19 December 2011

Winter Count Denotes Birdlife of Missouri River Valley

A primary winter bird count of a region along the Missouri River valley, once again denoted the many species of birds present in mid-December. The count circle - a five-mile circle centered at Offutt Base Lake - includes four quadrants, with a different number of participants within each section, which included an official reporter. There were about 40 count participants - the usual number of volunteer observers - which spent the day visiting localities where birds could be seen, that were then carefully counted and tallied.

Results were presented at an evening gathering, graciously hosted by Betty Grenon, the count compiler. Before the evening meal, the bird survey results were given in a group gathering. Each species were mentioned, and results were carefully tallied in two manners. The birders heard about each species and were able to ask questions, focus on particular details and even appreciate some history of the count, as quickly provided by Jim Kovanda, count historian with his paper sheets listing details from previous years.

There were 70 species recorded during the day, on Saturday, December 17th. The tally in 2010 was 78 species.

Identifiable sites which provided considerable bird records within the cound circle which is a summary of all contributed observations, included these individual localities:

  • 13th Street Parkway, representing habitats northward of Mount Vernon Gardens to Missouri Avenue, the northern edge of the count circle
  • Bellevue Cemetery
  • Brown Park
  • Camp Wakonda
  • Fontenelle Hills Golf Course
  • Fontenelle Forest Floodplain
  • Gibson Bend - the riverine area eastward of Mandan Park
  • Gibson Bend SWA - in Iowa, as observable from the west side of the river, but not actually visited
  • Gifford Point WMA - a very limited portion of this tract, adjacent to the Great Marsh, was trekked
  • Glenwood Hills
  • Great Marsh at Fontenelle Forest; 99.5% frozen
  • Handsome Hollow, Fontenelle Forest
  • Hidden Lake, Fontenelle Forest and the nearby river; the water area was completely frozen
  • Jewel Park
  • La Platte Bottoms - access was somewhat blocked due to highway construction activities, according to an observer's report.
  • Lake Manawa
  • Lake Manawa State Park
  • Manawa Bend - the riverine area eastward of Gifford Point
  • Mandan Flats - area adjacent to the river, east of the park; it was too muddy to trek around this place which during drier times can be hiked southward, to a point at the northern edge of Fontenelle Forest; this is a corridor from the forest to Mandan Park, though there is no recognition for this distinctive feature
  • Mandan Park - always special due to its constantly expressive flora
  • Midamerica Energy Power Plant settling ponds
  • Mount Vernon Gardens
  • North Uplands, Fontenelle Forest
  • Oreapolis Wetland - a newly established wetland mitigation site north of Plattsmouth
  • Private residences here and there as appreciated by count participants that visited bird feeders; muffins were provided at one stop
  • Rumsey Station
  • Saint Marys Island SWA
  • Schilling WMA - only limited access, with species most prevalent where flooding did not occur, such as the railroad tracks
  • South Uplands, Fontenelle Forest
  • Swanson Park
  • West Oak Forest

Base Lake was closed. Apparently there was some supposed bacterial condition as indicated by the military officials, so site access continued to be restricted, and could not be visited.

View of the south stream, Fontenelle Forest floodplain.

Floodplain trees which illustrate the depth of the water during the great flood.

Gifford Farm perspective.

View of Iowa as taken from Mandan Park.

Site and Species Highlights

It was a grand day for birding, considering the weather conditions occurred with variably clear skies, and temperatures which eventually reached about 50o; a grand condition in comparison to what the situation might have been! There was no snow present.

Early morning temperatures were slightly chilling - sufficient for walkers to be covered with a hat sufficient for appreciated warmth - and kept the surface of the ground hard for easier walking, in comparison to the muddy situation in late morning and during the afternoon. As the sun spread about the Fontenelle Forest floodplain, there were few birds seen during the walk about done during pleasant conditions. Gifford Point farm and adjacent wildlife area presented nothing of birdly interest except some a couple of crow and flyover geese of two sorts, heading north. The land was basically bare of any understory vegetation due to inundation resulting from the great flood of 2011, many weeks earlier in the year which prevented any plant growth during the season. The trees were still a haven for arboreal species, such as woodpeckers or chickadees. One Pileated Woodpecker was notable, and led to a bit of discussion regarding the number of this species which occur in the area.

It wasn't until about fifteen minutes before noon that the first Northern Cardinal - a brilliantly colored male - was seen flitting about in shrubbery along the floodplain stream.

Conditions of the land at Schilling WMA were a similar bare expanse, according to count participants.

Two flocks of Green-winged Teal appreciated the open water flow along the stream of the Fontenelle Forest floodplain; with an errant Northern Shoveler. A single Wilson's Snipe was also present, enjoying the open water resulting from spring flows from the adjacent river bluffs of the forest.

The nine Great Blue Heron seen surpassed the previous record of three.

Bald Eagles were reported from each of the four quadrants.

There were twelve Belted Kingfisher noted, with a previous high count of seven.

An impressive 126 Red-tailed Hawks were denoted within the five-mile diameter count circle; last year 146 were observed.

Each of the two Merlin seen were appreciated.

The thirty Hairy Woodpecker tally ties an earlier high number of this species recorded within the count circle.

Other notables to mention: 293 Black-capped Chickadee and eighteen Brown Creeper; five hundred junco were also appreciated for their contribution to the avifauna of the region.

A Northern Shrike at Lake Manawa State Park was a nice addition to the birdlist for this locality, having been reported also a few years ago.

One new addition to the count tally of species was the Savannah Sparrow, seen at the Saint Marys Island mitigation area. This was one of the few new localities visited during the day.

There was no Snowy Owl seen, except for a false state record derived from a depictive stuffed toy on a shelf in the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center shop. This was the closest anyone came to seeing this species, which has occured in a prevalent nature elsewhere in Nebraska and adjacent states.

This count started in 1963. There have been many changes in land use. One long-time observer quipped: There are more houses that have been built than the birds that have been counted. He was referring to the hills of western Iowa.

One shared recollection of particular interest referred to a similar count something like 25 years ago, when a newby participant to the Saturday bird event walked out on the ice of the great marsh on the Fontenelle Forest lowlands (for some unremembered reason), then dropped through the unapparently weak ice-cover, and into the shallows. Upon escaping from the water hazard, and being drenched to the waist, a retreat to warm conditions was stymied by a vehicle stuck in the snow along the road back to the forest nature center, according to the shared details given in recollections of count participants, though long forgotten by the bird guy involved. It was certainly a hoot to hear of this, as the main character continues to have a penchant of wanting to walk upon ice of unknown thickness in order to get some sort of perspective of personal interest on the birds at one lake or another, whether it was the Great Marsh in the past, or most recently, Carter Lake. None of the instances have been fatal, so the intent continues, though restrictions are more applicable now.

It was a fine gathering in Bellevue after dark to discuss the day and share a communal meal, with folks spread about three rooms. Was there some bird talk?