On a recent birdwatching trip to the woodlands of Appanoose County’s Sharon Bluffs Park, Johnson explained what birds he may see.
“I’ll be looking for birds such as Thrashers, Warblers, Chicken Sparrows, maybe a Vireo,” he said.
Walking on early summer grass, still damp with dew Tom’s passion for birding was kicking in like the morning coffee.
“To me, the thing that is fun about birding is migration because it changes the birds all the time,” Tom said. “Especially spring and fall. Then in summer, we have the resident birds. But birding is great fun any time.”
Affable Tom with a set of black binoculars hanging from his neck slow-walked around a tree line. With his eyes up and his ears open. The birder would soon explain why listening is a complementary tool to vision while birdwatching.
“Tap, tap ... tap, tap, tap,” reverberated throughout the reticent morning.
Without turning toward the drumming to identify its composer, Johnson remarked, “That would be a Pileated Woodpecker. This bird is cool. They look just like Woody the Woodpecker. You’ll find them along the Chariton River. When we moved here in ‘84 they were hard to find but not so tough now.”
Tom’s birding experience comes to the fore as he doesn’t have to see to identify what he hears.
“A lot of birding is listening,” he said. “Probably more important than visual.
“Sometimes you will only hear a specific bird certain times of the year. ... But the specific woodpeckers you can identify by the tone of their taps.”
With morning awake, 17 acres of nature was stretching. Tom was in his element with the whistles, peeps, clicks, tapping, and sounds of four and two-legged animals scurrying for breakfast throughout the park.
An unseen muted sound was emanating from a large hump of dead tree limbs, twigs and severed branches yards away.
“Hear the Warbler,” Tom asked. “He’s around that brush pile and hard to see. This is why listening is so important.”
“Look straight up! There at 11 o’clock.” Tom instructed. A large old Oak tree with massive branches was looming overhead.
Two large dudes with feathers, clutching onto an Oak branch were now caught in Johnson’s binoculars.
“They’re called Rain Crows because supposedly you can hear them before a rain,” he said. “You rarely see them; they move kind of slow.”
Before Tom’s attention traveled to the next sound or movement, he paused briefly. As if to validate his prior rain forecast, Johnson wondered aloud, “It is supposed to rain tonight. Right?”
It did rain that night. It didn’t quit raining for the next two days.
After several more bird sightings both resident and migratory. Both common and not as common. The birdwatcher had scratched that itch. Walking away from nature and toward the gravel road, Tom couldn’t resist one more sighting.
“Can you hear that?” Tom’s voice bounced. “Wow, that is the Red-Eye Vireo. A hard bird to lay eyes on. If you get close to one, they have a red iris. Vireos are migrating North, but some stay. They stop because of the trees and all their little buds. There is a lot of food available now.”
Rathbun Lake Bird Club
Solo birdwatching is a healthy, interesting and fun hobby. People who enjoy coexisting with birds can birdwatch at several area locations, such as Sharon Bluffs, Lake Rathbun, or the Sedan Bottoms.
Never leaving home but filling feeders in the backyard is also a fun way to enjoy feathered friends.
Tom is involved with a local birdwatching club who would like to invite people with varying degrees of interest in birds to join.
“The name of our club is Rathbun Lake Bird Club,” Tom said. “Membership is one dollar. We want to get the word out that new people are welcome.”
Birding has been an organized hobby in Centerville reaching back several decades. The club formed in the early 1970s, following the dedication of Rathbun Lake, by Bill Heusinkveld, Kay, Mahmberg and Charlotte Scott.
“If someone has a fantastic bird story, we will call each other and trade information,” Tom said. “We integrate through the Facebook page.”
The club gets together in groups and holds a few meetings throughout the year.
The local bird club is involved with several bird counts throughout the year.
“An activity that’s fun is our resident bird counts,” Tom said. “We will do one in June and that count has been performed for the past 25 years. Three or four groups cover the county area. We try to find out what birds are nesting, and a report is presented to our bird club as well as the state association.”
Tom says the winter bird count has been in operation since 1901.
Anyone with an interest in birds, anyone who feels that excitement, when they see a new bird at their backyard feeders are encouraged to join the club’s Facebook group, The Rathbun Lake Bird Club, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1669315013330594/.
Certified Backyard Habitat
Tom, wife Becky, and daughter Tiffany Johnson live on a 12-acre property rural route Mystic. Twelve acres of weald is home to various wildlife.
The Johnson family enjoys an Aviary Never-Never Land in their own backyard.
A large back deck serves as the family’s nature observatory. Tom and fellow birdwatcher Becky often sit and tune in the live performance of a backyard that has gone to the birds.
Their deck of recycled milk jugs rolls out unto a vista of tall trees with short dead ones. Bushes of all sort, green grass, a brush pile, a babbling Goldfish pond.
If this all sounds like nature’s furniture for a great bird habitat, Becky would agree.
“This is a backyard habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation,” she said.
In order to become certified, the federation ensures the area contains food, water, cover and places to raise the young.
Pointing to a three-foot, multi-tiered concrete dry water fountain Becky talked about habitat repurposing.
“In a habitat such as this, you can repurpose things,” she said. “Like this fountain. One day it failed, and I made it into a planter for succulent plants. The thing is, you don’t have to have a big yard for this. You can do it right off your deck.”
Off on the right side of the property lounged a large brush pile. Even an everyday pile of twigs, dead branches, and tree limbs are appropriate in this environment.
“That’s a wildlife attraction for the chipmunks and squirrels,” Becky proudly noted. “It belongs.”
Becky not taking her eyes off her brush pile remarked with a little concern, “Tom said to get rid of it!”
All at once, scoops of ice cream looking rain clouds blocked the morning sun. The flying birds who had been aloft now nervously touched down on their nearest branch.
The celebratory songs and whistles of the backyard were muted.
Tom’s attention now focused on his wife, “No, I said we could build another one”.
Becky with a grin agreed, ‘Oh, Ok”.
Harmony was restored.
Coexisting In The Backyard habitat
Smiling with her eyes Becky remembered a bird sighting way back in the 1970s. The Jonson Lovebird.
“When Tom and I first started dating, he took me to the cemetery because he wanted to listen for owls,” she recalled,
Knowing what was to come, Tom playfully interjected, “Yeah, you got to watch out for that.”
Becky raising her voice a pitch, “Yes, it was at night and I had an owl dive at me!”
Even then, Tom knew, “Yes, it’s called a Screech-Owl. I think Becky thought, ‘What is wrong with this guy?’ What was great is that her mom loved birds also. Becky’s mother and I were friends forever.”
Sitting on their deck, Tom enjoyed black coffee in a thermos cup while Becky sipped on a cup of tea. Surrounding the couple attached to their deck was a myriad of various bird feed and treats. Further out in the yard free standing bird feeders looked like butlers ready to serve.
Tom explained ‘Johnson’s ‘All-You-Care-To-Eat Bird Buffet’.
“We have suet for the Woodpeckers, oranges for the Orioles, sunflower seeds, cracked corn for the Sparrows, grape jelly (in season), and Nyjer or Finch food for the smaller birds,” he said.
Orioles and their taste for sweet oranges are a fun sight.
“The Orioles will just clean out the fruit and leave the outer peel,” she said. “I’ll go through a whole bag of oranges.”
Tom, admiring Becky’s habitat dedication remarked, “Becky even throws out eggshells to help birds with the building of their nests.”
The Johnson’s backyard was akin to an IMAX cinematic bird movie with incredible surround sound.
Stereo sounds of tapping Woodpeckers from the woods. Clicks, and whistles from Finches and Vireos. Chirps and cheeps from Cardinals and Orioles. A nice duet from the songbirds and warbling from, well, the warblers. Adding to the sounds were two birds humming around the red nectar feeders.
One would wonder: “How do those big sounds come from such a tiny bird?”
Bluebirds played with Blue Jays. Red-eye Vireos were still unpacking after stepping off the red-eye flight from Mexico.
Sitting on his deck chair Tom made the observation, “You know, really people feed the birds for themselves. It’s fun.”
Becky’s Bird Log Book
Reaching for a red spiral notebook Becky added yet another interesting idea for backyard birders.
Turning to a page with today’s date Becky began, “I have kept this book updated every day for the past 10 years. I list each type of bird I see and how many.”
A descending vibrant red male Cardinal lowered his docking gear for a safe landing a few feet in front of the Johnson’s.
“Oh,” Becky exclaimed, “I’ll write him down in my book. That’s the first Cardinal of the day.”
“I also always note the temperature, the sky conditions, and anything else that has to do with the weather for that day,” said Becky. “For example, I can go back on this date a year ago and see we had 15 species of birds.”
A running log book adds to the fun of any backyard with a feeder.
Four Oriole soldiers were lined up at attention along the deck’s top rail.
“We had nine Orioles here yesterday,” observed Becky. “They like the grape jelly.”
Tom was ready to one-up the orange and black bird count, “We had 13 Orioles one day last month. It took both of us to count them.”
The Johnsons log the different species of birds they see. Never counting the same bird twice.
“Well, here’s a different species,” interjects Tom. “It’s a House Finch. They are always around but we don’t see them in the winter. They don’t come to our feeders because the Purple Finches run them off.”
Nature’s pecking order: Purple Finches and Martins bully the House Finch, who in return pick on the sparrows.
The Patient Birdwatcher
The high noon sun began to heat a pre-Memorial weekend day.
The dew on the morning grass was evaporated.
The tap, tap, … tapping, the warbling, and the chirping at least seemed to be not as consistent.
A man who has served his country, who has educated her children, who has studied her eyes, and who now volunteers his time for the hospice Veterans has lowered his binoculars.
But tomorrow will be another day.
Another day in the sun.
And it will be documented in Becky’s backyard-habitat book.