Herd Bull, 2016

I think I was just lucky last year. I made a single trip to Peck Ranch, found all kinds of elk including the herd bull and his harem and got some pretty nice shots. So I was a little spoiled and expecting things to go pretty much the same way this year. I even started making trips a month early so I’d be sure and hit the peak of the rut. Of course things didn’t work out as easily as I’d hoped.

My first trip was in late August. I really didn’t expect the rut to have started yet and this trip was really just to get the lay of the land again, since it had been almost a year since I’d last been there. I found elk immediately, thirty or more of them, but they were all cows and still-spotted calves save for one small spike bull.

Again, it was too early for them to be in rut and the big bulls tend to be more wary and stick closer to cover. No worries, this was basically what I had expected and I was planning to be back in the weeks ahead.

And I was. I made an additional four trips to Peck before the end of September. The first three of those trips produced lots of raccoons (there were eight of them on one trip), skunks, turkeys, mourning doves and exactly two cow elk each trip. I did not hear a single bugle on any of these trips. Then on the fourth trip I couldn’t find any cows, but a pair of young bulls instead.

I considered this a good sign since I figured the dominant bulls were gathering the ladies and kicked these youngsters out of the group. Still no bugling though.

An archery hunt closed Peck Ranch for the first weekend in October and I was unable to return on the following two weekends. So it was late October before I was able to resume the search.

It had been nearly a month since my last trip and I forgot to take into account the later sunrise. I arrived a good 45 minutes before the sun would top the hills in the east, so I parked in the first food plot and waited. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and started moving slowly down the road. I was running without headlights and there was just enough light that I could see several elk in the field ahead of me.

Even though they were only 50 yards away, I had to use binoculars to see if they were the herd of cows. They weren’t. They were bulls, ranging from a smallish fork horn all the way to a couple of pretty large 6x6s, seven of them in all.

I continued and drove all the way to where the road turns uphill, leaving the fields and food plots in the creek bottom. So I turned around and headed back, this time turning to the south towards the MOFEP housing. There’s a field to the west of the road here and I could see someone parked ahead, so I pull over and started looking. It was still ten minutes until the first rays of the sun would peek over the ridge to the east and barely light enough to make out a large number of elk moving around the field. The closest to me was a 6×6 and the other twenty odd animals were cows. I had finally found the herd bull and his harem.

By now, it was finally starting to lighten up a bit, two more vehicles full of gawkers showed up and the elk began moving towards the trees.

I watched them until they were no longer visible then turned and headed back to the field by the creek, where I had seen the group of bulls right off the bat. To my surprise, the cows were in the field and the bull was coming out of the trees too. When they had left the other field, I’d have bet you that they would have headed west to a small food plot nestled in a small, bowl shaped hollow well away from the road. Obviously they crossed the hill to the north and I would have lost my money were there anyone there to have taken my bet.

The herd was still headed for the timber, but they were heading for the thick stuff along Mill Creek instead of where I’d imagined they would go. Before the bull reached the trees, a bugle sounded from the northwest and he had to respond in kind, though it was kind of half-hearted.

There was no answer from the apparent challenger and the bull soon follow the cows into cover.

I’d finally found the herd bull and his harem, but I have to admit that what I’d found had left me a little puzzled. This bull was a nice 6×6 to be sure, but two of the bulls in the first group were probably larger animals. And, according to a very reliable source, there is a massive 8×8 roaming the area, almost surely the same one that challenged and killed the previous herd bull last year. So now I’m wondering how this relatively small bull is managing to keep hold of a harem, considering the competition.

Maybe this bull is just more aggressive and won his ladies through force of will as much as force of muscle. He had a wound on his face and had clearly been in combat, so he wasn’t in charge just by default.

This doesn’t explain how he’s held the harem in light of the 8×8. That bull is, by all accounts, a monster—as big as a horse across the hips and rump, one source tells me. Again, he’s very likely the same bull that last year killed a bigger bull than this 6×6, so I just don’t see how this bull could survive a confrontation with him.

So my hypothesis is this: there’s a second herd of cows that forms the harem of the 8×8. I know there are more cows than the 20 that are with the 6×6 and there’s a lot of the Ranch that’s outside the elk viewing tour and not easily accessible. I wouldn’t be surprised if you went to the fields further down Mill Creek, such as the ones that run back up Johnson Hollow, and found the 8×8 with a harem of his own.

That area is more than a mile’s walk from the elk tour road, but coming around and entering at the East Gate would put you much closer, though you’d still have to walk and it’s a steep climb on the way out. I have an extra day next week-end thanks to Veteran’s Day, so if I can motivate myself, I think I’ll head over and see if I can find my monster bull.

Not Flicker. Flickr!

Just quick post to let everyone (all three of you!) know that I’ve set up a Flickr account. Actually, that’s not accurate—I’ve had the account since 2011, but haven’t really made use of it before. I’ve begun making an effort to use and organize the account for two reasons: I have many, many photos that will never see the light of day if I only use the images that accompany my too infrequent postings here and more importantly perhaps, I’m much more likely to upload photos to Flickr on a regular basis than I am to post entries here. Basically, I’m looking for a way to reasonably frequently post new content, whether here or on Flickr, when history has proven that I can’t do so over any length of time, only posting here.

I’m sure there will be plenty of crossover between this site and Flickr, but there will be many more images there than here. I currently have about 950 photos uploaded, I’m constantly adding more and I have ten years worth of stuff to work from. These are the links you’ll need if you want to see them:


Organized by Collection

Organized by Album

So please go take a look and as always, any comments are deeply appreciated. Thank you and Good Night.

Invasion of the Nuthatches

Winter range varies tremendously from year to year, especially in east. Big southward invasions occur in fall of some years, perhaps mainly when cone crops are very poor in the northern forest. In years with good food supply, may remain all winter on nesting territory.

That quote and visual representation (some sophisticated folks might call that a map) come straight from the National Audubon Society’s Online Guide to North American Birds Red-breasted Nuthatch page. Based on what they tell us, I’d say something went wrong up north, whether the cone crop failed or something else entirely, because the little buggers have apparently marshaled their forces and invaded in large numbers.

The first signs appeared back in September. Folks on the MOBIRDS Listserve began reporting Red-breasted Nuthatch (RBNH) sightings along the eastern part of the state, then further west in the Columbia-Jefferson City area. Finally, someone reported birds at Eagle Point Recreation Area on Lake Wappapello, only about 50 miles east of here and that prodded me into action. I’d been thinking of going out to see if I could find a bird or two and now that they had been reported so close, I knew I to try.

Originally, I was thinking of driving to Eagle Point since I knew they were there, or had been a day or two before. But it’s an hour away and, duh, we have plenty of appropriate habitat for nuthatches locally. So I ended up going to work instead. Not actually to work, but where I work, which has a stand of old growth Shortleaf Pine right outside the back door and seemed like an easy place to start looking. It was windier than I would have liked and at first, I was having no luck. But after 15 minutes or so, I ran into one of those mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice and kinglets that roam the woods in the fall and winter and among them I heard the yank yank yank of a nuthatch. It sounded not quite right for our common White-breasted Nuthatch, so I started tracking the call.

Sure enough, it was a Red-breasted and while I got a couple of photos before losing track of him, the light wasn’t very good and I wasn’t satisfied with them. So I headed for my fall back location at the Park’s sewage lagoon at Big Spring. The lagoon sits right in the middle of a thick stand of pine planted by the CCCs in the 1930s. It’s several times larger than the stand at Park Headquarters and significantly thicker to boot.

I parked outside the chain link fence that surrounds the treatment ponds and walked back up the road into the pines. Five minutes later I head the yank yank yank call again and began working my way closer. This bird was a more compliant—almost tame in fact—and I ended up with a much better photo.

That was on Sunday and the following Friday found me at Peck Ranch chasing elk (that’s another post). The elk moved into the timber shortly after daylight and once they were gone, I started looking for nuthatches again. Peck Ranch is a large block of land, approximately 22,000 acres with about half of that inside the core refuge area. It also happens to host a lot of potential RBNH habitat.

I only stopped at a few locations, the first being at the junction of Roads 10 & 13. The roads meet at a “T” and on the southeast side is a thin stand of pine, recently cut over. I immediately heard chickadees and kinglets and it wasn’t long before I found a RBNH.

Another very tame bird, he came in close to give me the once over in return.

I heard a second bird calling, but never got close enough to see it. Back in the truck, I headed on down 13 and stopped at a larger, thicker pine stand, just before the intersection with Road 11. This is a sweet stand of pine, but I struck out on RBNHs, though I did find Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Blue Jays, a Pine Warbler and a Brown Creeper. I got a couple of shots of the Pine Warbler, but the Creeper stayed high in a pine and I couldn’t get much of a shot. I have quite a few Pine Warbler images, but almost no Creepers, so this was disappointing.

Following that stop, I left the refuge and headed back towards the house. But just before you leave the CA proper, I made one more stop at a parking lot abutting a dense copse of pines. The canopy was tight, so there wasn’t much light coming through and the undergrowth was thick and often sharp. But I found not one, but three, RBNHs.

I could have undoubtedly found more birds had I kept looking. But I’d gotten up at 4:30, been at the CA since well before daylight and I was getting hungry. And my stomach almost always wins, a statement that you wouldn’t argue with if you happened to see me.

The story isn’t quite finished though. This past Friday during my lunch break, I was sitting on my truck tailgate when I heard yank yank yank in the pines nearby. I already had my camera laying beside me, so when the RBNH came down the large pine 30′ in front of me, I was ready for him. This was very likely the same bird I found and photographed almost two weeks earlier, though I have no proof of that.

I like to find and document as many species as possible on my 17 acres of land and I put in some effort to locate an RBHN to add to the list, but didn’t have any luck. Then this past Saturday, as Dayna and I were leaving for Poplar Bluff, I heard the now familiar yank yank yank emanating from the woods behind the pond. I heard another bird (or perhaps the same one) on Sunday when I had the dogs out to do their business. I did look for this one after I had the dogs back in the house, but he had moved on by the time I returned.

Anyway, there are an inordinate number of Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Ozarks this fall and I’m guessing they’ll stay all winter. They’re easy to attract to bird feeders if you don’t feel like pursuing them in the wild. Just put out suet, sunflower seeds, peanut butter and, especially, nuts and if there’s one nearby, he’ll probably stop by for a meal.

Warbler Quest: III

After spending a weekend trying to photograph all eighteen species of warblers that breed in the Ozarks, I found myself four species short of my goal. I had missed two “easy” birds—Common Yellowthroat and Prairie Warbler—along with the two I would consider the most difficult: Yellow and Swainson’s Warblers. Swainson’s are limited to a narrow habitat zone and I’m pretty sure they hadn’t returned to the area yet. Yellow Warblers seem to be common enough, but I never know when I’m going to run into one. They are where you find them.

The following weekend, I left out early headed for Blue Spring on the Current River. A Swainson’s usually holds a territory here and I had good spots for the other three close by. There was no sign of the Swainson’s but the Missouri Department of Conservation has done a lot of cutting and burning in the area (to create elk habitat, I think) and I found a Prairie Warbler in one of these brushy stretches along the road.

After leaving Blue Spring, I crossed the river at Powder Mill and followed Hwy 106 to Shawnee Creek campground. I had gotten Yellow Warblers here a couple of times before and there are almost always Common Yellowthroats in the edge of the field, so it felt like it was worth a shot. I walked into the field, the herd of “wild” horses milling about close by, and immediately picked up a Common Yellowthroat.

Once I was sure I had a usable photograph of the Yellowthroat, I used my phone to play the Yellow Warbler’s song. I was about to give up when I noticed something moving way off on the river side of where I was looking. Damned if it wasn’t my Yellow Warbler.

He was cagey, but I finally managed to snap a couple of decent shots, though the light isn’t the best.

I was batting .750 for the day and my total was up to 17. Only the Swainson’s was still missing and again, I’m pretty sure they simply hadn’t returned to the area yet.

Before I headed home, I stopped on Rocky Creek where I had planned to look for Prairie Warblers. I had gotten one earlier, so I didn’t need to make the stop but I did anyway, just for shits and giggles.

I crossed the creek, parked beside the highway and walked a couple hundred yards north on the Ozark Trail, listening to a Prairie Warbler sing the entire time. He was rather tame, basically ignoring me and I got a couple of nice shots before I returned to the truck.

I checked eBird the next evening and the area along the Eleven Point River was lit up like a Christmas tree with Swainson’s sightings. They were being reported from the Narrows all the way up to Cane Bluff. One person reported twelve birds. Game on!

I had to wait for another day off and that wouldn’t be until the next weekend, but I grew impatient and took leave on Thursday. It wasn’t hard to convince Dayna to come with me and Thursday morning we set off for the Eleven Point. Greer Crossing was our first stop because it’s the easiest area to access and multiple birds had been reported there. If it didn’t pan out, we would keep trying—Cane Bluff, Turner Mill, McDowell Access, Boze Mill, Riverton and the Narrows—until we found a bird.

Our fall-back areas weren’t necessary. We pulled off Hwy 19 at the Ozark Trail crossing and two minutes later I had photos of species #18.

The bird stayed close to cover and in the shadows, but I managed several photos even if they were a bit noisy. We drove into the day-use area to use the restroom and I could hear another bird singing in the direction of the campground. Unable to resist, we retrieved the cameras from the car and slipped down the trail to the camping area.

This one came out and sang for us, though he was reluctant to leave the shadows as well.

We had found our target bird on the first stop, so we were free agents for the rest of the day. We drove down to Thayer, stopping at Warm Fork Park and Mammoth Spring, just across the Arkansas line, and ate lunch at Fred’s Fish House (they have excellent fish). Then we hit Grand Gulf and Cover Prairie. Those stops finished up a full day and we were ready to go home. Warbler Quest complete.

Warbler Quest: II

To recap my last post, I had managed in the course of a day to inadvertently photograph 9 of the 18 warblers that breed in the Ozarks. Halfway home, I decided to make a concerted effort to find and photograph the remaining nine and quickly formulated a plan.

The first stop was easy: my yard. I have at least three Black-and-white Warblers that have established territories on my 17 acres of woodland. They sing their heads off every morning and this morning was no exception. I managed to photograph not one, but two of the three along with an unexpected Worm-eating Warbler.

My plan now led me to Blue Ridge Road, a Forest Service road that runs the three miles from C Highway to Skyline drive, following a ridge heavily forested with oak, hickory and pine. I drove slowly, with my windows down, listening for birdsong.

Less than a half-mile in, I heard the song of a Yellow-throated Warbler, one of the two I was listening for and potentially, the more difficult to locate. I pulled over and parked, walked back into the woods where this bird was singing repeatedly. I used playback and managed to bring him down from the upper reaches of the canopy, though this species does not typically respond aggressively.

He never did come down to my level, staying too high for a really good shot. But after following him for a while as he searched the foliage for insects, I managed a few shots, this being the best of the lot.

Another ½ mile down the ridge, right where the Ozark Trail crosses, is a good stand of Short-leaf Pine. Just what I was looking for. I walked fifty yards from the truck, hung my speaker on a limb, turned on playback and thirty seconds later I had a lovely photo of a Pine Warbler.

OK, I was running three for three so far and feeling confident. So naturally, the wheels came off my grand plan at this point.

I had hoped to pick up a Yellow Warbler at the Carter County Court House in Van Buren. The large, old maple trees there usually harbor one or two, but not this day. All I could find were Starlings, House Finches, House Sparrows and a Robin.

My backup spot was Watercress Recreation Area, also in Van Buren. Again, no luck, either for a Yellow Warbler or the Prothonotary that should have been hanging out along the spring branch/slough. There were American Redstarts all over the place, but I had photographed one of those the day before and didn’t improve over the shot I already had.

Most of my ill-placed confidence now gone, I headed to my next stop: the Cotton Farm/Sweezie Hollow in the Big Spring area of the Park. There’s a good-sized glade here where I hoped to find a Prairie Warbler, there are always Yellow-breasted Chat in the old overgrown field near the spray fields and I can usually find a Common Yellowthroat in the wet area near the creek.

The glade was overgrown, much more so than I had expected and much of the vegetation was sporting pointy things. I was wearing shorts, so I declined to climb up to the glade proper, but I tried calling a Prairie Warbler out to the road. Another strike out.

The good news was that I could hear a Yellow-breasted Chat making their goofy call from the back of the Park’s Fire Cache building. I headed in that direction, but got distracted by a Blue-winged Warbler that posed nicely for me. I know that I already had a Blue-winged, but this is a much better photo, so I have to include it.

Once I was through with the Blue-winged (and the Towhee and Brown Thrasher), I concentrated on the Chat. I used playback to pull him out of the locust, blackberry and buckbrush snarl he was hiding in and he posed repeatedly for me. Now we’re back on track, even though I didn’t get the Yellowthroat I had hoped for.

Moving on, I stopped at the slough that lays along the front side of the Big Spring boat landing. I walked a short distance into the bottom and parked my arse on a log. A Northern Parula showed up almost immediately and I got a much better shot that the one I posted earlier. A “repeat” bird, but it still made me feel better.

I also didn’t have to wait long before a Prothonotary was singing from a drift pile, 30 feet from where I was sitting. The light wasn’t fantastic, but that contributed to a nice background in most of the images. This was my favorite of several images I shot.

Alas, that was to be the last warbler of the day. I was out of places to look for Yellow Warblers and I couldn’t find either a Prairie Warbler or Common Yellowthroat at any of the three additional locations I visited.

I did hear a Yellowthroat at Big Tree where I looked unsuccessfully for a Swainson’s Warbler, but he unsurprisingly stayed in the grass and I never even saw him, much less got an opportunity for a photograph.

In my defense, I don’t think the Swainson’s had made it back to the area just yet. I checked eBird later and no one had reported a Swainson’s north of Arkansas, so I just don’t think they were here.

Still, I did manage to photograph another five species, bringing me to fourteen of the eighteen. I’d hoped to get all 18 in that one weekend, but it wasn’t to be. Not that I was giving up. It was simply time to regroup.