‘squawk box’ on a timer set for the roosting hour barking out distress calls to keep these avians from destroying the bamboo grove next to the garage.

    Another group of birds we see a lot of at the Garden are water birds. Along with the regular mallards and Canada geese, we also have the truly beautiful wood duck. The male looks like a hand-painted decoy as it glides across the surface with its Egyptian head bob. At any time during the spring and summer, you might spot a Great Egret, blue or green herons, and black-crowned night herons doing their ungainly strut along the water’s edge, pausing—motionless—and then snatching a sushi lunch with unexpected quickness. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and if you spot them, take the time to enjoy the show. High above the water, with a raucous call that announces its arrival before it comes into view, the belted kingfisher is the loud, obnoxious acrobat of the air. There is one that visits the pond on a regular basis, and we can hear him coming from just about anywhere in the five-acre yard. He swoops and perches, chatters at anyone too close to the pond, dives and more often than not, comes up with a fish. To keep him from eating all of our koi spawn, we started putting in small gold fish as ‘de-koi.’

    There have been some unusual avian visitors over the years. Starting during The Great Flood of ’93 and for several years after that, we had wild turkeys in the Garden. They disappeared for several years and then showed up again recently. One year, an American woodcock was spotted. Peter and I spotted the first blue teal ever recorded in the Garden on one of our evening strolls.

What’s New in Bird Identification?

    So, as I poked around on the Internet to see what was new in online birding opportunities, I ran into the Audubon Guide for Birds and Butterflies app. The high quality voice recordings of birds, especially ravens and pelicans, got my two shepherds running to investigate.

     The newest book in bird identification is The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley. The book’s 10,000 images makes it is a photographer’s dream, with actual photos of each species represented in multiple forms. Well reviewed, this new guide may bring out the best in bird identification skills in all of us.

Eye to Eye with a Bald Eagle

    Walter Crawford, director of the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, is keenly dedicated to the raptors of the world and spreading the word to all who will listen about the gospel of birds. If you haven’t been to the World Bird Sanctuary before, hike out there for World Eagle Day this Sunday, March 20, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is a great event with programs, photo ops and yes, the rare bald eagle up close. It’s free, too.

New in the Neighborhood

    One of the best-kept birding secrets in our area is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Located above the confluence on the river in West Alton, just below the Highway 67-Clark Bridge, this reserve is listed as an Important Bird Area by the Missouri Audubon Society. It is right in the middle of the Mississippi migratory bird flyway and a great place for viewing water birds like pelicans, swans and eagles. Its new facility, The Audubon Center at Riverlands, will be opening soon, according to executive director Patricia Hagen. Join them for the family-friendly ‘Wings of Spring’ birding festival on May 7. For more information, call (636) 899-2600.  

Birding for Beginners

   A great place to start bird identification is with the Missouri Audubon Checklist which gives 428 birds by common name, Latin name and season to look for them, mobirds.org/mbrc/mochecklist.asp.

    Flip through online searchable field guides, do an advanced search to identify birds or get a custom list of plants or animals by ZIP code, free bird call ringtones, e-cards, local park guides and personal birding record lists, eNature.com.

As you become a more savvy and sophisticated birder, you may appreciate the most comprehensive birding website for North America, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s treasure trove, allaboutbirds.org/guide/search. LN

Dr. Patricia Raven has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist and manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden.