Monday, June 25, 2012

To St. Louis...and Beyond!

As I mentioned in my most recent post, my family kicked summer off with 5 awesome days of exploring St. Louis, Missouri! Well, kind of re-exploring. We used to live there about seven years ago, and it's where I was born. St. Louis is officially my favorite city I've been to when it comes to birding. I'm sure you've all heard of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow population there. I was frustrated that I couldn't remember seeing them when we lived there, because my mom said they were all over our yard. So I was looking forward to this trip....but guess what? Not a single one. Maybe it's true their population is dropping. I guess the upside is I've pretty much memorized every single field mark of the House Sparrow's, as I looked extra-close at every one I saw. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Upon arriving at our hotel, my little brothers had so much pent-up energy from five hours of driving that we had to find the nearest park, and fast. That park happened to be Shaw Park, a fairly large green area in the middle of downtown Clayton, MO, which is just outside of St. Louis. After locating the playground, my mom said I could walk around and bird a little. I realized to late that I had forgotten the camera, so my always well-prepared mom lent me her iPhone. I actually manged to take some pretty good photos with it. There weren't that many birds, but I occupied myself with photographing the flowers in the sunset lighting. Here are some results:

So basically, if you have great light, it doesn't matter all that much what camera you're using. :)

The next day, Wednesday, we went to the St. Louis Science Center and the Butterfly House. Again, I forgot the camera. Again, my mom let me use her iPhone.
Having been born in St. Louis and living there until I was 6, I could remember some things about the Science Center. Like the huge robotic dinosaurs, for instance.

My baby brother seemed quite taken with them. Funny, when I was his age, I was terrified of them.

My little brothers were so excited about the whole thing that they hardly looked at one exhibit for more than 5 minutes. The whole center should have taken almost the whole day. Instead, it took about 2 hours. There were fossils, computers, robots, rocks, space exhibits, engineering exhibits, and pretty much everything else. There was also a planetarium, but the boys for some reason didn't want to check it out. But we still had a pretty good time.

Then we went to the Butterfly House! I suppose I should probably describe it to you.... Well, the house itself is basically a giant green house filled with tropical plants and butterflies. It's surrounded by butterfly gardens and a big park. Near it, there is also a historic village, with buildings built during or after the Civil War. It's all very impressive. Here are some photos I took:

On Thursday, we went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Little did we know this was going on:

We'd been to that before! Years ago when it was just a few exhibits! Now it was way more than that. There were hundreds of exhibits, most of them made out of silk and wire with lights inside. Some were made out of other materials this dragon:

It's huge! And it's made out of nothing but....

Plates! That's why it's called the porcelain dragon. Even more impressive: There's two of them!

There was also a sailboat made out of plastic water that's what I call recycling.

Apparently, it took about 30 years to make all the exhibits. No wonder.

Of course, there were also plants. Here are some photos:

And there were even a few birds:

Like this molting Red-tailed Hawk being chased by a Red-winged Blackbird.

A surprisingly cooperative cardinal.

And some mallards. They were bathing in the lake in the Japanese Gardens. I wish I had gotten the top of the head in this photo, but otherwise I like it.

So just as a mid-way warning, this post is going to be extremely long. I don't blame you if you lose interest, but for the patient people out there I will continue writing.

Okay, on with the post. The next day we went to the City Museum. When you think 'museum', you usually think of fossils, ancient artifacts, etc. But the St. Louis City Museum is like a museum combined with a giant indoor playground. The roof says it all.

Yep, it's awesome. It's supposed to be strange and completely random, and it is. When you walk in, the first thing you see is a giant maze. It goes underground, over the floor, and up in the air. We all had a great time in it.

That's me and two of my brothers climbing into the maze, photo by my mom. The lighting wasn't that good on the first floor, as there weren't many windows. But it improved on the second floor, which was full of architecture, collections of specimens, and...doorknobs.

Kind of strange. But the specimen collections were really cool!

There was a whole room lined with specimens! Here are some examples:

There was an albino squirrel.

And LOTS of butterflies and moths.

This is, my little brother put it, "A pickled python!"

The City Museum was extremely fun, and we hope to return someday!

And that's pretty much everything we did in St. Louis (except for Shaw Nature Reserve, but that's what my previous post is about). I hope you enjoyed hearing about our adventures there!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Shaw Nature Reserve

 I'm aware that I haven't posted in almost a month, and I am SO sorry! I've been extremely busy, what with summer camps and preparing for next school year.

 My family spent the most of the first week of June in St. Louis, MO; exploring the Science Center, Botanical Garden, Butterfly House, and much more. Well, actually more like re-exploring. We lived there until about 7 years ago, and it's where I was born. Most of the five days we spent there were not spent birding, but the last day, Saturday, we went to Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, MO; about 30 minutes outside of St. Louis. I decided to write this post in more of a story form, just for fun. I hope you enjoy it too!

The morning of Saturday, June 9 dawned bright and warm. As our family slowly woke up in our hotel in Clayton, Missouri, at first all we could think about was how much our muscles ached from hours and hours of walking around St. Louis's many attractions. My body ached, too, but I thought it could take a little more. I had birds to watch at Shaw Nature Reserve and Arboretum in Gray Summit, Missouri. So did my 9-year-old brother, George, evidently, because the first thing he said when he woke up was "I hope we see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher today." I was a little surprised. I didn't know he was that in to birds. My spirits were high as I woke the others up.

We were sluggish, but we finally set off at about 10:00 AM for Shaw. As we drove, I tried to think up a list of birds we could see there. I'd heard that Shaw was one of the best birding places in Missouri, mostly due to its habitat variation. It had prairie, forest, glades, and wetland. I'd been there once before when I was about 4 years old, but of course I couldn't remember it much. We were there for their annual Prairie Days celebration, and the only thing I could remember was the insect booth. How it worked was a guy would sit there and ask kids what their favorite insect was, and then he would ask them questions about it. After that they'd get a token. When he asked me what my favorite insect was, I said "Cabbage White", and he just gave me the token. But I couldn't remember the birds, as I was more interested in bugs then.
 By the time we got to Shaw, my mental list included Song Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, and Lark Sparrow.

As we pulled into the visitors parking, I looked out my window and took it all in. I could see forest surrounded by prairie scattered with glades, and a large pond over a hill. Paired with the blue sky, it was beautiful.

The view from the visitor center

We all got out of the car, George and I excited about birds, and my 6 year old brothers, Dennis and Huck, excited about bugs. After a quick spray of insect repellent and a dab of sunscreen, we were ready for a great day in the field.

And it was. Within the first ten minutes I had counted Eastern Meadowlark, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, Purple Martin, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Eastern Phoebe. We had to walk along the forest trail to get to the prairie, and the forest revealed more birds, such as Summer Tanager, Ovenbird, Red-eyed Vireo, and Kentucky Warbler. Ethan walked on ahead and stumbled on a concealed pond. He came running back, claiming to have seen a Little Blue Heron take flight from it. I was a little doubtful, as he often confuses them with Great Blue Herons. But he said it was a lot smaller, and had a darker head. So I took his word for it and wrote that down too. That sighting made Ethan's spirits rise, as it was a lifer for him. In fact, so was Indigo Bunting. He'd never heard or seen one, but they were everywhere at Shaw! They seemed to be singing from almost every tree. I counted 15 by the end of the walk.

Indigo Bunting

Summer Tanager

We finally emerged into the prairie, and were greeted by this sight:

 The prairie at Shaw is some of the last left in the U. S.  Most of it has been plowed for farmland.  But there are still a few pockets of prairie left, and Shaw has about 100 acres of it. The grass can reach 7 feet in September and October, but in June it's about 3--4 feet tall. The prairie is full of life, with over 50 species of wildflowers and insects. There are lots of birds, too--as we found out. Almost as soon as we stepped out of the forest, we heard a Bobwhite from across the field. It was soon joined by 2 others. Male bobwhites usually sing their two-note songs from posts or stumps, where they are easily seen by rivals, but we didn't see any.  I momentarily turned my attention to photographing my non-avian surroundings, and here are some of my results:

If you look closely, you can see a milkweed bug on this.

Altogether, we spent about 2 hours there, and ended up with 29 species. Here's the eBird checklist: