Monday, January 31, 2011

Joe Neal invites everyone to February NWA Audubon events

I just wanted to remind everyone that NWAAS will host a field trip to Eagle Watch Nature Trail starting at 9 AM, Saturday February 5.
In the evening Dr H David Chapman will present a "History and birdlife of Lake Fayetteville" starting at 7:30 at Nightbird Books on Dickson in Fayetteville.

And keep your calendar handy, because on Saturday February 19, Dr. David Krementz, a leading expert on woodcocks, will lead NWAAS's annual woodcock field trip to Lake Wedington, starting at 5:30 PM.
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What kind of hawk is this?

Joe Neal spots rough-legged hawk two weeks after Mike Martin photographss Buteo lagopus: Both sightings in the same part of Benton County

Mike Martin photographed a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk near Springtown in Benton Co 3 Jan 2011. I just received the report and image. I saw a light morph Rough-legged Hawk at Centerton in Benton County on 19 January 2011. Centerton and Springtown are just a few miles apart. All of this is former prairie, still has a lot of open grassland habitat. Perhaps these two sightings are just chance, or perhaps Rough-legged Hawks have moved into NW Arkansas for the first time in many years. As far as I can tell, they are the first here since the mid-1990s.

Certainly the overall raptor situation here is quite interesting right now -- all kinds of hawks seem more numerous than usual -- we do typically have more raptors at mid-winter, but this may be an exception.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Joe Neal watching Anna's hummingbird in Ozark snow

 Anna's Hummingbird rare in Arkansas.
Here in northwest Arkansas, we’ve just had a few inches of snow and several nights of temperatures in the low teens. It was 13 last night. They’ve been out in Fayetteville plowing and sanding the streets. Suffering from mild cabin fever, I walked the mile from my house up to the UA campus. Campus was mostly empty except for flocks of robins and starlings working the last fruits, but on the way Wilson Park’s steep hillside hosted 200 boisterous children and used-to-be children sailing the steep hillside on recycling bin lids, plastic saucers, a door, linoleum strips, a bunch of junk I wasn’t even sure what it was, and even a few proper sleds. It was Norman Rockwell set in the Arkansas Ozarks, where native innovation reigns.

Home again (in the same day!) from my walk, me and the Toyota -- with 255,000 miles, including sun and ice and well-earned squeaks in wheels, springs, and doors that sound like birds -- negotiated mostly plowed and sometimes sanded roads out to Sara and Coy Bartlett’s place to see the remarkable thing, with feathers, – all 4.88 grams (and at that weight deemed “fat”) of Anna’s Hummingbird. It was there, as Sara had promised, and I sat in Toyota with my trusty scope on the window and collected images like I was out on the west coast. It is nothing, if not remarkable, to see a striking, healthy bird close up, no matter when, or where, but it far exceeds the merely remarkable when that bird is a few grams of hummingbird in the middle of winter in the Ozarks.

Like a Christmas card, the Bartlett place is all snowy, including pines and a magnolia snow-painted, grounds under feeders with dense flocks of every kind of snow bird your heart could desire. I saw enough seeds in feeders and spread on the icy ground to make me think the Bartlett’s will have to refinance the farm unless winter ends soon. And I haven’t even mentioned paying for electricity for the heat lamp that keeps the hummingbird feeder flowing and thawed water in a bird bath. Dining here at least: Dark-eyed Juncos (what old timers used to call “snow bird”), White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, American Goldfinches, House Finches, a few Brown-headed Cowbirds, a Downy Woodpecker, a Song Sparrow, a White-breasted Nuthatch. Periodically the birds make a BIG noisy flush, so I assume a Cooper’s Hawk is dining here, too, though I never saw it. AND, sailing over the ice and snow and birds on the ground, 4.88 grams of Anna’s Hummingbird, reddening up on throat and crown and maybe studying maps for its trip back West.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Audubon's Wilson Spring wetland nature area on Jan. 19, 2011: 185 photos from a 2-mile walk with Mike Mhlodnow

Wilson Spring nature area: Tagging along with one of Northwest Arkansas' most dedicated and talented birders.

Please click on image to ENLARGE and use link above to view more photos of Mike and the scenes along the way.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Joe Neal shares report of NW Arkansas winter-stray hummingbird

I asked Sara Bartlett to share something about her Anna's Hummingbird, including her husband Coy. She sent me this essay with a note that the hummer is still present today. If you have comments for Sara, please write back to her at:

"Coy is sitting in a darkened room staring out the front window. It’s 7 a.m., time for a farmer to get out to the barn and feed horses and make sure the day starts out right. But coffee cup in hand, he’s waiting.

Our morning routine has been the same since November. It’s now January 18th. “He’s here!” Coy has been sitting quietly for several minutes, it’s late this morning to see our Anna’s hummingbird and every day that we watch, we expect and hope that he will have flown away to start his migration path to join other Anna’s hummingbirds.

How do we have an Anna’s hummingbird feeding at our Fayetteville, Arkansas farm in winter? This bird should be on the west coast, and no hummer should be feeding here in our cold winter weather. We have fed the Ruby- throated hummingbird on our farm for many years, always expecting the birds by April 10 and feeding them through the last straggler around October 10. This year we were traveling in late October and didn’t take two remaining feeders down. There was no hurry and no thought that a stray and off track foreigner would stop in and stay.

I was working in the garden on November 11th. It was late afternoon and I looked up to see a hummingbird feeding on a tiny feeder that still hung above a garden outside our back door. It was thin so I took it for a straggling Ruby-throat needing to find feed. I watched him, worried that he was drinking in old nectar that could make him sick! I ran inside and mixed and boiled 1 cup of nectar, cooling it down immediately by sitting the glass mixing cup in ice water. In 15 minutes I had new, fresh and cooled nectar in that feeder for him. He continued to come in to feed every 10 minutes or so until dusk. That evening I took down that feeder and one that we had on the front porch, cleaned them thoroughly and replaced them with fresh nectar. He was at the back feeder again at dawn November 12th.

I’m newly semi-retired and a little obsessive, so I took notes. We still thought we had a Ruby-throated hummer who needed help getting South. My notes for November 25: “I installed a heat lamp on the hummer’s feeder, it was 32 degrees at 3 p.m. At first he came in to feed for a few seconds then left, feeding every 13-15 minutes. He’s not feeding often enough for this cold, but has gone from a slim bird to a rounded belly so he is gaining weight. At 4:19 bird fed and sat on the perch getting used to the light and heat…”

I had sent an e-mail to Dr. Doug James, ornithologist at the university. He answered on December 2nd and said he would send Joe Neal out to look at the hummer to determine exactly what we had. When Joe came out to photograph our visitor on December 6th, he knew it was NOT a Ruby-throat. We looked at the bird books and it didn’t look like a Rufous hummingbird, the most common hummer seen in Arkansas in the winter. So Joe sent his digital pictures to Bob Sargent, Hummer/Bird Study Group, near Birmingham, Alabama. Joe called later that evening saying, “You’ve got the whopper of all birds there, that is an Anna’s hummingbird, only one of a few sightings in Arkansas – and never in the Ozarks!”

Oh my! That was the beginning of a very interesting winter on the Bartlett farm. Bob and Martha Sargent drove all the way from Alabama on December 10th to trap and band the bird. What a wealth of information Bob has been. It was Bob who reassured me that the Anna’s is different than other hummingbird species and they can withstand cold temperatures down to 0 degrees. And our bird is fat! When banded and weighed, Bob said he should weigh over 3 grams. Our Anna’s weighed 4.88 grams - obviously with daily feeding he has enough fat to survive through our cold winter nights. We have had many guests who have come out to our farm to watch and photograph this beautiful little bird. We even have chairs now placed out in the front yard for our bird watching guests to sit in while they wait for him to feed.

Bob Sargent tells me that if we leave a hummingbird feeder out next Fall it is likely that this same little hummer will make our farm his winter home. As a juvenile male born last Spring in the Northwest (perhaps born in British Columbia or Washington), he got his first migration pattern mixed up and he is likely to think every winter that this is where he belongs. We’ll have to think about this.

With all the interest and excitement from having this rare bird winter with us on our farm, we both are now more interested in bird watching. My Christmas present was a new pair of strong binoculars. Coy is buying more bird seed at the grain store so that we never run out. He is enjoying learning about the woodpeckers, wrens, and waxwings. It’s probable that we’ll leave a hummingbird feeder up again next Fall…

Sara Bartlett
5612 Wheeler Road, Fayetteville, Arkansas (479) 521-3125

Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 2010, report from Joe Neal in the field

9 degrees at 9:00 in Siloam Springs. But sunny. But northwest wind – light. I’ve run across a small mixed species sparrow flock on the sunny, south-facing, out of the north wind side of 5 huge chicken houses. There are Savannah Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows, a few meadowlarks and Starlings, 1 Harris’s Sparrow, plus one American Tree Sparrow, all red-capped, bright and sprightly on our coldest day of the year so far. Like Field Sparrows today, tree sparrows seemed sprinkled among the other flocks, with 1-2 associated with at least 3 flocks dominated by White-crowned Sparrows.

Big fields all have a thin crust of ice and snow. The chicken houses are steaming. Trucks have been driving in and out servicing the chicken houses. There’s short grass, bare ground, spilled chicken feed. That’s where the birds are. Except for Bald Eagles perched up on stout limbs of leafless oaks, and except for 25 Ring-billed Gulls standing on an iced-up pond. Even the harriers are sheltering out of the wind. Of 4 today, two were perched low and protected, on the sunny, south-facing sides of dense thickets.

From Siloam I’m headed for Maysville. In the distance, a big plume from the SWEPCO plant rises from the stack, forms a hammer-headed cloud, drifts south. It’s all the way up to 12 degrees at 1:30 according to folks at the Maysville handi-stop. The old Beatie Prairie here is mostly wide open, so no one will be surprised this trip is mostly in car, heater blowing, window down ONLY when I use the scope. Bald Eagles overhead, adults and immatures, and Bald Eagles everywhere I drive.

The biggest flocks are Savannah Sparrows (100-150 in one flock, plus many smaller flocks) and White-crowned Sparrows (50+ in one flock, plus many other flocks). The two flocks of American Pipits are on the sunny sides of chicken houses or in a dairy feedlot, also protected from the wind. During the day I find 2-3 flocks of Horned Larks, with Lapland Longspurs. The first lark flock also includes a bunch of Savannah Sparrows and at least 8 longspurs. Later, I find another flock, actually a cloud of longspurs, spiraling a harvested bean field, then settling into short, snow-free grass and a big driveway, adjacent chicken houses. I get one count of 85 of them on the ground.

The spot with 8 longspurs is part of the Chastain Cattle Company operation. A friendly, curious Mr Chastain himself drives up, very busy hauling big round bales of hay to his cows. I’ve met him before; we talked eagles then. This time we brave the cold and wind, set up my tripod, and get the spotting scope on Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Savannah Sparrows enjoying the sunny side of one of his barns. We have good looks; the birds are too busy trying to survive to overly worry about us. But here comes a nosy kestrel, swooping low, driven by hunger like all these birds. The little birds are off with longspur rattles, savannah seeps, and the see-lits, see-lits of larks.

They’ll be back. For wild creatures of the old prairies, there are few alternatives on a deep winter day like this one.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Curator of Bird Records addresses issue of central Arkansas' New Year's Eve 'blackbird rain'

Joe Neal writes:
I’ve been getting calls and email soliciting opinion about blackbirds falling dead from the sky at Beebe on New Year’s Eve—the so-called blackbird rain. I had one email from San Francisco and then a call from Portland (my daughter). This has been kind of upsetting to me because I thought everyone would be interested – or at least I would get some choice hate mail -- concerning my ARBIRD-L post about how ground up Northern Cardinals could cure middle age male paunch syndrome. But, no, it’s all about blackbird rain.

It’s all about blackbird rain even though we had a big twister up here on the same evening that killed three people at Cincinnati in Washington County. Branches bare of leaves are now re-vegetated with chicken-house tin, the tinning of the trees. In past years, Bald Eagles have maintained a winter roost in that area – I assume the twister didn’t do anything good for them, either. But today it’s all blackbird rain.

I was in Ozark Natural Foods and ran into some old friends. Here I am standing in front of an imposing case of 17 species of 100% organic granola, trying to decide which is most likely to restore my youthful vigor without also requiring me to take out a second mortgage on my house. They didn’t wonder if I had already violated any New Year’s resolutions. They wanted to discuss blackbird rain.

Questions directed at me may be because I hold the Very August position of Curator of Bird Records for Arkansas Audubon Society. Surely the person who presides over such an ornithological empire should know blackbird rain. I know just about the same amount as those who put forth the theory about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That is, I know squat. But I do have opinions and I can’t see any reason why I need to have them grounded in fact. Lack of fact doesn’t seem to stop any of the radio politician millionaires who otherwise rule our airwaves, so why should it stop me?

In the space where I live, eerie blackbird rain meets all necessary weirdness criteria. It’s “out there,” in the unknowing sky, an unearthly event, a snug fit in my x-files. There is no readily available explanation unless, as one person suggested, space aliens are testing their new death ray. You can just imagine the aliens scouting planet earth who saw all the New Year’s celebration rockets going off. Then several thousand Red-winged Blackbirds – strangely altered earthlings -- converged on the mother ship. Time to try out the new toy, the death ray.

And then there’s this: The affected creatures may only look like blackbirds. What if they are body doubles of space aliens themselves, ejected by accident – or by design – from the mother ship? I suppose the cause could be as simple as blackbirds accidentally flying into the mother ship, but what would that change? And what the heck were they doing out there anyway, on New Year’s Eve?

In my official role as Curator, I contacted the US Office for Flying Saucer Investigations (FSI). “No comment,” said the FSI spokesperson, dismissively. But then an eerie voice came on the line. “We are on the case!” But which case I wondered? The granola case? The tinning of trees? The blackbirds, whoever they were or are? So many questions, so few facts. 2011 is off to a great start.

Joe Neal

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Joe Neal philosophizes on the delicate balance of nature

I receive regular mailings from private organizations and government agencies with lists of rare birds, rare mammals, rare butterflies, rare snails, etc. They are long, fine print columns with common names, Latin binomials, places where the few remaining creatures are still found. These lists contain hundreds and sometimes thousands of names of wild creatures who did nothing to deserve their fate.

Since we are at the start of a new year, let me share an example: the prized redbirds in your yard. As rare and endangered, it could appear on a future list as

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); small local population remains in West Fork, Washington County, Arkansas.

If you are of a Christian mind, you operate on the assumption that god put redbirds on the earth for good cause – even if we can’t always discern the reason – and that we still have redbirds because Noah saw fit to bring them two-by-two into his ark, prior to the great flood. On the other hand, if you are more of a scientific turn of mind with or without religion, you might assume that as creatures on the earth evolved, one of them, our prized redbird, took on very bright colors to attract mates and a very strong bill so that it could crack open hard seeds.

I couldn’t care less myself how anyone chooses to believe the origins of redbirds. What does matter is that they are here and we enjoy them in our yard. Grandma in her wheelchair gets a LOT of pleasure out of seeing her redbirds at the feeder. And unless you are too busy to pay attention, there is no song in the world lovelier than that of a redbird in spring and summer. It defines what it means to live in Arkansas.

Is it even remotely possible that our redbirds could become rare? The same question could have been asked about the now extinct Passenger Pigeon, when in 1800 they existed in the United States of America in the multiple billions. Now there are none. They survived Noah’s flood but they did not survive rapacious, stupid, blind persecution by another species with the collective miasma they have a “right” to use and destroy anything.

So, rare redbirds? Someone, somewhere, may discover ground up redbirds cure male pattern baldness, remove wrinkles in middle-aged women; redbirds well ground up and mixed with mushrooms bring back from the dead, Lazarus-like, cherished relatives; turn gray hair black? You don’t think our nation would be filled, coast to coast, with a heu and cry about the “right” to kill all cardinals for the sake of effortlessly erasing that big male paunch, restoring lost youth?

I hope you are laughing now, because that’s the best way to greet this dawn of this new year. Laughing, and also thinking. Happy New Year.