BISON, BIRDS, BOTANY, AND BUTTERFLIES 2018

Bison on prairie

My first trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was on November 11, 2003. We started doing Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies in September 2012.

Bison starred at just concluded unorganized non-event accurately labeled “Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies.” This celebration occurred at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, September 26-29, 2018. At Tallgrass, Bison have right-of-way. In seeing them, I am reminded that 60,000,000 Bison once lived on the 200,000,000 acres of the Great Plains, of which Tallgrass is a part. I am reminded this is an important history of our country, facts easily overlooked and forgotten in our loud, shiny, restless urban societies. Fun fact: on our drive over to Tallgrass on September 26, thousands upon thousands of Harley Davidson motorcycles all headed EAST, toward Bikes, Blues, and Barbecue Harley rally in Fayetteville, on highway 412; on our way home today, all Harleys headed WEST and Fayetteville bereft of roar and rumble so beloved by Harley fans. No Harleys at the Tallgrass, but there are several thousand Bison, making our Great Plains, and especially the Osage Hills section north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Great Again.

Scissortails

Bird migration was on the agenda during in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma,and especially The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Some migrants like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Savannah Sparrow, Nashville Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow are FOS – first of season – just arrived from where they nested further north. Some are decked out in their migration plumage, like elegantly brown Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds – original name, Buffalo Bird – include patchy young of the year. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Eastern Bluebirds are gathered into impressive and vocal flocks, suddenly dominant reality of a given few trees or bushes. Red-headed Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers shoot overhead in 1 and 3s. We could find a few of the local nesting Neotropical songbirds like Summer Tanagers, but the season of migration is on them, too. Big impressive hawks like Northern Harriers were numerous in their low graceful sweeps over tall grasses. But nothing is so impressive as treetop flocks of southbound Blue Jays. Yes, our familiar yard bird the Blue Jay taken up life in the flock. Over three days we noticed at least 13 flocks overhead and headed south – no doubt missed many, many more — number of individual jays in each up to 82 individuals (average 36). With just a modest boost of north wind, jays depart resting places in the blackjacks and launch forth to freedom of tall grass and seemingly endless prairie sky.

Purple pineapple

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve reminds me of Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Mississippi. Both are elemental places removed from norms of time. In one sense, both are easy to reach, by car or boat. On foot, and with a little time, birds, butterflies, and a unique assemblage of flowers emerge from the landscape. In the Gulf, there’s an ocean as shaper of things. At Tallgrass, there are waves of Bison shaping things. All of life follows. Yellow dominates botany of big landscapes in late September. Yellow of goldenrods and prairie broomweed covers thousands of acres. But here’s a closer look: Eryngium leavenworthii, “common” name Leavenworth Eryngo, a most radical botany of spines and sharp points. Arkansans also call them Purple Pineapple and Wicked Queen. By whatever name, Eryngium serves well as spiny emblem for our Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterfly trips. Same fields with Wicked Queen and goldenrods feature patches of a lovely blue, delicate-looking flower, Blue Sage. Native flowers are abundant because the extensively rocky soils – called Flint Hills – were never plowed. On our trip last week we kept a sharp eye out for Bison, and if the Bison were off far enough for safety, we walked their clear trails into fields of flowers.

Monarch

Monarchs are on our front burner for our late September explorations. Their southward migration flyways include the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma, including the Osage Hills section with The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Much of the Great Plains is heavily plowed and herbicided for agriculture leading to something akin a flower desert. By contrast, with dense surface rock and thin soils, the Flint Hills couldn’t be plowed. Native botanical diversity persisted. Monarchs know this. So do many other butterflies and native insects. Whereas much of the Great Plains is unfortunately fly over country, the Osage Hills is a place to stop and refuel. During our recent Tallgrass trip, we saw hundreds and likely thousands of Monarchs. No matter where we looked, it was all about Monarchs. One stopped on a Blue Sage (Salvia azurea), also home to an interesting golden spider, a simple example of a radiating diversity of life. Diversity radiates through the biosphere. This is a key to understanding what makes this Preserve an important place.

Collared lizard

My first trip to the Tallgrass was on November 11, 2003. We had read a long Sunday paper-type article in the paper. Inspired, a birder friend and I left Fayetteville at 6 AM and didn’t get home until 8:30 PM. Between times we saw Harris’s Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks including Harlan’s Hawk, Merlin (prairie race), Northern Harriers, and Bison. Almost 15 years have passed. Give or take, it’s 200 miles from my house in Fayetteville to Preserve headquarters. Depending upon whose driving, 3-3.5 hours. I keep learning new stuff on every trip. This is because it is an expansive landscape, changes constantly across seasons, and over time I have made trips with different people with different interests. Birding trips, botany trips, Christmas Bird Count, even a fund-raiser with several couples ready to make significant financial contributions to TNC. We started doing the “Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies” trip in September 2012. A person could say I don’t require much of an excuse, even at expense of undesirable carbon footprint, to go to Tallgrass. They would be right.

Tallgrass group

Joe Neal

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TAIGA MERLIN AND YOUNG HORNED LARKS September 13, 2016

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A Merlin made a hard swoop and chase on shorebirds this morning at West-Ark Sod
south of Kibler. Birds in the immediate vicinity included Killdeer (~25),
Buff-breasted Sandpiper (14), and Horned Larks (~20). It happened fast; initially I
couldn’t tell who’d made the attack. But then, I noticed a falcon perched on the sod
maybe 100 yards off, close enough for photographs and later study. This was either
an adult female or young of year with thin “mustache.” There were also Upland
Sandpipers (2) at sod, but quite a ways off.

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Under attack from the Merlin, Killdeer and Buff-breasteds race off, but Horned Larks
hunker down, in a low-perch, on bare ground where sod has been removed. Thin grass
strips between the bare ground cuts totally hide them. It’s like a marriage made in
heaven.

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Studying larks through my spotting scope, I can see that many are young of the year.

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Sibley illustrates a form which he labels a juvenile (April-August), but most of the
birds at sod today have molted beyond that juvenile plumage.

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Some present a modestly bold, wide-ish eye stripe and what is almost a wide ring of
white around the eye. These may be females. In one picture I see what will be an
adult male, with a developing black face mast, and what will be an adult female,
with little such development. None have acquired the striking dark mast or much of
the yellow throat. On the breast is something of a smudge that for both sexes will
in time become the dark breast band of adulthood.

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It would be nice to make one of these into something radical, like a molting
McCown’s Longspur, but … then I am reminded that in many years of hearing Horned
Larks, and mainly observing them at distance, I have today a rare opportunity to see
the ‘tweeners: not juveniles exactly, and for sure not adults. It is a first for me. – Joe Neal

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Gathering at Paige and Mary Bess Mulhollan Waterfowl Blind

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Doug James and friends visit Mulhollan Blind Lake Fayetteville September 8, 2016

Doug James and Bill Beall both spent a lot of time birding Lake Fayetteville in the
1950s, when it was brand new.

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Doug James and Mary Bess Mulhollan Mulhollan Blind Lake Fayetteville September 8, 2016

On September 8, 2016, Doug and his wife Elizabeth, plus Bill and his wife Toka, joined Mary Bess Mulhollan and a small group of folks at the Paige and Mary Bess Mulhollan Waterfowl Blind at Lake Fayetteville. To help a couple of folks with walking impairments, Botanical Garden of the Ozarks loaned us their golf cart and Joe Woolbright of Ozark Ecological Restoration, Inc, came with his pick up. We all gathered at the blind with designer Michael Cockram.

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Doug James at Mulhollan Blind, Lake Fayetteville September 8, 2016

Right out the windows were migrating Double-crested Cormorants, easily viewed.

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Along the walkway, a thick patch of Spotted Jewelweed, a native wildflower much used by
migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

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The blind was built to fit into the wetlands landscape — seems to fit pretty well, judging from immaculate Black and yellow Argiope spider visible right out the window.

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Doug and Bill pronounced the blind well done. Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society will host a formal dedication later this fall.

Joe Neal

A DECIDEDLY MONARCH KIND OF DAY August 27, 2016

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This morning we had a few shorebirds for Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society’s field
trip to Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton: Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper,
Spotted Sandpiper, and Least Sandpiper (a few of each). Hawks: Mississippi Kite,
Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and America Kestrel. Belted
Kingfishers and two heron species. Otherwise, this has been a decidedly Monarch kind
of day.
Arkansas Game and Fish folks have left unmowed until this fall several areas to
protect Swamp Milkweed, a plant with limited distribution in Arkansas. Half of the
35-40 folks who turned out for birding were interested enough in the milkweed patch
to walk along the fence north of the hatchery alongside one of several natural
spring runs. The milkweed is in full, aromatic glory, a fact also noticed by
butterflies and other pollinators. An insect festival of sorts with Monarchs, Black
Swallowtails, other butterfly and numerous bee, wasp, beetle and other insects
species.

False Crocus Geometer Moth Xanthotype urticaria on yellow nut sedge Centerton August 27, 2016-3-r
False Crocus Geometer Moth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we were moving in for closer looks, we noticed some odd, moth-like creature. What
is it? It perched on one of my favorite wet ground plants, Yellow Nutsedge. Later
and at home in Fayetteville, I tried Googling “moth on yellow nutsedge.” There was
nothing helpful, but you know you are probably in trouble when what Googles up are
mainly herbicides ads. The nutsedge thrives where nature intends wet meadow and
seasonally-wet prairie – and plants like Swamp Milkweed. Generally, though, people
want lawn and pasture, hence a thriving herbicide industry.
David Oakley and Mitchell Pruitt figured out later that what perched on the nutsedge
was the False Crocus Geometer Moth, Xanthotype urticaria. At this point, I can’t
find any Arkansas records for this moth. To say the least, an unexpected moth in a
patch of habitat protected from mowing is an interesting development on a bird
watching field trip.

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Ecologically-speaking, presence of X. urticaria, in a patch of unusual plants like
Swamp Milkweed and others, and all attended by numerous pollinator species –
provides a good description for a wetland ecosystem disappearing under a tsunami of
development.
It is a system important to birds and other native creatures. When American
Golden-Plovers migrate through northwest Arkansas in spring, they are looking for
these wet meadows. Seldom seen: an entire ecosystem of snakes, frogs, salamanders.
Green Herons forage along the spring runs.
Today, as we admired Swamp Milkweed from the bank, it was American Goldfinches down
in the spring run, foraging in a patch of brilliant green algae.

Joe Neal

GREEN HERON LEARNS THE TRADE

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Hatched this year, this Green Heron is learning the heron trade. Craig State Fish
Hatchery in Centerton is a sort of school for them. There’s lots to learn and not a
lot of time to learn it. As I sat in the car watching today, it was working the
bountiful universe of a pond’s edge. Several times it caught small fish sideways in
its bill. An adult would have done one flip, then, head first, the fish would have
gone down the old hatch. This youngster would turn the caught fish this way, then
that way, sometimes drop it, and start again. Practice-practice-practice: stuff just
has to be learned. One time it stealthily walked up on a dark twig and GRABBED it,
then recognized the error. It became distracted by some aquatic flies and chased
them on the mudflat.

Food-wise, what doesn’t work is slowly replaced by the adult’s sure fire and
hunger-satisfying grabs — at fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like. In terms of Green
Herons like this one, school is still open through September, maybe a bit into
October. But sometime in there, it will graduate as a skilled hunter, cum laude, of
aquatic foods — and then migrate southward. – Joe Neal, August 26, 2016

BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCHES, OZARK NF near Northwest Arkansas City March 20, 2016

Brown-headed Nuthatch Shores Lake -Fern area ONF March 19, 2016-2-rsBrown-headed Nuthatch Shores Lake -Fern area ONF March 19, 2016-4-rs

 

Within its broad permanent range in the southeastern US, Brown-headed Nuthatches have been eliminated in the northwest of their former range, including all of Missouri and most of northwest Arkansas. However, years ago, Bill Beall from Fort Smith began documenting them in the Shortleaf Pine forests in the Shores Lake-Fern region of the Ozark NF in Franklin County.

This is the closest place to find these birds if you live in  Northwest Arkansas City, the burgeoning metroplex,  Fayetteville-Bentonville with I-49 as its Main Street. In recent years, Bill has been leader for an annual Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip that centers on this nuthatch population. This trip has benefitted greatly from involvement by Jim Nieting, also from Fort Smith, who has accompanied Bill and his wife Toka on scouting trips before the NWAAS trip.

They did this spring’s scout on March 12, finding 27 nuthatches at 18 stops – I think a new record. When we had our NWAAS field trip on March 19, our plans were to make each of these stops until everyone had satisfactory views of these birds, which can be difficult to spot in tree tops, among small brown cones. Nothing to worry about, however: we had 2 at stop 1, 2 at stop 2; so we quit nuthatches and went on to other birds.

Many, many thanks to NWAAS treasurer Bill Beall, who has now rolled up an absolutely incredible 7+ decades of Arkansas birding. His work as treasurer has kept NWAAS on a solid footing, too.

Bill attributes the relatively high nuthatch numbers to Forest Service management policies in the Boston Mountain Ranger District of the Ozark NF. It’s native pine, much of it mature, with many large trees. It reminds me of good Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat in the Ouachita NF to the south. Harvests seem to be done by thinning and opening the forest, leaving many trees, followed by prescribed burns. Based upon our trips to see Brown-headed Nuthatches, it’s working for them, too.

Joe Neal

Some Good in an Ill Wind

Fayetteville CBC, 2015

The wind blew ill and mostly warm (50s) all day across Fayetteville CBC v. 2015, 20 MPH, gusts to 30. Find wind breaks or no birds. That said, we broke 91 species count day. We tallied up at the new home of Doug and Elizabeth James. Doug, who originated this count in 1961, reported results for himself and Liz on their neighborhood survey.

Reading Mitchell’s post about his waterfowl trip yesterday in northeastern Arkansas reminds me he wasn’t in Ozark forested upland habitats. His thousands of geese and ducks compare to our 30 hard working volunteers on yesterday’s Fayetteville Christmas Bird Count. We saw … tah dah …500 TOTAL waterbirds. We were just thrilled to pieces that Andy Scaboo and party came up with harriers (2), Kim Smith and party Loggerhead Shrike (1).

Stand-out surprises included a Spotted Sandpiper at the Nolan Wastewater Treatment Plant, Blue-winged Teal (3) at Lake Elmdale, a Gray Catbird in dense thickets of invasive Amur Honeysuckle and Common Privet, and a Summer Tanager on Haskell Heights a few blocks from the University Campus, with a view of the nosebleed seats at Razorback Stadium.

Song Sparrow Wilson Springs Dec 20, 2015
Song sparrow

Fayetteville CBC has never tallied waterfowl like northeastern Arkansas and never will, even if “Global Warming” suddenly lurches into “Little Ice Age.” Back in olden days, when we had winter, we would have picked up another seven waterfowl species, plus quite a few on down through avian phylogeny, like Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs.

Savannah Sparrow University farm Dec 20, 2015
Savannah sparrow

My old fiend Eleanor Johnson used to say, “It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.” As warming swamps humanity’s global lowlands and displaces hundreds of millions of people, Ruby-crowned Kinglets are spending more “winter” in the Ozarks. Yesterday’s 20 wasn’t our highest, but we’d had nothing remotely comparable until the late 1990s.

Our first Summer Tanager was a count week bird in 2002. Then in several subsequent years, we photographed single birds coming to the Caulk’s suet feeder on Mt Sequoyah. Then on December 19 –Twas the Day Before CBC — Don Steinkraus posted photographs on facebook of a Summer Tanager near Wilson Park in central Fayetteville.

 

 

 

 

Orange-crowned Warbler Fayetteville Dec 20, 2015
Orange-crowned warbler

Meanwhile, Mike Mlodinow had found one at Cave Springs — outside the count circle, but underscoring tanager-wise, something was up. Jane Steinkraus agreed to watch the feeder December 20. Then yesterday, birding-out-of-wind-gust places, Richard Stauffacher, Barry Bennett and I came to a leafless tree bathed in afternoon sunlight. Barry spotted a distinctly yellow bird that generously remained for photos
showing that big yellow bill with a wasp!

Summer Tanager Haskell Heights Dec 20, 2015-1
Summer tanager

Finally, I received a great Christmas gift from party leader Joan Reynolds — Ozark Natural Science Center’s brand new Northern Saw-whet Owl shirt. A Mitchell Pruitt original and a work of avian art! It results from Mitchell’s Honors Thesis project, directed by another party leader and former count compiler Kim Smith.

If you snooze, you lose: better order one before they are all gone. I was so pleased I pulled it on and wore it to bed.

Joe Neal

Cooper's Hawk Fayetteville Dec 20, 2015-6
Cooper’s hawk