Passenger pigeon in U of Kansas collection.

Passenger pigeon in U of Kansas collection.

 

Mark Robbins and I first met when he knocked on the dorm room in Graham Hall at the University of Arizona  that I shared with Ted Parker. That was in early September of 1973. We don’t see each other very often- the last time, in fact, was 25 years ago when I visited him in Philadelphia. Since then he has been the bird collection manager at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. When I was spreading the word on Project Passenger Pigeon, I reached out to Mark and he in turn shared information with a number of organizations in the state including the Burroughs Audubon Society of Kansas City. Elizabeth Stoakes of the society reached out and invited me to speak at their annual dinner on April 25-27.

Mark met me at the Kansas City International airport and off we went birding. He took me to a large grassy site, off limits to the public without special permission, used by the Missouri National Guard for practicing parachute jumping. Our principal quarry was Sprague’s pipit, a species I have seen once before. In that case, I saw a bird on its breeding grounds performing its “skylarking” nuptial display (evidently the longest such display of any bird). While clearly a Sprague’s pipit, the bird never afforded me an opportunity to see its morphological field marks. Mark was looking for patches of dried brown grass that the birds prefer. As we drove slowly along, we saw upland sandpipers and a Le Contes sparrow. Mark also mentioned that Franklin’s ground squirrels inhabit the area as well. Just as we spotted what Mark though was a squirrel burrow, a pipit flushed and we chased after. The bird eventually perched on grass stalks each leg on a different stalk. We saw the light legs, streaked back,  large eye on buffy face, and all the other subtleties of its plumage. It is not often I get a near life bird.

Mark lives outside Lawrence and we stopped at at the university so Mark could show me the bird collection. I had told him that my jinx mammal  is spotted skunk (either species will do)  and that I would be willing to travel a fair distance to see one. (They are more nocturnal than striped skunks, but I fantasize that there is a state park somewhere within 500 miles where spotted skunk den has been dug under an outhouse or other structure: if one sat watching all night, the chimera would finally emerge.) Mark said he would consider joining me on such a trek- not the usual response I get- and he added that a road kill from a nearby county had just been brought to the museum. We observed the skunk and the small passenger pigeon flock.

Recently deceased road-killed eastern spotted skunk in collection of U of Kansas.

Recently deceased road-killed eastern spotted skunk in collection of U of Kansas.

Arrangements had been made for Mark to lead a field trip for Burroughs Audubon to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a place that I have been wanting to visit since Mark enthuses about during our Arizona days. Over 7,400 acres, much of it marsh and open water. During migration periods, it attracts literally millions of snow geese. That species is so common that there is now a spring hunting season for it. We could see the results: many snow geese (at least one Ross’s) were apparent, likely victims of gunshot wounds, as few geese would have lingered this late prior to the new hunting season. The day also brought a modest flight of my seasons first broad-winged hawks, and a fine list of shorebirds including marbled godwit, willet, Baird’s sandpiper,  and Wilson’s phalaropes.

Mark and blogger (photo by Shari)

Mark and blogger (photo by Shari)

After the well-attended dinner and talk at the elegant Country Club Christian Church,  I went home with Marilyn and Steve Koshland who graciously put me up at their lovely home overlooking a lake just outside Kansas City. In the morning, Baltimore orioles foraged at the feeder and an osprey lazily circled over, plunging once into the water to emerge fishless. Then on to the airport.

Eastern phoebe nest at the Koshland home.

Eastern phoebe nest at the Koshland home.

 

Lingering snow geese at Squaw Creek.

Lingering snow geese at Squaw Creek.

 

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