Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tufted titmouse appreciates supplemental feeding in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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Tufted titmouse a few yards from World Peace Wetland Prairie by Aubrey James Shepherd 29 Dec.  2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Communication director, Lindsley Smith, introduces three new members of the Fayetteville City Council to new director of Fayetteville Senior Center

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For many more photos from Fayetteville Senior Center, including today's photos of youngsters from New School visiting with senior residents of Fayetteville, please see Senior Center set on Flickr.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society meeting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, December 8, 2012, to feature short business meeting followed by presentation on 'Decline in breeding bird population in northwest Arkansas' by Dr. David Chapman of the Univesity of Arkansas

Dr David Chapman of the UA-Fayetteville will present "Declines in breeding bird populations in northwest Arkansas" as part of a meeting of Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society. The meeting will be at the Lake Fayetteville Environmental Study Center at 511 E. Lakeview Drive (corner of Lakeview and Powell in Springdale). The meeting is on Saturday December 8 and starts at 6:30 PM. Members, friends, and the public are welcome. There is no charge for the program. There will also be a short society business meeting preceeding Dr Chapman's presentation. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Joe Neal says pay attention and photograph waterfowl displaying reddish stains on feathers: Is it a naturally occurring marsh stain or some more sinister?

    During the past few years I have taken photographs of water birds in northwest Arkansas with suspicious reddish stain where we typically expect white. For example, I photographed two or more female Greater Scaups in which the white feathers at the base of the bill were apparently stained reddish in some way. Some females had the red, others didn't. What's going on?
    I first noted a couple of these at the big water retention pond at Bentonville off Moberly Lane in March 2008. Both intrigued and alarmed, I assumed this staining was a result of getting into some kind of an oily mess.
    Then I photographed a stained Trumpeter Swan at Holla Bend NWR (March 2010). In 2011, I photographed a Trumpeter Swan sitting on a nest at Boxley, in the Buffalo Valley (June 2011), long neck heavily stained reddish. Swans that spent a few days at Har Ber Meadows in Springdale (Feb 2011) were stained, as was a female Lesser Scaup this fall at the state fish hatchery in Centerton.
    None of us expect to see such oddities. With the big BP oil spill, and with environmental problems associated with increased oil drilling elsewhere, I have felt quite a bit of alarm about seeing these birds.
    I ran some of these photographs by David Krementz, leader of the Arkansas Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit (UA-Fayetteville). He followed up by contact with a noted waterfowl research expert, who forwarded a technical paper dealing with what is termed "marsh stain."
    Folks who have looked at this phenomenon term these "adventitious stains."  Many are caused by contact with naturally occurring chemicals or other matter in the environment. They have been noted in 120 species. Apparently the birds often acquire this rust color while excavating foods encrusted with oxides of iron. It doesn't take long to stain white feathers.
    The fact that marsh stain is common doesn't mean that all the birds seen with stained feathers could only have acquired it by contact with iron oxides while foraging. For example, it doesn't rule out unplanned contact with oil. But, that said, marsh stain seems a reasonable explanation, and best of all, well- supported by evidence.
    Finally: It is worthwhile to keep watching and to keep checking out what we see that doesn't add up.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Joe Neal says, 'Bring on the ducks' and the hawk may also be hoping for migrating birds with the coming weather change, but rabbits and squirrels and smaller creatures are much easier to spot on Nov. 9, 2012

Please click on images to enlarge.

Red-shouldered hawk at World Peace Wetland Prairie 9 Nov. 2012

Photos by Aubrey James Shepherd

    Yesterday, Highway 102 exit off I-540, at a 10-acre storm water retention structure associated with Moberly Manor apartments in Bentonville, there were something like 62 Canada Geese, honks louder than the freeway. They skied and splashed into a raft including, Gadwalls (25), Mallards (10), Canvasbacks (4, female type plumage), Redheads (2), Ring-necked Ducks (20), Lesser Scaups (2), Buffleheads (2), Ruddy Duck (1), Pied-billed Grebes (10), American Coots (60).
    Today is fall beautiful, warm, blue sky, but weather people promise a cold front. Bring on the ducks!
    Funny how our brains work in mysterious ways. Seeing Canvasbacks at Moberly simultaneously recalled a chance encounter 40 years ago. Looking through my bins I see Cans and amazingly, the green cloth cover and gold letters of The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh, by H. Albert Hochbaum (1944).
    This book found me in the early 1970s shortly after I'd been metaphorically swept off my feet by The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Sand was the first book after the Holy Bible of my youth that successfully placed my world in logical and spiritual order. Canvasbacks continued me on the journey.
    This morning early, before birding, I hiked up to Mullins Library on the UA campus and checked out Canvasback. The library copy looks and feels in my hand like the book I read 40 years ago.
    Yes, I'm off on a nostalgia trip.
    I see written inside "Department of Entomology."  This is a reminder that ornithology was once mainly a branch of agriculture. Prior to Doug James' arrival in 1953 at UA-Fayetteville, ornithology was the domain of Dr William Baerg, noted tarantula expert, who taught ornithology and published state bird books in 1931 and 1951.
    Then there is the Foreword written by Alexander Wetmore, avian paleontologist at the Smithsonian. "To those who live near marshlands and waterways the fall and spring flights of ducks are as current topics of conversation as the weather… " Amen.
    Finally, I'm to the title page and Hochbaum's  evocative pen and ink drawings. They remind me of other, classic books, full of drawings that pull you into the facts, ideas, and reflections. But right now, I need to put the book down.
    I feel the urge that started 40 years ago. I'm off to Arkansas Game and Fish’s Bob Kidd Lake out past Prairie Grove. You know why.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Callie's Prairie restoration project volunteers needed Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012: Invitation from Joe Neal

Any of y'all out there in NW Arkansas with a few hours to spare tomorrow, Saturday, could help with some of the innovative, ongoing prairie habitat restoration activities at Lake Fayetteville. Volunteers are meeting at the Lake Fayetteville Environmental Study Center parking lot at the leisurely hour of 10 AM. You can help as long as you want, but the activity is mainly set for 2 hours. Dr H David Chapman project leader. 

This particular event is one of a series of enviro-friendly activities coordinated by Michelle Viney ( of Audubon Arkansas. Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society is a partner in tomorrow's event, as well as a series of upcoming activities that give volunteers a chance to participate in improving conditions in our local environment. 

You don't need special gear -- study walking shoes/boots and gloves will be a plus. A lot of hands is the main goal.

Scissortail photos by Aubrey James Shepherd 19 Oct. 2012

The next event scheduled in this series is non-native invasive species plant removal and trash pick up at Lake Atalanta in Rogers on Saturday November 17, 8:30-12:30. Coordinator for this event is Joan Reynolds (

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Joe Neal on a Missouri prairie expedition

Big grasslands make me feel young and hopeful. Like tonic, just being there, I go from 60s to 30s, From cautiously cynical to optimistic. So it was yesterday at Prairie State Park in southwestern Missouri.
    After a two hour drive in rain and wind that should spoil the day, I open the door in a patch of sunlight certain the year's Best Bird is out there, in Big Bluestem and Indian Grass. Big Sky is the only limit and in the end, only a spiritual question.
    First stop was Path of the Sky People, a loop through Tzi-Sho Natural Area. Snuggled in the covering grass, we found downy gentians in full bloom. Their blue deeply penetrates the senses on a cloudy day, mixing with penetrating purples, red, rusts, browns, blues and yellows in clumps of native grass.
    Barn Swallows were following a tractor with a front mounted roller-scooper harvesting prairie seeds. This proved to be folks from Hamilton Native Outpost of Elk Creek, Missouri, collecting in a cooperative project with the park. Then came wind gusts and dark clouds with long shafts of lightning. Darkening sky accentuated blues of gentians and abundant prairie asters.
    Back to the car in a light rain, we had road birds. American Kestrel on a powerline, one bush with three perched up sparrows: Lincoln's, Song, and Fox, overcast light accentuating the latter's red and gray.
    I've been fighting my first cold this season. During another cycle of clearing, lightning and rain, I fell asleep in the car while Joan Reynolds went in to the park visitor’s center. I have been reading "Katherine Ordway, the lady who saved the prairies." In my dream, she is up and walking big grassland, like the book's cover. She could have done anything with her inherited millions; some went to critical expansions of this park.
    In the visitor's center, Joan learns Greater Prairie-Chickens have been seen along Sandstone Trail. I knew this, but discounted the chance of ever seeing them. But with a modest sky clearing and rising optimism, we head for Sandstone. Bison roam freely and an impressive bull eyes us as we park. Walking his direction? No.
    But there is a 30-foot wide closely mowed fireline, a big greenway that loops through the grasses out toward what must be the highest area of the park. It's all sky. Earth below is afire with the glow of winged sumac thickets. It's away from the bison.
    Joan sees the first prairie-chicken as it flushes and flies low toward the sumac. Soon we have a second, describing a low moving arc of bluestem grass and red thickets as it sails into cover.
    Bison wallows, where they roll back and forth to dust off biting flies, are filled with rain water. A male Northern Harrier sweeps low, flushing meadowlarks (5) and Wilson's Snipes (9) from this ephemeral wetland.
    Walking back, keeping an eye on three bison, in the short grass of the greenway we flush a small streaked bird. With a sharp SQUEET it flies high, as though to escape velocity, then back in a down plummet, to the grass.
    My first thought: Sprague's Pipit. After we see at least 5, including a couple slowly walking away from us in short grass, pale face and dark eye, pattern made in grass, we have the confirming view, rich and full of meaning as Fox Sparrows, downy gentians, generosity of Katherine Ordway.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jane Goodall at UA's Barnhill Arena tonight

Joe Neal on effect of wandering cats on bird population

I feel pretty sure that at least some members of the Fayetteville City Council feed birds in their yards. That is why, during public comments at the council meeting of October 2 that supported regulation and perpetuation of feral cat colonies, I stated a vote FOR this effort to deal with free-ranging feral cats was effectively a vote AGAINST birds.
    One research project documented activities of a feral cat that killed 1,600 animals, including birds, during 16 months.  As I pointed out, most folks don't realize this is going on in their own yards. If a teenage boy is out there with a BB gun shooting cardinals off the feeder, we call the police. Cats work out-of-sight. Feral cats, domestic cats, cats with bells around their necks -- research shows they all do it if allowed to roam.
    We are up in our environmental arms because of tens of thousands of bird deaths associated with the BP oil spill, but guess what . . . it is happening daily, in our own yards. Cats, both domestic and feral, are killing upwards one BILLION birds annually in North America.
    Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, White-throated Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, and other small birds are numerous, but they look much alike, unless banded as part of a research effort. If cats kill 1 or 2 or 10, it passes without notice. It is noticed in banding studies.
    This is why, as biologist and birder, I view actions of the council October 2 as a guarantee of continued bird killing, rather than a viable solution.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Joe Neal visits Oklahoma prairie preserve to escape pressure of living in Harleyville

In my email are two photographs from The Nature Conservancy's 40,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. Normally a tax paying resident in good standing of Fayetteville, I was in Oklahoma as a refugee when the Harley storm of noise and civic chaos called Bikes, Blues and Barbecue (September 27-30) broke over town and flooded me out.

Just for the record: there's nothing wrong with enjoying life, or Harleys, or motorcycles riders, but vast amounts of unmuffled roar and semi-organized social chaos associated with 4 days of up to 400,000 visitors for a motorcycle rally just doesn't work for some.

Doesn't work for me. So September 29 found me cresting a low hill west of Harleyville in the Oklahoma grasslands, and unexpectedly face-to-face with a large hawk perched on a substantial steel post, part of the Preserve's bison fence. I was struck by a white face with a few dark markings. Joan Reynolds stuck her camera out the window, got one image of a perched hawk, a second as it flew, large rat in its talons.

Getting away from noise and chaos of Harleyville was a prime inspiration for this trip, but also Eryngium leavenworthii. It's a relative of rattlesnake master, familiar resident of quality tallgrass prairies in Arkansas. This one is a purple, cactus-like cylinder with extending lavender flower parts, the whole surrounded by rosettes of lances sharp and stiff. Think purple cactus. One was being visited by a huge bumblebee.

The first striking bird of the trip was a dark morph Harlan's Hawk, deep chocolate brown with a mostly white tail, conveniently perched on a powerpole along the highway. Nesting in Alaska, its presence in Arkansas-Oklahoma is a clean marker of fall migration and coming winter. Also an accurate harbringer of what was to come.

Just down the road, a fine male Spotted Towhee, fresh arrived from the west, occupied a dense thicket of blackberries, rough-leafed dogwood, and persimmon sprouts. All but invisible, except for those loud SRINKs! We saw 3; 1 around western Arkansas I count as a good season.

Blue Jays were migrating over both mornings, with 327 in 12 flocks September 29 and a heaven-shaking 565 in 13 flocks the following. We noticed jays concentrated in open hardwood Cross Timbers.

And flickers were shooting over in 1s and 2s. We had both yellow and red-shafted forms. We occasionally see western red-shafteds around Maysville in extreme northwest Arkansas.

We found E. leavenworthii in several fields, often associated with blue sage, Salvia azurea, whirls of bluish purple in a grassy landscape, attended by hordes of migrating monarch butterflies, and yellow provided by goldenrod species and elegant stands of tall Maximilian sunflowers.

Here, allow me a special shout out for these sunflowers: their upraised and arm-like offerings, first of sunny rays, then seed. Red-winged Blackbirds, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches making rounds of sunflowers, inspecting seed heads for appropriate ripeness.

I could go on here, for bison saved from extinction and this year's calves, for a dusty ornate box turtle and a tarantula crossing roads, masses of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, pelicans migrating over as we drove through Pawhuska, and ultimately, blessed, soul refreshing awayness from a Fayetteville already overpopulated, but for four days transformed by mercantilistic crankiness into Harleyville.

Back home, bird guides in a comforting array, I can say 100% that Joan Reynolds had presence of mind to quickly photograph a juvenile female PRAIRIE FALCON.

And finally, a shout out for you riders on Harleys who also respect nature and quiet spaces and operate your fine machines accordingly.  I write this on a go to work Monday morning, Fayetteville reemerged from Harleyville. You are hereby welcome to join next year's Birds, Botany, and Bison, to be held whenever in fall 2013 those other Harleyvillians return. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sept. 16, 2012, Joe Neal report from Lake Atalanta in Rogers, AR

[Lake Atalanta, Rogers, Arkansas, September 16, 2012]Best Bird category for the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society sponsored field trip to Lake Atalanta in Rogers: Philadelphia Vireo (2), Swainson's Thrush (2), lots of well-seen Wilson's Warblers and White-eyed Vireos.

Best Native Flower category: big blue lobelias along Frisco Spring and masses of yellow false foxglove in the woods. Could also add: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (8) working long colorful tubes of orangish jewelweed along the spring and a flock of Indigo Buntings, molted down to a few patches of heavy blue and warm browns of fading summer.

The exclusive and much sought after Came On Bicycle Award goes to Adam Schaffer who pedaled from Bentonville, binoculars around neck. He shares his ornithological expertise in summer at Arkansas Audubon Society's Halberg ecology camp and Ozark Natural Science Center.

Seeing Adam arrive, I felt my world enlarged. It seems there's a path ahead for pedaling to a birding trip, commuting in a hybrid or car pool, turning on wind and solar. I don't mean to besmirch coal, natural gas, nuclear. As they say in foreign policy, everything is necessarily on the table.

Lake Atalanta features an accessible mostly paved walk to the lake edge, long home to resident barnyard geese and ducks, plus injured Snow Geese (white and blue) and a Ross's Goose. For the nerdy ornithologist-within, that Snow "grin patch" is directly compared with similar-looking but smaller Ross's, with no grin.

While pointing this out to newer birders, we catch sight of immaculate male Wood Ducks. At distance: shimmering field of green and russet, white accents, radiating red eye, standing on limbs fallen in the water, across the lake.

[Lake Atalanta, Rogers, Arkansas, September 16, 2012]Best Bird category for the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society sponsored field trip to Lake Atalanta in Rogers: Philadelphia Vireo (2), Swainson's Thrush (2), lots of well-seen Wilson's Warblers and White-eyed Vireos.

Best Native Flower category: big blue lobelias along Frisco Spring and masses of yellow false foxglove in the woods. Could also add: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (8) working long colorful tubes of orangish jewelweed along the spring and a flock of Indigo Buntings, molted down to a few patches of heavy blue and warm browns of fading summer.

The exclusive and much sought after Came On Bicycle Award goes to Adam Schaffer who pedaled from Bentonville, binoculars around neck. He shares his ornithological expertise in summer at Arkansas Audubon Society's Halberg ecology camp and Ozark Natural Science Center.

Seeing Adam arrive, I felt my world enlarged. It seems there's a path ahead for pedaling to a birding trip, commuting in a hybrid or car pool, turning on wind and solar. I don't mean to besmirch coal, natural gas, nuclear. As they say in foreign policy, everything is necessarily on the table.

Lake Atalanta features an accessible mostly paved walk to the lake edge, long home to resident barnyard geese and ducks, plus injured Snow Geese (white and blue) and a Ross's Goose. For the nerdy ornithologist-within, that Snow "grin patch" is directly compared with similar-looking but smaller Ross's, with no grin.

While pointing this out to newer birders, we catch sight of immaculate male Wood Ducks. At distance: shimmering field of green and russet, white accents, radiating red eye, standing on limbs fallen in the water, across the lake.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Joe Neal from Compton Gardens: Buffalo River au naturale is enough

At approximately 100,000 acres, the Buffalo National River includes 135 public land miles of Louisiana Waterthrushes. Generously sprinkled along the river, bluffs, and mountains: Scarlet Tanagers, American Redstarts, Cerulean Warblers; hundreds of rare and wonderful plant and animal species, tarantulas and timber rattlesnakes, Swainson's Warblers and cane brakes, soaring, heart-lifting landscapes. Could easily have all been lost.

Joyous eventual victory for Waterthrush & Company was celebrated at Compton Gardens in Bentonville Saturday. The Compton home place was overflowing for Neil Compton's 100th birthday, Ozark Society's 50th and 40th for the Buffalo National River.

Neil and his friends established the Ozark Society as social network and battering ram in the crusade to stop Buffalo dams (1962). Along the way they helped defeat a Democratic congressman who pushed dams (Jim Trimble) and helped elect a Republican who opposed most government, including Buffalo dams (John Paul Hammerschmidt). They gained critical backing from an Ozark native and popular Arkansas governor (Orval Faubus) now mainly remembered as a segregationist. Establishment of the Buffalo National River (1972) was natural, like paw paws and umbrella magnolias.

Neil's oldest child Ellen Compton once lived in this house midst feverish events associated with dam fighting. Not so surprising, her humorous opening comment:  "Frankly, I'm tired of the Buffalo River." Then, to appreciative laughs, she added, "Read the book." That is Neil's THE BATTLE FOR THE BUFFALO RIVER.

In Ellen's presentation we have Neil's grandfather who both taught and embraced science and Neil's father who read books in his buggy while delivering mail, guided by Billy the horse who knew the route.  As a child, his mother Ida accompanied her father on trips into the Indian Territory, where Indian women taught her about birds and flowers. We have little Neil atop a huge haystack on the family farm in Benton County, where they raised peaches, apples, and garden vegetables for market.

Neil eventually went to the UA in Fayetteville, taking degrees in geology and zoology (1935). Ellen remembers Neil, ever a man of science, opening explanations about bluff lines with, "Well, during the Jurassic . . ." It was in his college days that he made his first trips to the Buffalo. It stoked passion for what he termed a "vast natural playground."

Following Ellen was Ken Smith, best known today as author of the authoritative BUFFALO RIVER HANDBOOK (2004). They met in the early 60s in the fight to protect Lost Valley. Ken had finished an engineering degree in Fayetteville. In 1963 he was smitten during a 2-day "life changing" Ozark Society-sponsored float on the Buffalo. Ken headed off to graduate school and Neil folded Lost Valley into their shared vision of dam-stopping and park-creating.

Ken had a career as an engineer in the Park Service, but as evidence in his lyrical BUFFALO RIVER COUNTRY (1967), Lost Valley and all it signified was never far from his heart.

The finale is courtesy of Still on the Hill, Kelly Mulhollan and Donna Stjerna, fresh from camping and what Donna terms, "a window into the Buffalo." Window with music.

We know Neil the doctor, photographer, writer, and dam-stopper. Once at Angler's Inn on Beaver Lake, Neil joined Kelly and Flip Putthoff for an onstage performance! According to Kelly, Neil learned the 'ol pickin bow from Jimmy Driftwood. Today, Kelly plays pickin bow, with Donna on a cow jawbone. For the chorus, the Compton Gardens crowd coon dog howls in the simple country favorite "Stop kicking my dog around."

"People overdo," Neil once told Ken Smith. A conservative's credo: Buffalo au natural is enough.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Joe Neal's report from Arkansas River visit August 3, 2012

The Arkansas River is calm at 7:30 this morning, and with clouds, surprising cool, especially with 105 threatened by afternoon. Jacque Brown and I are launching my canoe for a loop around a sandy island south of Mulberry.

Just out of the car, an adult Bald Eagle flies low across river. Two screech-owls are singing, maybe response to our car door slams? Looking east toward the island, the mighty Arkansas is flat-glassy, with angel slides of early light pouring through clouds. And impossibly, on the island, low green willows and taller sycamores sprinkled with fairy dust!

 A short paddle resolves magic dust into thousands of fledgling egrets and herons, especially Cattle Egrets. Also, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, plus a Great Blue Heron and a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Up closer, calm shallows are marked by oily swirls of white dust and tiny feathers, remains of powder downs from thousands of egrets hatched on the island. On July 8 the action had all been about rearing young in nests. Now every small tree and bush and parts of the shoreline are covered with fledglings and their constant WONKA WONKA WONKA calls. 

Adults fly back and forth low over the river, in flotillas of 5 and 20, from pastures to river and back. Also along the river, Forster's Tern (largest group, 8) and a single Least Tern.

Among so many thousands of the active and living, there are also injured egrets, and dead ones too scattered along the shoreline and floating in the water. We've been hearing constant calls of Fish Crows, and see them along the shoreline, flying off with something in their bills. Then vultures (12) of both species, are perched in low trees and walking along the shoreline. A juvenile Bald Eagle flies off as we approach.

In one spot, there's a swirl of fish in the shallows around a dead Cattle Egret. It's just white feathers and a yellow beak on the surface. Suddenly there's a flop, lunge, fins, and a huge mouth momentarily out of the water. Arkansas River version of Nessie??? Could have been, but wasn't.

Catfish foraging on dead egret is unique for a bird list. I am reminded of Tennyson's "Tho' nature, red in tooth and claw" and recycling. Cattle Egrets capture grasshoppers in the valley fields, carry them to the island for the next generation, some of whom don't make it, and feed the productivity of the mighty Arkansas via famous catfish. And the catfish turn every dead thing into succulent white flesh . . . $10.95 for All-You-Can-Eat.

Then on our return paddle, back near the car, we hear waterthrush chips. Two birds bob along the riprap. We ease, ease, ease along. Jacque gets some photographs. Boat and gear loaded, we fire up the AC and study her images in the cool.
Big white wide eyeline, plain unmarked throat. Louisiana Waterthrushes in migration.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Joe Neal's Purple martin saga: Birds gather in stages to head to their roosting area after sunset

Purple Martins are already on wires when I arrive at 7:10 PM, but there are only 8, plus many more starlings. I've decided to watch how the pre-roost gathers itself before heading off to the night roost only one mile south. By 7:20 the number doubles, but still far short of thousands here last night.

Welcome to southeast Springdale, heart of northwest Arkansas's busiest industrial area, adjacent the Springdale airport. We've had a 101 degree day and I'm in the welcome shade of an 18 wheeler, part of the fleet maintained by Northwest Technical Institute for teaching and testing potential drivers. I'm constantly scanning for new martin arrivals during the next 20 minutes. 

This mostly flat country is part of the former Osage Prairie. Native Indians from what is now Missouri hunted bison here. And in a region otherwise dominated by the rugged terrain of the White River, settlers preferred open lands and bountiful prairie grass, as did builders of the pre-Civil War telegraph and Butterfield stage, both not far from where I'm sitting. It may also be why martins of the post-breeding season gather here.

At 7:40 I've only seen 40 birds, but suddenly at 8:03 there are a couple of hundred! First they swirl, then settle down and arrange themselves tightly on wires, mainly folded wing-to-folded wing. Orderly ranks, like soldiers on parade. 

So how long have there been these high summer martin gatherings here? I don't have an answer, but just south there's a shady trailer residential area called Whistler Park. Main road in: Purple Martin Drive.

As the sun drifts toward setting over Springdale, 8:15 PM, martins are pouring in. My current count: at least 1,275, give or take 100 . . . or so . . .  like counting/estimating winter blackbirds . . . and more arriving.

Sundown at 8:26 seems a trigger. Wires and tree tops are leafed-out with martins, but then suddenly, as on cue, well-ordered martin ranks lift off, transformed into energetic swirls. Like someone among the martin hosts has yawned and said she's ready for bed. Martins are steadily slipping south. At 8:30 I can see that only half of the sundown swirl returns to perch.

At 8:36 there's another bail-out, with most wires empty. But it's no single big flight to roost, no single leader and a bunch of followers, more like a flowing stream than a flood. But they steadily abandon the 18-wheeler lot. Thin swirls and individuals head the one mile south. By 8:40 I can see maybe 200 birds.

8:41 PM, and all is now mainly quiet here on the martin pre-roost front. Inevitably, there is the putative last of the last of martins to leave pre-roost for night roost. The place seems empty, but nearby, dogday cicadas rage on in chorus, raging, raging for this wonderful summer evening.

It's been one hour and half since I arrived. Zero is the number of martins I see at 8:45, but I can hear a few calls of what I assume are stragglers. Why is the first the first to go roost and why is the last the last?
Why choose this busy industrial hub rather than say, a pristine uninhabited island in Beaver Lake? Is some Methuselah-like collective martin heritage recalling days of Indian grass, sawtooth sunflowers, and hordes of native pollinating bees and flies, ripe and ready for aerial plucking by hungry martins?

8:50, slice of moon up and mainly dark. I'm considering as I fold up my chair and head home, well
entertained, and with many questions. JOE NEAL written about July 23, 2012 experience.

The big Purple Martin roost in northwest Arkansas that Bo Verser first saw on NEXRAD radar July 17 is within Springdale city limits, about two miles north of Lake Fayetteville. David Oakley and I found the roost last night right at dark. It is in Springdale's industrial area, with birds using mid-sized trees in an older, densely developed residential neighborhood.

Prior to locating this roost, Joan Reynolds and I estimated we saw between 6,000 to 9,000 birds July 21 on Parsons Road, approximately 3 air miles northeast of the actual roost. Last night David Oakley and I located another pre-roost north of Parsons Stadium in Springdale about 1 mile from the actual roost.

Birds on Parsons Road were watering at a big open pond adjacent powerlines. Many birds near the stadium were taking advantage of a limestone gravel parking lot, perched on the ground and possibly collecting limestone grit, either to aid in digesting insect exoskeletons or as a calcium supplement.

Martin numbers near Parsons Stadium were easily as high as on Parsons Road. It appears martin numbers using the roost may range roughly between 12,000 and 18,000.

This morning's NEXRAD showed the Springdale martin roost dispersing mainly to north and east, which would send at least part of this flock out over the lower parts of Beaver Lake -- Lost Bridge, Indian Creek, and the dam site.  The radar also shows big rings at Tulsa and the Lake Ouachita. JOE NEAL written about July 22, 2012 experience.

Last night, Joan Reynolds and I estimated a minimum 6000-9000 Purple Martins vocalizing energetic  BREETS and CHURS, and packed shoulder-to-shoulder, on low trees and high wires crossing big open fields at Sonora east of Springdale. As birds came in they made low passes over a big farm pond, rippling the water surface, maybe getting a last drink before roosting.

I was absolutely certain they were about to roost in trees along Parsons Road. That was around 8 PM as the sun was going down. Time for high fives, but then, off they went in ragged swirls, mainly east, toward the old Butterfield Coach Road (265) on Springdale's east side, to roost . . . somewhere . . .

Bo Verser sent me an email on July 17 with a weather underground image of a "martin roost ring" showing up on radar northeast of Fayetteville, maybe on Beaver Lake. He wrote,  "Of course it takes thousands of birds exploding skyward as they leave their roost to create these radar rings."  We're talking about an enormous, donut-shaped swirl. I was unaware of this martin concentration until Bo's email.

The ring appeared on NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar), a network of Doppler weather surveillance radars operated by National Weather Service. The other ring he'd seen involved the huge and well-known Purple Martin roost on Lake Ouachita.

My Beaver Lake friends Bob and Patti French at Lost Bridge were still seeing good numbers of martins near their nest boxes, but nothing like thousands. I ran this by Joan, who lives near the lake and she checked with others including biologist Alan Bland of the Army Corps of Engineers. He hadn't seen anything, either. I emailed Flip Putthoff, outdoor editor for the Morning News. He wrote back that he'd been on Beaver Lake at Rocky Branch in recent early mornings and had seen no martin swirl.

Were last evening's thousands the whole roosting flock, or just a part that pre-roosts at Sonora? Is the roost just east, or miles further away?

This morning I again looked at the NEXRAD link Bo Verser supplied. Again, Purple Martins are exploding from the roost in a vast swirl, but not mainly southwest toward Fayetteville, but northeast seemingly over Beaver Lake. Somewhere.   JOE NEAL written about July 21, 2012 experience.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hawks surprising people all over

My sister Ruth called a couple of weeks ago about a big hawk that appeared suddenly in their suburban Atlanta yard. She's not a card-carrying member of the bird watching community, and neither is my brother-in-law Bob, but both are observant. They'd never seen anything like this. Bob emailed me photos of what appears a young Red-tailed Hawk.

I didn't think much more about this until two days ago, when Rose Ann Barnhill called. "There's three Plumbeous Kites right here!" One looked like a juvenile. Rosie is out every working day in central Fayetteville's Wilson Park. She wouldn't have missed any kind of kite if present all summer. As a UA grad student, she studied the birds of Belize for two years. Naturally enough, common Tropical birds appear unannounced in her conversation. She immediately corrected Plumbeous to Mississippi Kite.

Then I had an email from Judith Griffith at Ninestone Land Trust in Carroll County. She's just seen three Broad-winged Hawks . . . She walks the place every day. Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are regulars, but not broad-wings.
Finally, Joan Reynolds and I birded the state fish hatchery at Centerton last Wednesday. Of shorebirds there were Killdeers (41+), Least Sandpiper (5), and Lesser Yellowlegs (1). Relatively speaking, hawks were sparse, but there was a constant raspy WHEEEE! WHEEEE! Imitated expertly by local jays, this proved impatient, fledgling Red-tailed Hawks.

In sum, this is suddenly hawks season on our avian calendar. They appear in places where earlier they weren't. If instead of hawks it was a sudden appearance of a Bald Eagle, the change would be obvious. They wouldn't just go previously unobserved. 

My assumption is these sudden hawks probably nested nearby. Taking into account nest building, egg laying, incubation (around 30 days) and young in the nest (around 45 days), red-tails have been in the same locale for at least three months.

During this period, "low hanging fruit" -- that is, easily caught opossum roadkill, bunnies, rats, and snakes -- must become relatively exhausted. So it's off to the new world, to fresh territory, where food is plentiful, the livin' easy. Maybe a backyard, where all of a sudden . . . hungry hawks assess your prized Chihuahua (just kidding).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Terns, blazing star and sweet corn: A day at Beaver Lake with Joe Neal

Flying out over the lake, the tern looks big and white against numerous Purple Martins at Beaver Lake dam. Caspian? There’s color in the bill, black on the head, and maybe dark (?) in the primaries. Common? I whip out my spotting scope when it keeps trying to settle on a buoy pitched in racing boat-generated tsunamis.

Maybe 120 martins suddenly flush out of the campground over us. Hunting grasshoppers in weeds by the shore, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher exposes it sensation reddish pink armpit.

Between boats, and hence fewer tsunamis, the buoy settles and the tern finds a perch. Tail clearly extends beyond the tips of the primaries. The legs and bill are orangey, not red. Forster's! A Fish Crow AH-Ahs in agreement up by the bathroom.

Despite hundreds of Beaver Lake trips, this all looks new. Most of my Beavers have been December-January, cold and quiet, with nothing but shivering and trying to avoid north wind, plus shuttered vacation homes, maybe the yodel of a Common Loon, the occasional Long-tailed Duck, barren hills. But today's mid-July Beaver is full of people, lake jammed with boats, RV campers with their ACs and TVs. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers patrol the cedar glades.

The Dam Site Loop cut-off between Indian Creek Park and the dam perfectly illustrates different Beavers. It's barren in winter; I whiz right through, hopping lake view to lake view for a rare duck. Not today. At one spot there's an extensive patch of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with majestic green masses of elephant ear leaves and brilliant yellow flowers atop a lanky stalk. Not so impossibly impressive, but still begat of botanical royalty, surrounding flowers include gray-headed coneflower and grayish mountain mint,shouts of glades and prairies. No whizzing past and ignoring, unless our social order has us in metaphorical mind-numbing shackles.

Several species of goldenrods spring right out of a big shelf of rock in the dam's north park. And seemingly right out of no soil or seemingly no soil, impossibly tiny white Houstonias and the first purple blooms from Spanish Needles.

In last winter's Beaver, just out from this glade, a Western Grebe mixed in with flocks of Horned Grebes and an Eared Grebe. I set up my scope in an empty parking lot with my coat zipped. Grebes and gulls, yes, but no flowering goldenrods, no freshly minted fence lizards on limestone rocks. Today the parking is jammed. Young folks in scuba gear and bikinis own grebe land.

Then it's time to head home. The hurry on highway 62! Those metaphorical shackles! A patch of purple gay feathers in the ditch forces a slowing, reminds me of a different time. Another mighty Silphium, compass plant, is in full bloom. Got to slow for that.

Here and there, in the shade alongside 62, a pick-up full of green produce; man and a simple handmade sign: "sweet corn."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Joe Neal angry (deja vu) over abuse of critical wildlife habitat by 'barbarians'

Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, and Little Blue Herons are in the middle of an active nesting season in the mixed-species rookery on a sandy Arkansas River island just off the mouth of the Mulberry River. Joan Reynolds and I canoed out there yesterday. Snowy Egrets are in the vicinity; we didn't see them nesting, but this doesn't mean they weren't there. We canoed and kept our distance to minimize disturbance, so we could easily have missed them. This island is just down river from Frog Bayou WMA. It looks like a good season.

There were also 25-30 vultures of both species, hunkered down adjacent the rookery, with dead and injured birds visible along the edges by the river. In such places, nature can seem cruel and wasteful. Yet, we offer thanks for many healthy young egrets. Our vulture friends are doing their part for the great cycle. We could see big catfish in the shallows – doubtless another competitor for fallen baby birds.

What we didn't find, but hoped for, were nests of endangered Least Terns. We did have a fly-over by three terns, but observed no nests. Unfortunately, nesting habitat of the past few years was replaced by the telltale signs of barbarians: human and dog footprints everywhere, beer cans and other trash, food debris, paper waste I assume was toilet, and improbably, broken metal parts of at least two big sun screens, stuck in the sand and just left with other garbage midst suitable tern habitat.

One would like to believe if the modern heirs of George Washington in the Congress of the United States saw fit to pass an Endangered Species Act --  and law enforcement agencies from Feds in helicopters and powerful boats to our state and local law enforcement agencies sworn to enforce said act -- the 4th of July barbarians who trashed one small bird island in the Arkansas River, and perhaps this year's nest attempt on that island by a beautiful protected bird -- would suffer the logical consequence of profligate ignorance.  

Realistically, the only solution is for these islands to be declared "Closed Areas" during the tern nesting season, probably June-August, much as some other parts of state and federal public lands are closed to protect critical wildlife values. Closed, Entry Prohibited – and actively enforced. Legitimate boaters and ethical anglers would understand and support. It would inconvenience barbarians.

This single island is a tiny link in the bird's considerable range.  Every part of a link counts, of course, but there are larger populations nesting in places where, hopefully, educators have opened minds about our world's wonderful potential and common law holds barbarians accountable until they learn to appreciate.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Joe Neal's June 5, 2012, prairie birding

When I took off for Maysville yesterday, my goal was Swainson's Hawk and home by noon. Instead, damn the heat/full speed ahead, I wound up prairie flower admiring, starting out with a remarkable display of purple gay feathers at Stump Prairie along highway 59 at Siloam Springs. At Gentry, walked Eagle Watch Nature Trail where I found a rare Terry Stanfill (1) and a less rare but also interesting Neotropic Cormorant (1; second Ozarks record) perched on a snag helpfully adjacent a Double-crested Cormorant.

A Swainson's Hawk flew over me just southwest of Maysville (OK side of state line). Come noon, I took a break under spreading black shade and refreshing light breeze at Maysville Cemetery. Being a practical person, I settled down for a mid-summer nap. I was not alone as a shade-seeker.

A Horned Lark northeast of Maysville flew from a bean field to stand in the only patch of shade for two miles. Grasshopper Sparrows were along roads in three places. One had young out of the nest, another was carrying a grasshopper in that big bill, and a third was singing from barbed wire -- in the shade. This singer exhibited prominent gold feathers in the front of the eyebrows (supraloral) and in the leading edge of the wing (alula, primary coverts). Usually I see and hear them a long ways away, in bright sun of an open field. I couldn't decide if it had more color than most, or if shade and hence less sun glare pumped up the color.

Despite my best efforts, I was wilted by yesterday's onslaught of 102 degrees and drought. But, according two stalwarts of former prairies of western Benton County, compass plant and gay feather, you either embrace the heat or get out of the kitchen. Even if we have modified and ecologically ruined most of their habitat, wilt is not the game for compass plant, gay feather, and certainly not Dickcissels, singing all the day in full song. Bring it on, full speed ahead.

These creatures are visual placeholders for an entire prairie ecosystem, much of it now missing from northwest Arkansas. In our race for the good life, we've given up our natives. Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, we have lost many parts. How many can we do without? How many do we need? We've given up Greater Prairie-Chickens that once lived where today we see patches of flowering gay feathers. Do we become impoverished because we won't or we can't accommodate anything that isn't a cow or a giant chicken house? It has to do with scale and the balance required in order to move forward in an ecological sense.

On the way back , just when I'd given all hope for human beings: an unattended vegetable stand in a patch of shade along highway 12 near Eagle Watch, in sight of flowering gay feathers. Remarkably, it runs on the honor system. Tomatoes, $4, put money in the box. It doesn't make a difference if you are D or R, black or white, left or right, gay or straight, care or don't care about earth's ultimate fate. All you have to believe in is vine-ripened tomatoes. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Joe Neal finds wildlife getting along well where native plants dominate

For sample photos from several trips to Chesney Prairie, use this link to Flickr

If drought and heat is supposed to constrain bobwhites, gay feathers, switch grass, or compass plants, somebody quick run out to Chesney Prairie Natural Area and give them the bad news. Even though tough leaves on ashy sunflowers curl just a bit, Dickcissel young are out of the nest, chasing down their own grasshoppers.

Short-tailed fledgling Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are on the wing and keeping the long-tailed folks busy. Red-headed Woodpeckers, who prefer dead trees anyway, seem spunky as ever.

At one point, while admiring a patch of purple gay feathers well-attended by green-headed bees with yellow-striped abdomens, I could hear 1, 2, 3 -- no, actually 4 bobwhites -- calling back and forth. I flushed one suddenly right underfoot, and heard peeping young nearby. Whistled BOBWHITE! carries nicely through blue sky glare and dry air.

It's not exactly headline news that early high heat and spreading drought generally impact biota and birders, of course. Today I walked slowly, wore a sunhat, ducked into whatever shade was available. Growth of various sunflowers may have slowed and this could account for what seemed a listless performance on the part of today's American Goldfinches, just now starting to nest. But native bluestem grasses are green and thriving, as in an oasis, especially when compared to fescue and bermuda pastures just beyond. Long ago stripped of their deep-rooted and therefore drought-hardy native plants, these pastures are inexorably baking into sand-colored deserts.

Prairies came to northwest Arkansas 9000 to 5000 years ago during high a time of high heat and low rain termed the Hypsithermal. Annual rainfall was estimated at 10 inches rather than 40 we expect. The Great Plains spread east along with drought-hardy plants and animals. We got our bison and prairie chickens then, and quickly lost them as we eliminated prairie.

The fact that climate change can have big impacts isn't just a bunch of wild speculation spread by liberal scientists. Native Indians who lived in the Ozarks over the past 10,000 years stored food and sometimes camped in deep, dry rock overhangs that protected plant and animal remains from deterioration. One of the biggest ones I've visited is Cob Cave along the walking trail up to Eden Falls in Lost Valley of the Buffalo National River. Local hot dry times are well-documented in animal bones, plant fibers, and various stored seeds characteristic of the Great Plains.

I don't want to stir flat earth society partisans by bringing up this stuff. But are headed there again? If high heat and drought becomes a long term feature here, it favors plants and animals like those of a prairie oasis, disfavors poorly adapted monocultures like fescue.

Out on Chesney today, Red-winged Blackbirds are feeding young. In the pastures, cows fret about the future.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Joe Neal's saddest report since this blog was created: The passing of Paige Mulhollan

Please click on image below to ENLARGE April 17, 2011, photo of Mary Bess (left), Paige and Kelly Mulhollan at World Peace Wetland Prairie.
Paige Mulhollan passed away in Fayetteville this morning. Paige was my adviser in the History Department at UA-Fayetteville when I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s. He left Fayetteville for a career in college administration. I got to know him better later, after he and Mary Bess returned to Fayetteville in retirement. We came to birding as a second career.

The Mulhollans have been active in all manner of natural history pursuits. Their interests extend beyond to wildflowers, butterflies, the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, etc. Among many other generous uses of time, Paige served on the board of Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society.

Several years ago Paige, Mary Bess, Mike Mlodinow, and I birded around Maysville in January. Paige was chauffeur. Somewhere around mid-day we got to the handistop and a sparrow conversation, specifically Lincoln's Sparrow. Why do we have such a hard time finding them in winter? While we sat in the car, someone, maybe Paige (?), spotted a small brown bird in the yard. It was one of those mid-winter Lincoln's! Who would have predicted? We enjoyed it from the warmth inside the car.

Paige has been party chief for an important sector on the Fayetteville CBC. Besides Paige, the party includes Mary Bess, son Kelly, his partner Donna (both birders, both outstanding musicians renowned as Still on the Hill). The party also includes some of Kelly and Donna's famous musician friends who, like Paige, have wide interests and a broad view of life. We look forward to a Mulhollan party on the 2012 Fayetteville CBC.

Several years back I was recipient of a Mulhollan call about a truly unheard-of winter bird here: Painted Bunting. I just couldn’t believe it. I rushed over, was ushered into the bedroom, and there by cracky! The unexpected with the expected: a green Painted Bunting, feeding inside a window box with juncos.

Paige and I both grew up in Fort Smith. Who would have thought 60 years ago two otherwise promising native sons would turn bird watchers?  Yet, isn't that the experience of life.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Joe Neal shares tale of confirming lesser goldfinch siting in Arkansas

  • one phone call away‏

6:56 PM
To,, Armstrong, Lynn, Barnhill, Rosie, Beall, Bill, Erwin, Steve, Fields, Warren, Froelich, Jacqueline,,, Guise, Roberta, Harris, Nancy, James, Douglas A., Liz, Susan And, Lowrey, Beth, MADDOX, BEVERLY, mlodinow, michael, Mulhollan, Paige, Mulhollan, Mary Bess, riley, lisa, Rohosky, John, Ross, Cathy and Bob, Shedell, Joyce & Harlan, Shepherd, Aubrey, STANFILL, TERRY, Stauffacher, Richard, Turner, Ellen, VINEY, Michelle, Woolbright, Shane, Woolbright, Joe, Young, Susan
I thoroughly enjoyed Jerry Butler's account of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch 
fever that swept Arkansas's birding community in early May ("Flying 
High" starting on page 1E, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette May 28, 2012). 
I'm almost but not quite fully recovered. Hope the rest of y'all are 
getting better, too.

Jerry is too polite to ask what we all wonder: How did Don Simons 
manage to get THAT species atop the highest mountain between 
Alleghenies in the East and Rockies in the West? And right outside 
the front door of his visitors center? A bird you could nearly pet 
with your camera lens? Is he trying for a promotion or something?

I'm kidding, of course. But it is 100% fact that this is the only 
species I have seen, but Doug James hasn't, and that despite his 
sweeping and extraordinary experiences with birds over the world 
through seven decades. He once climbed the snowy Rockies in his old 
running shoes just hoping for the view we had outside the Mt Magazine 
visitors center. Actually I'm unsure about the running shoes part.

I was thinking about this in context of the Lesser Goldfinch at Joyce 
Shedell's feeders in Highfill on May 9. It was the last rosy-finch 
day. I was still feverish from my dash up Magazine. Joyce's Lesser G 
would be only the third record for Arkansas. I had to see this one, too.

On May 10 I'm watching feeders in Joyce's back yard. I'm sitting 
close, so I can get a good photograph. I see a disappointing few 
goldfinches, and no Lesser G. I give up in two hours and head for 
fields with Bobolinks and Grasshopper Sparrows, but I remember I 
should pass the bad LESSER GOLDFINCH-NO to David Oakley so he can post 

David tells me Kenny and LaDonna Nichols are on their way to Highfill. 
I call them immediately with my news. Kenny isn't deterred. Says Joyce 
was sure about the goldfinch?s black back.

Have I missed something? I turn and head back. Feeders are in the 
backyard just outside her kitchen window. To get in back you walk by 
the corner of her house. You can immediately see the feeders, but the 
view is much further away than where I was earlier. However, at 
distance, I now see a BIG flock of goldfinches, and among them, one 
obviously smaller with a black back. Oh wow! And I had been one phone 
call away from terminal bail-out.

A light bulb, albeit a dim one, comes on inside my brain. Joyce had 
studied it from INSIDE the house, looking out her windows, causing no 
disturbance. I was too close. Now on my second try, from the corner, 
at 2X the distance, birds carry on like I'm not there.

Joyce offers lawn chairs. I photograph her behind Kenny and LaDonna in 
radiance of Arkansas's third record. LESSER GOLDFINCH -YES. We're all 

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas