Saturday, February 19, 2011

Longspurs in the slush: A February report from Joe Neal

We are past mid-February and Lapland Longspur season in northwest  
Arkansas is either over or nearly over. The historic storm of February  
9 (up to 24 inches of snow and as low as minus 18 on the 10th) may  
have kept them here longer than usual. Main roads were open after the  
10th. I managed to get out of my driveway in Fayetteville and over to  
the former prairie lands at Siloam Springs and Maysville on the 12th  
and the 13th.
Since open fields still had deep snow cover, longspurs and their  
?snowbird? brethren dined in the roadway slush on spilled poultry  
grain, on the road and the thin plowed grassy shoulder ? or,  
alternately, didn?t dine at all. It?s hard to imagine the mortality  
among snowbirds during the height and aftermath of this storm, BUT I  
imagine it would make the now infamous blackbird deaths at Beebe on  
New Year?s pale by comparison.
Chief flocks in the height of the storm include Dark-eyed Juncos,  
Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, American Tree Sparrows, Savannah  
Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, cardinals,  
meadowlarks, starlings.  I see one flock of 7 Harris?s Sparrows.  
Traffic is heavy along the roads so the birds are flushed constantly.  
Longspur and Horned Lark flocks (pure flocks and more often mixtures)  
land on the road, then scurry to the shoulder to feed. FLUSH! A loud  
WHOOSH! of wings. Now longspurs race over me in a low tight flocks,  
dipping as if to stop, circling, passing close so I cleanly hear the  
low hard buzz prrrrt or a sort of geeeb they say to one another in  
Tiny sparrow birds, they settle in sight of the roadway, on a field of  
white. Through the spotting scope I can see the long spur from which  
they derive their common name. Standing in the pure white, in a vast  
field of pure white: in their plumage rich chestnuts, blacks, summer  
tans and yellows -- their dark legs ? 25 birds, males and females, all  
in bold relief. It?s much like a huge, white canvas upon which has  
been painted the heart of the matter. While the traffic passes they  
preen and watch. Most of the drivers are in too big a hurry to get to  
work, to the chicken houses, to the cows, to the store, to haul the  
kids somewhere, to notice.
Unfortunately, they miss a basic reality of the world of which we are  
but part. Longspurs define the open country in a storm. It?s the  
laplands in Arkansas. It?s a fact, but it?s all but unknown.
Survival foraging on a roadside has its price. I?m watching a flock of  
10 Savannah Sparrows. They don?t flush as rapidly as the longspurs.  
One truck passes too close and up and off they go. As I watch, one  
Savannah seems to peel off, or so I think. Right in front of the feed  
truck it sails straight up in front of the windshield, then with  
folded wings, flops down to the yellow stripe. Flops again, and is  
still. Tiny, tiny creature of broad open fields: survived 24 inches of  
snow, 18 degrees below, survived all the winter that came before the  
big one, but not our traffic, not the world we are in such a big hurry  
to own. Poor perfect Savannah Sparrow. Pity for us, for not recognizing.
t?s now been 25 years or more that I was at Beaver Lake on a fall day  
when the lake was very low. I walked out on a long spit and there, in  
the middle of the lake, on the last rocky bit before water, there was  
a single Lapland Longspur. I was looking for eagles and found a  
creature of less than an ounce. From the extreme far north, no less.  
Trying to understand, I wiped my eyes and the lens and looked again.  
Yes, it was a longspur. Here it had come all these thousands of miles,  
from the place of native Arctic peoples, to?well the land where we  
Call the Hogs. Seemed a miracle. Still does. I?m definitely NOT  
against Calling the Hogs. Here I go, WHOOO PIG SOOEY!!! But it is the  
miraculous incongruity that spurs me on.
Where they breed across the vastness of Arctic tundras virtually  
worldwide, Lapland Longspurs are either the most common terrestrial  
bird or among the most common. And in their swirling masses they are  
about the most numerous bird wintering in North America. Enormous  
numbers, like the unimaginable and uncountable masses of Passenger  
Pigeons recorded by Audubon.
? the Inupiaq Eskimo name ?Kungnituk? may be a modification of  
?kungenook,? meaning black, with reference to the male?s black throat,  
face, and flanks. The Yu?pik name ?Natchakuparak? means ?hood-like  
marking on head.? Eskimo names vary considerably across range, with  
the following all being documented. Inupiaq: in Nunavut, ?Kungnuktah?  
on Bylot I., ?Nasaulik? on Belcher I., ?Kingnituk? or ?Kungnituk? on  
Southampton I., ?Kowlegak? or ?Kaoligak? on Baffin I. Greenland,  
?Narssarmiutaq? Yu?Pik: in Alaska, ?Tuk-cho-fluck?and both  
?Tik-i-chi-ling?-uk? and ?Natchakuparak? at Hooper Bay, ?Nessaúdliga?  
at Point Barrow, ?Potokialuk? at Anak-tuvuk, ?Pig-git-tig-wuk? at St.  
Michael, ?Chir?-loch? on Attu I., and ?Chí-loch? on Atka I. (From the  
Birds of North America species account for Lapland  Longspur by David  
J. Hussell and Robert Montgomerie [2002])
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tell your congressman to protect birds and other wildlife programs

Take Action   
Dear Aubrey,

Piping Plover Chick © Sidney Maddock
Birds like the endangered Piping Plover need habitat and strong federal programs to survive. Don't let Congress roll back habitat programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund or cripple the EPA.
Radical attacks on birds, wildlife and habitat are taking place in the U.S. House of Representatives as they debate the Continuing Resolution (HR 1), a bill to extend government funding for the rest of the year. From the devastating cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program we have fought for year after year, to plans that cripple the Environmental Protection Agency and its ability to protect our families, the proposed cuts in federal conservation programs are truly alarming.
Take ActionVotes will be taking place over the next few days and possibly into the weekend on this irresponsible bill. But our message is simple: keep environmental programs strong, don’t cut them; oppose HR 1.
Devilish Details
Here are just a few of the critical conservation programs that are under attack in the House. All of them impact the conservation values we stand for.
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund is cut by 90 percent. This funding provides protection for lands and wildlife habitat in our National Wildlife Refuges, Parks, Forests and other public lands. Each day, 6,000 acres of open space are lost in the U.S. to habitat fragmentation and destruction. Once these lands are lost, they can never be recovered.
  • The North American Wetlands Conservation Fund is cut to zero. This program is fundamental to preserving wetlands throughout the country.
  • State Wildlife Grants are cut to zero. A zero budget will eliminate wildlife grant programs in your state.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is facing a $3 billion dollar cut to its budget — the largest cut in 30 years. Such draconian cuts would jeopardize its ability to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and protect our families and the environment.
Take ActionNow is the time let the House know you strongly oppose these attacks on environmental programs that benefit birds, wildlife and habitat, and public health. Please send an email today and urge your House member to oppose HR 1.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bluejay makes suet swing until it wraps string enough times to allow standing on limb to peck the treat

Please click on individual images to ENLARGE view.

Joe Neal report for Tuesday and early Wednesday from Fayetteville and north

Please click on individual images to enlarge view of birds competing for seed and cat food on Aubrey James Shepherd's front porch on February 9, 2011. A few doves, a few bluejays, numerous blackbirds, half of which at least have been red-wing blackbirds, assorted sparrows whose species Aubrey can't sort out have been photographed only through a dirty window and screen, while chickadees and wrens have competed with larger birds to get time on one of Lauren Hawkins' pine cones with seeds and fat rendered from a piece of hog jowl outside an even cloudier window. The photos posted here were taken while I was actually standing outside the door. The larger and wilder birds won't come down to feed while I (Aubrey) am standing there.
Joe's report is below the photos.


Joe Neal said by email:
We have another 8 inches of fresh snow as of this morning in  
Fayetteville. We?re shut. Everything including the University of  
Arkansas is closed. All kinds of blackbirds have come to town and my  
yard, driving my indoor cat crazy as they crowd the feeder.
I am doubly glad I made another effort yesterday (when the roads were  
relatively clear) to get up into extreme NW Arkansas, roughly from  
Siloam Springs up through Gentry, Maysville, and back through  
Gravette. This basically involves highways 59, 12, 43, and 72.
There were flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows,  
White-crowned Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, meadowlarks, Horned Larks,  
Lapland Longspurs, Northern Cardinal, and Harris?s Sparrows (one flock  
of 7 at Maysville), more or less in that order of abundance, along the  
roads. Plus big flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings,  
Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a few others including Rusty Blackbird and  
Common Grackle (plus, I have heard reports for a few Yellow-headed  
This is poultry country and a lot of chicken feed gets spilled/drifted  
along the highways. Since everything else is covered with ice and  
snow, plowed roadsides and feedlots are crowded with hungry birds.  
There is also a LOT of car and truck traffic along these roads, so the  
birds are constantly flushed. It is a sign of hungry times that they  
flushed and come right back, flush and come right back.
At the Vaughn dairies I saw Great-tailed Grackles in one place ?  
walking around in the hay and manure under and alongside big dairy  
cows ? quite a scene really, an island of life in a vast snowfield.
Yesterday, under these conditions ? with shoulders iced-over or with  
big plowed drifts ? and feed trucks trying to keep the poultry houses  
supplied ? and everyone trying to get to the store before the storm we  
have today -- it wasn?t easy to obtain real flock sizes. I throw on  
the flashers, pull over as far as I can and rapidly count everything I  
can see.
The stress on hungry sparrows is apparent. I saw several Savannah  
Sparrows that were sluggish and barely moved or didn?t move at all. I  
photographed a lone Lincoln?s Sparrow at Maysville that ignored me.
In a few places with less or little traffic, or when I just got lucky  
and caught a break in the traffic, I felt like I was seeing and able  
to count entire flocks.  There were 58 tree sparrows in one flock  
along 43 between Cherokee City and Maysville and 42 and 20+ in fields  
along the road adjacent the state fish hatchery at Centerton. I had  
254 tree sparrows for the day and that did not include the many flocks  
I couldn?t safely stop for. If I could have stopped it would have been  
2X that. Horned Lark flocks were abundant along 72 E of Maysville.
The handistop store at Maysville is open again, with gas, snacks, deli  
sandwiches, and daily lunch specials. This is an asset for birders  
visiting this area and I encourage everyone to stop and spend to keep  
it open. Gas prices are always competitive and the sandwiches have  
been great.
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Joe Neal's essay titled 'Pink Flamingo' on the AR-Bird list makes a good case for pretending to be a football fan and being safely at home when the Superbowl starts at 5:30 p.m.

Just a little northwest of Gentry, in Benton County, midst the open
flatland that was once the Round Prairie, and still locally known as
Bloomfield, there stands a pink flamingo in the yard of a neat red
brick home in front of five chicken houses. For a week we?ve had ice,
snow, then more snow, and by now there must be 6-8 inches covering
just everything. This yard too is all white, except for a sturdy, lone
pink flamingo, with a few inches of snow on its back ? a White-backed
Flamingo, perhaps.

The temperature out here is 18 degrees and it?s not really stirring
much, planted as it is on its twin steel rods. The White-crowned
Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Harris?s Sparrow and a couple of
Savannahs are making a lively scene at a feeder nearby. It?s not hard
to image how the flamingo is making it through. Plastic and steel,
after all, ignore weather and of course life itself, but what of
creatures like us, mere flesh and blood? And the feet and legs! How
can the Savannahs stand it? In my case, I?m in the Toyota, the heater
is blasting, duck hunter?s hat pulled down over everything but an
eyeball, which is tight on the spotting scope. Savannahs must be
tough, but pink flamingos they aren?t. But I?ve already gotten ahead
of myself.

The day started with a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip
to Eagle Watch Nature Trail at Gentry. Well, actually it started with
me worrying about whether or not I could even get out of my drive,
much less successfully negotiate 40 miles to Gentry. When I went
outside to start the car the door was frozen shut. Long clear icicles
hung from everything. But the sun at 8 AM was up enough that the
predictions of a warmer day were believable, the car door came open,
and a male cardinal had mounted a frozen bush and begun to sing like

Yes, I made it to Gentry, and yes a grant total of seven others did as
well. We met Terry Stanfill and eventually at least 27 Bald Eagles,
including a soaring flock in a sky impossibly blue. Unfortunately, so
were my feet -- not flocking, but getting blue. I wasn?t alone in this
regard, so by acclamation around 11 we decided to hike back through
the snow to the cars. Bonus bird for the way back was an overflight by
10 Common Mergansers, led by a male with a brilliant green head. The
pinkish blush of their otherwise pure white undersides was illuminated
by a snowfield bathed in sunshine, snow crystals turned to sparkling

Most folks were headed home at this point, but Jacque Brown had driven
from Centerton, and I from Fayetteville, so we decided to get our
money?s worth and drive some more. This drive was on the old former
prairie roads in search of American Tree Sparrows, Lapland Longspurs,
and whatever was available. That?s when we found the pink flamingo.

We found tree sparrows in two spots, including one flock of at least
30 in possession of one of those unkempt fields with scattered native
grasses and a fence in bad repair. They were brightly singing at their
weed seed harvest, rusty caps in a field of white. In the industrious
manner typical of their kind, they were also collecting seeds
dislodged from plants by performing the miracle of walking on snow.

Later in the day we found another small flock of tree sparrows
expertly working seed-rich heads of June grass poking from the
snowfield. The sparrows hopped up 2-3 feet to the seedheads. Here they
perched sideways and went to work. All that vast sparrow bulk (less
than a half-ounce) caused the June grass to slowly bow. Back on the
snow, the sparrows held the seedhead securely their claws, well paid
for their efforts and satisfying their hunger, what must be a great
hunger in such days as these.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas