Friday, June 10, 2011

Joe Neal and Joe Woolbright at Chesney Prairie admire new growth of liatris and the bob-white calls of quail

A Swainson's Hawk flew over Joe Woolbright and I yesterday, at Chesney Prairie Natural Area near Siloam Springs. We were standing in a nicely mowed path, admiring wildflowers like obedient plant and colicroot. As the hawk soared over, we were speculating about the spreading swath of liatris, the prairie gayfeather, up and at it, but not yet blooming. 
Come July 10 it will be a magnificent prairie forest of purple, and just in time for the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip.
 I would not call Swainson's rare here in summer, but rather local. We never find many, but we see them on a regular basis. It is a bird of former tallgrass prairies, now become pastures, hayfields, epicenter of poultry production. Summer records from western Benton County date to the 1960s.
 Dickcissels are singing from anything that serves as perch. Males and females are together, and the peeping notes I hear in dense vegetation tells me it is not just a bunch of random singing. We also see several small flocks of American Goldfinches, including six working seed heads of a yellow composite. We flush a male-female Northern Bobwhite pair 
and for the morning hear BOB WHITE! from three directions on and 
adjacent Chesney.
 There is a kind of fever attached to actually seeing or even hearing BOB WHITEs, kind of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker moment for Arkansans not otherwise interested in birds. The fever derives from the fact that in the 1950s bobwhites seemed everywhere. Now they seem nowhere. 
Joe told me that while herbiciding invasive non-natives like velvet grass, he recently saw or heard BOB WHITEs in at least six places on or adjacent to Chesney.
 Some may classify such reports as tall tales, right up there with Big Foot. Joe carries BOB WHITE abundance with him to Kathy's Corner in Siloam, where he riles his coffee-drinking buddies who can't quite figure-out why he cares so much about prairie restoration. Six coveys, right! And how many Ivory-billed Woodpeckers?
 Besides Swainson's, Great Blue Herons are much in evidence and fly over while Joe and I explore. Included is the 2011 class of novice black-capped juveniles. When Joan Reynolds and I visited Chesney early in the week we were greeted by a grim sight: a Great Blue Heron juv alive and twisting by wing tip from a highwire; helpless, struggling, broken ulna clearly projecting from the wing. Survived  and prospered in this spring's many storms, but unlucky in close encounters with high wires.
 GBHs, hawks, and winged creatures in general are fully prepared for the unobstructed landscape of 1800 or 1900, but not our high-energy demands of 2011. Now mercifully deceased, this wire-hung GBH is cautionary tale for all of us environmentalists pushing hard for wind-energy development that will come especially to these old windy prairies and introduce many more wires.
 But back at Chesney, Joe points out how much liatris has expanded. The mowed path now winds THROUGH the liatris, but originally went AROUND it. That is, liatris has jumped the path and happily there seems no stopping it. Perhaps, like other energetic creatures under a June sun, liatris is intent upon storming the gates of heaven. To paraphrase the artist Walter Anderson, god knows it needs storming.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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