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.

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