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.