COLUMBIA — A summer morning outing at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area can reveal birds as small as iridescent indigo buntings, to imposing turkey vultures roosting in large numbers on high-voltage electrical towers. One might even come across killdeer nesting in the gravel road and faking injuries because they feel threatened by an approaching car.
These were a few of the 37 different species several members of the Columbia Audubon Society came across Wednesday morning during their weekly field trip. The members go every week to record and protect their feathered friends.
Denny Donnell, a retired physician who lives in Columbia, said he has been bird watching for more than 65 years. He can identify most birds by their song.
“I’ve been doing it since kindergarten when I was taken on a bird walk,” Donnell said.
He became more active in bird watching during Boy Scouts and said it was “a friend” while in medical school.
The three men on the trip to Eagle Bluffs are all retired, including physician Mames Denninghopp, and bird watching is one of the ways they keep busy.
“When old doctors retire, we put them to work,” Bill Clark said, who was a major league baseball scout for 36 years.
The members are recording birds within Missouri in an effort to help with the society’s Cache Project. Clark, who leads the groups, said the project aims at identifying the special management needs of any given species, and making a list of birds that can be seen at any time of the year at each location. If a species is found with a limited habitat and has special needs, members will notify the Missouri Department of Conservation so the agency can provide management help.
“It is important to maintain a healthy population of birds,” Clark said.
For more than two and a half years, members have visited sites more than 300 times and have returned to spots as many as 50 times. There are 900 places that are owned or managed statewide by the Missouri Department of Conservation that the group wants to survey.
The team working on the Cache Project meets every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. near the southwest corner of Parkade Plaza. They usually go to parks or conservation areas. Clark said that everyone is welcome on the trips.
Denninghopp usually records the birds as they are spotted. Members note the different species they see and record the number. The list for that day is later entered into a database.
Donnell said the birdwatchers also frequent Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Grindstone Nature Area, Little Dixie Lake, Wild Haven Nature Area and the Katy Trail State Park, but said those designations aren’t as diverse or large as the 4,430 acres at Eagle Bluffs.
The group usually spots and records around 30 birds on each summer trip. On the Wednesday trip, 37 birds were recorded. An unusual find was the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Clark said that this sighting was one of four this year in mid-Missouri.
Since the waters have been higher in Eagle Bluffs this summer, Donnell said the flooding could have killed off some of the ground vegetation where some birds find insects to eat. He said the flooding may set things back for a while, but eventually the landscape will return to normal.
“We take notice of more than the birds,” Donnell said, who is also a member of the Missouri Native Plant Society. “We look at the flowers, the trees and the grasses too.”
Clark said it’s important not to make quick moves so the birds aren’t scared away.
“Above all,” he said, “never slam the car door.”
The Columbia Audubon Society has field trips to Eagle Bluffs and other places at different times of the year. Its “Christmas Bird Count” is more large scale. There are around 75 members working in 15 groups from sunup to sundown in an eight-mile area. They usually record almost 100 birds during this survey.
Vanessa Melton, vice president of the Columbia Audubon Society, said the society has 500 to 550 members, but only 30 to 40 come to events and meetings regularly.
A trick that Donnell offers to becoming a successful birdwatcher is to get familiar with the birds’ size, shape, and habitat.
“Read up on them so you can have an appreciation of what kinds of birds you might see,” he said.