The Accidental Bird Watcher

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

I have spent a lifetime admiring birds, sometimes from the windows of my home, sometimes while fishing or hunting. I have watched bald eagles patrolling the North Fork of the White River on 10-degree winter mornings. I experienced the same delight in discovering a pair of wrens nesting in a little birdhouse on my porch only a week after a family of chickadees successfully raised a family in the same house.

Sometimes I think the world is divided between people who have held a living bird in their hands and those who haven't. I can't imagine not having had that experience.

I'm not the kind of birdwatcher who keeps a list, but if I did, there would be several species I would put at the top. The first would probably be a Clark's nutcracker, a Rocky Mountain native I saw while quail hunting in central Missouri (I have a witness to this sighting). Next would be an upland sandpiper, a bird called an "uncommon migrant" in the Conservation Department's Birds in Missouri. I saw it in a prairie pasture along a road in western Missouri.

Also on my list would be a flock of white pelicans I saw at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Missouri. These regal creatures pass quietly through the state while on migration. They forage across the water in a tight formation, driving bait fish ahead of them.

Equally pleasing to these rare sightings are the birds I enjoy on a seasonal schedule. Each spring I find myself fishing on a day when the bottomland trees along the river seem to be groaning under the weight of migrating warblers. These birds are often hard to see without binoculars, and regrettably, I have never learned to identify them by their songs.

In spring, too, I will never think of camping in woods during turkey season without hearing the reassuring, if incessant, calling of whippoorwills. I once wiggled out of my sleeping bag in the night to discourage one that was actually calling from the peak of my tent. I've spent hours in those same woods waiting for a wild turkey, but passing the time watching big pileated woodpeckers hammer at the bark of an oak, or frenetic hairy woodpeckers chasing one another down the trunk of a nearby tree.

Most dramatic may have been my introduction to prairie chickens on a gray November afternoon. I was quail

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