Friday, March 9, 2012

Penguin dances at Beaver Lake: Joe Neal report

Yesterday, on the north side of Beaver Lake at Slate Gap, in a cool 
wintery rain, I counted and recounted Horned Grebes and came up with 
only 40. Today, in warm spring sunlight, Joan Reynolds and I returned 
and saw the future, the nesting country of Alaska and northwestern 
Canada: grebes concentrated in long stringy rafts, totaling 339, 
one-third in various stages of molt toward dramatic summer plumage.

Luckily, two popped up near us, blazing red eyes plainly visible and 
both on their way to summer; that is, winter grays starting to blacken 
and turn reddish and golden. As we watched, their swimming turned to 
dramatic rise, facing one another, partially out of the water, 
virtually breast to breast. According to the Birds of North America 
account, two birds "...swim together and rise to perform Penguin 
Dance, maintained by vigorous movements of feet. During Penguin Dance, 
head plumes widely spread. After a few seconds of Penguin-Dancing, 
pair subside..." We were close enough to hear them vocalize.

I'm tempted to share the old canard from my Baptist upbringing: 
Baptist are said to oppose sex because it looks too much like dancing. 
But then, here I am, both parents Baptists! But back to birds: Just 
think, grebes pairing off with penguin dancing in Arkansas, and then 
gone to the northwest, and soon.

It's not just grebes rising. The sunlight invigorated the whole cedar 
glade wildflower scene. Along Slate Gap Road, patches of flowering 
whitlow grass, early buttercups, service berries, and widespread 
redbuds ready to flower. Just above the Beaver dam site shoreline, a 
long sunny glade covered with buttercups, whitlow grass, yellow 
puccoon, false garlic, pussy toes, and several four-petaled minuscules 
for whom I have no name.

The sun was so bright every wave was a floating necklace of diamonds, 
and this doesn't contribute much to picking out birds at long 
distance. But there were at least 8 Horned Grebes, 6 in summer 
plumage, 12 Bonaparte's Gulls seemingly headed nowhere in particular, 
and an immaculate male Red-breasted Merganser loosely associated with 
4 Common Goldeneyes. On our walk back, a clever fence lizard sunning 
and well matched with gray glade rocks, in no rush that I could see, 
lazy eye cocked in our direction.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas
"I loaf and invite my soul..." -- Walt Whitman

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Joe Neal's report from Feb. 5, 2012: Frog Bayou Wildlife Management Area at the Arkansas River

  • Horned Grebes with horns, Arkansas River yesterday‏

Service berries were flowering yesterday along old Highway 71 down 
through the Boston Mountains to Alma. Most were covered with swollen 
pinkish buds; one had just burst into a brilliant white canopy over 71.

On the Arkansas River adjacent Frog Bayou WMA, a flock of 11 Horned 
Grebes included 4 molted winter gray to black head with golden horns. 
Ducks crowded the river. One raft close enough to study included 166 
birds: Canvasback (12), Northern Pintail (16), Red-breasted Merganser 
(3), Ring-necked Duck (4), Redhead (1), many scaup. I heard Snow Geese 
overhead, began looking up for them, and spotted black and white, but 
these were American White Pelicans (90). I did soon have 5 Snow Geese 
(3 white, 2 blue). Other ducks were too far out for me to do more than 
guess: Gadwall? Mallard?

The valley is powdery dry, but moist soil units at Frog are holding 
water and support mudflats. At one point I had 41 Wilson's Snipe in 
the air. Meadowlarks were numerous; Western Meadowlarks (at least 4 
singing) were quite vocal, like they had found the West of desire. One 
pond had a flock of 7 Blue-winged Teal, my first of the spring, and 
other ducks were present as well: Green-winged Teal (1), Ring-necked 
Duck (25), Mallard (30), Northern Shoveler (11).

American Coots were visiting as they dodged in and out of flooded 
vegetation. I was stopped in my tracks by a piping call, TOOT TOOT 
TOOT BLOOP BLOOOP BLOOP, then whinny. I was just dumbfounded. Then a 
Pied-billed Grebe swam out of the vegetation. It's impossible to view 
Pied-billed Grebes the same after hearing their dramatic songs.

After Frog I crossed the river into Fort Smith to Saint Edward's 
hospital where my former Forest Service co-worker Dan Brown is being 
treated for leukemia. Dan and I worked Red-cockaded Woodpeckers 
together at Waldron. Some of you may know Dan for his part in working 
RCWs at Pine City, Crossett, and elsewhere duty calls. In our 
legitimate despair about peril to so many plant and animal species, so 
many habitats -- and in a climate where it is fashionable to bash 
everything government -- it is easy to forget the day-to-day work of 
individuals like Dan and their steady and generally unheralded 
contributions to endangered species.

Dan will be making more contributions. He was leaving hospital 
yesterday. The long term outlook is excellent.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas
"I loaf and invite my soul..." -- Walt Whitman