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.


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.


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



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.


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


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


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.


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.


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



Gathering at Paige and Mary Bess Mulhollan Waterfowl Blind

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.

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.

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

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


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


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.


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

Joe Neal


NWAAS field trip Centerton August 27, 2016-2-r

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

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
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 Centerton August 26, 2016-5r

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



September 24-26, 2015

GRASS GONE TO FEATHERS September 24, 2015

Grasshopper Sparrow near Foraker Tallgrass September 24, 2015-10s

The Harley motorcycle roar called Bikes, Blues and Barbecue(BBB) migrated into Fayetteville yesterday, the start of a four day rally with 400,000 people plus their motorcycles crammed into northwest Arkansas. Constant, day and night low overhead flights by helicopters, many closed streets, all night parties – this treasured money-maker for the hospitality industry requires an escape for some —

Therefore, David Chapman and I begin our migration west, at 4 AM, to a different BBBB, starring Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies. We’re escaping to The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Oklahoma. Flint Hills because there is so much surface rock the area was never plowed and as a result, retains many of its original ecological characteristics – native flowers, birds, lizards, and a corridor for southbound Monarch Butterflies.

By 7 AM we’re three hours northeast of Fayetteville, with nary a Harley. And, as it turns out, were not the only migrants. At day break we have driven about 160 miles to just west of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, then turned north on Osage County Road 4551. This passes through ranch lands toward Foraker, a community much shrunken since its heyday in the oil boom that crashed with onset of the 1930s Great Depression. Foraker is immediately west of Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

First birds: flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds in roadside thickets formed by Common Sunflowers. From sunflowers they’re flying down to splash in the creek bed. With nesting behind them, there’s only an occasional flash of the male’s summer red. They wheel from sunflowers to creek, Mother Earth on the move.

Eastern Meadowlarks are singing in the fields, but these are mainly in winter season flocks, some with 20-30 birds. We watch them in fields of Indian Grass, its tall thick seed heads forming a horizon. Below, a wild member of the parsley family that looks like a small purple pineapple, Eryngium Leavenworthii. It’s in fresh flower, with purple stamens visited by busy, tiny, metallic-green pollinators, the Halictid bees.

Driving slowly along the road, we stop for Sedge Wrens (2) singing in dense grass. We walk up some additional arrivals including Lincoln’s Sparrow (1), Swamp Sparrow (1), then Savannah Sparrows (~8). We pick up a few Grasshopper Sparrows, too. These probably nested in the fields. The first one perches briefly on a rusty wire, on a stage set by Big Bluestem Grass. There’s buffy wash on its breast, play of light and dark on its head and back, the prairie’s tall grass gone to feathers.

Something of the same can be said about all: come from the 200 million acres of grass called the Great Plains, whose grass says feathers, too.

Prairie Merlin Foraker near Tallgrass September 24, 2015-4s

Perched in a snag, in the oil boom ghost town Foraker, surrounded by the Flint Hills Prairies, a pale blue, adult male Merlin, animated denizen of wide spaces and broad sky.

By noon Chapman and I are heading a few miles east towards the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve of the former Chapman-Barnard Ranch. A field across from the restored ranch house is covered with ripe thistles and American Goldfinches.

Along the road, a twig on the petals of a pink Four O’Clock turns into yet another pollinator — a plume moth. Up close, I finally see wings, small eyes and legs. It’s their world, too.


Melyssa St. Michael with camera, Ann Gordon Talllgrass PP Sept 26, 2015-rs

Bright, calm, and sunny. That’s the weather from The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma. By afternoon, temps have climbed to near 90. Our trip is about Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies, BUT right now we’re looking for shade on the prairie section of the trail above Sand Creek.

From the prairie, the trail passes down into the deep shady forest along Sand Creek, among bur oaks. We’re seeing Monarchs settling on leaves, in the shade. Where did these come from? Maybe they too are sheltering from heat and desiccation? Maybe waiting for better winds? We see at least 50. In the shade of a wide ranging Sand Creek, there must be many Monarchs waiting for better sailing.

Fortunately, clouds develop and a sudden breeze rises in the northeast. I guess Blue Jays have been waiting, too. Here come 55 in a tight mass, all heading south. With breeze, with the bold migrating jays — in terms of migration business, we feel wealthy.

We’ve also found Bison Birds: Brown-headed Cowbirds. Twenty or so cowbirds following a bull bison.

We’ve also picked up an unexpected Barn Owl. We’re walking toward a bridge over Sand Creek when a Barn Out flies out. We’re trying to absorb this singularity when out flies a second. But tail feathers are mostly what we’ve seen, plus a single white flight feather floating artistically in dark water.

Jim Nieting has the happy thought to circle around the direction of Owl #1. It flies back towards us, providing “The” look, then disappears.

We’ve seen a few Northern Flickers, including one red-shafted. One perched atop a fence post on the Bison Loop road looks for sure like red-shafted, the western form we rarely see in Arkansas – so it’s a big deal. Then in the bright noon sun, as it flies, gold feather shafts. But Michael Linz and Jim Nieting have flight photos. We can see yellow AND red in the flight feathers.

halictid bees on Eryngium Tallgrass PP September 25, 2015-2-rs

Eastern Tailed Blue butterflies crowd fresh, yellow goldenrod flowers. Edging up on the goldenrod is what Mitchell Pruitt IDs as a true bug in the Hemiptera — small head, large abdomen, sucking mouth parts — seemingly with hungry interest in the blues … Hmmm … we’re on the move down the trail, so I don’t know how this unfolds.

David Oakley and I are up on a hillside and notice a tallish plant with a reddish stalk, surmounted by apparent star-shaped flowers, white and pink-tinged. From this bulges large dark seeds, wrinkled like raisins. Already ripe seeds? A botanist would find remarkable such seeds with apparently fresh flowers. David and I are mainly concerned with a good picture and the name of the plant. Strangers in a strange land, we engage the discussion.

Later, when we return to Arkansas, we are going to get help from Joan Reynolds, who will identify this as a wild Four O’clock. She explains apparent petals are actually sepals. Real petals, bright pinks, have already fallen off. Then based on leaf shapes in one of my fuzzy, out-of-focus images, David figures out this must be Narrow-leaf Four-O’clock, Mirabilis linearis.

Which, if you have been willing to follow along here, explains some of the “Why make a trip like this? Why Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies?” The answer, such as it is, is in mystery.


We started today by launching a coordinated birditary operation on Little Sand Creek. Never heard of the birditary? (If you are still reading, it could be YOU!). That’s us, in the Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterfly Brigade, on The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma.

This day opens with Operation Barn Owl. We saw them yesterday, but briefly, so we’re back. We hope to catch ‘em while they’re napping and thus maximize chances for “The” photograph. Captain Mitchell Pruitt leads his team including David Oakley and Michael Linz in a pincer movement through the woods and on under the bridge. The rest of us foot soldiers perform a frontal assault; that is, we walk slowly toward the bridge.

Accompanied by rapid fire, 10-frames-a-second cameras, our owls silently exit from a roost under the bridge. It reminds Sarah Caulk, not so much of machine guns, but a clacking car starter on a dead battery. Aftermath: Owls 2, BBBB team 0 in term of the much desired sharp photograph. But we do get to see them again.

The morning is decidedly cool, so it comes as no surprise to us BBBB vets that we are greeted by a refreshing north breeze, with Monarch migration, as we arrive on the prairie.

The lower level Monarchs transit Tallgrass Prairie Preserve among those prickly purple “pineapples,” Eryngium Leavenworthii. They briefly circle the Blue Sage. They flutter in fields of gold — generous abundance of goldenrods, that golden-flowered Prairie Broomweed. And in addition, and way out in the land of deep sky, Monarchs are drifting south, with a backdrop of clouds.

In a vast prairie sky, I find watching Turkey Vultures helps me locate more distant Monarchs. First, get TVs in focus. Second, scan the sky. High above the flowered, blessedly unplowed Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma, Monarchs are many. Here’s one, there’s three, drifting, hopeful, wings of orange and black, like cathedral glass.

Blue Jays have been overhead, too. Between 9:45 and 10:30, we have counted 11 flocks low overhead, going south, biggest flock 69 birds. We have at least 215 birds in 45 minutes. Also moving, but in lower numbers, Northern Flickers (12; 2 red-shafted) and Red-headed Woodpeckers (10).

sulphur butterfly on blazing star Tallgrass PP September 25, 2015s

A herd of maybe 200 bison make their own leisurely movement, from one field with Big Bluestem Grass and Maxmillian Sunflower and rag weed to the next, filling the road. It’s true enough we are at the End of Nature – there is a fence around the Preserve’s 40,000 acres — but within that enclosure roams bison, grows prairie, flies the butterfly. It’s available to the rest of us, too, if desired.

Stopping for lunch at the old, now restored ranch headquarters, we have a fine view of American Goldfinches working thistle patches, masses of released, and sometimes seedless thistle down drifting in brilliant light. Near where we’re sitting in porch shade, there are little birds in a mature elm. Unmistakable: a male Summer Tanager. Then a Nashville Warbler that’s caught a small butterfly, and wrestling it down, pauses long enough for our view.

In the leaves, on a limb, then out in side view: longish tail, plain breast with slight tan wash, small bill, dark eye path – Clay-colored Sparrow. It’s a life bird for some. A slow chase ensues and within a few minutes, several BBBBers return with trophy-quality images. In addition, all this close looking turns up a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, first of the season.

A tall plant with white flowers standing out above the grass, and at the right angle of view, rising above the prairie: Stenosiphon linifolius, False Gaura. Past its prime in terms of flowers, it reminds me of myself.

BBBB crew September 26, 2015 at Tallgrass PP-rs

I keep glancing up, watching Monarchs through my binoculars. They remind me of an escape from a bleak time in graduate school many years ago. I was on campus during a class break, laying down on my back looking up into a blue early fall sky. I was then father of a lovely, trusting brown-eyed daughter, separated from her mother, and I was getting up at 4 AM to solve statistics problems I did not understand. So many murky feelings …

… Slowly, and through my misery, I saw Monarchs. One, three, drifting, drifting over campus, drifting over me, and misery … insects, with direction … drifting like now, over the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma …

After a while, and with a decent wind, a little hope began to creep in. I began to think I might be able to manage life, too.

Joe Neal


rusty blackhaw Cherry Bend April 22, 2015 Wood Thrush nest Cherry Bend May 14, 2015-3

This is a little tale about HAW and THRUSH. One of my favorite native shrubs is
Blackhaw or Rusty Blackhaw, with deep green glossy leaves, great masses of flowers
in spring, prune-like fruits in fall and winter. I photographed a haw covered with
dazzling masses of white flowers in the vicinity of Cherry Bend, in the Ozark
National Forest, on April 22, 2015. I photographed another at Hobbs State
Park-Conservation Area January 31, 2015, when all those flowers had made masses of
dark, prune-like fruits. Then there is between times, like today. David Chapman and
I were out birding for spring migrants in the National Forest when he noticed sudden
movement around what we soon realized was a nest, in a haw’s stout fork. A light
rain was coming down, mostly deflected by leaves. With binoculars, we could just see
the tiny bills of what appeared to be recently hatched young. We never approached
the nest, in respect for the birds. Later, after it stopped raining, I got some
photographs from distance, using a zoom of about 40X. Not great photographs, but at
least the birds continued with their business and we could see what was going on.
The adult feeding these nestlings was hard to see, but finally we identified a Wood
Thrush, one of North America’s finest singers, and a bird that like so many others,
has been hurt by habitat loss largely of our making. If we could just stop for a
minute – just pause a bit in our busy rounds of exploiting the earth — we could see
the divine cycle: the flowers in spring and their pollinators; the shrub that offers
its form for a bird’s nest; the fruit, that will feed birds in winter, and will
therefore have its seeds dispersed, renewing the cycle.

Joe Neal                        Rusty Blackhaw berries Hobbs SP Jan 31, 2015-1


Gray-cheeked Thrush Kessler April 30, 2015-2

HARDWOOD FORESTS ON KESSLER MOUNTAIN dominate the skyline in south Fayetteville.
Yesterday, Swainson’s Thrushes and other north bound migrants dominated ALL.

Nashville and Kentucky Warblers were singing along the base of that long,
flat-topped mountain. Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks were soaring above.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are nesting all over abandoned farmlands.

Of importance to the birding community, Doug and Fran James raised a family on
Kessler slopes. Doug’s professional ecological interests involving Kessler over the
years provided biological undergirding for the ultimately successful preservation
efforts by Frank Sharp, Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, and others. And
so, as Fayetteville and northwest Arkansas expand, we have Kessler Mountain Reserve,
several hundred protected acres of mature forest near the University of Arkansas.

Yesterday’s spring migration trip was courtesy of Mary Bess Mulhollan’s recent
birthday. Four of us – MB, son Kelly and daughter-law Donna, traveled Kessler’s base
and slopes where the Mulhollans and their musician friends annually perform this
selection/section on our local Christmas Bird Count.

We could have taken a 2-mile hike, a fun but pretty limited way of finding birds in
over 1000+ acres of public and private land. Instead, we slow-cruised public roads
east, north, and west that access lower mountain slopes.

Kessler’s public forest and adjacent private lands support roughly 90% of breeding
upland forests bird species (Arkansas Birds, 1986; Table 3-1). We encountered many:
Pileated and Hairy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, three vireo species,
White-breasted Nuthatch, etc. We started with a Blue Grosbeak near the reserve’s
entrance off Cato Springs Road and ended with a fledgling Eastern Bluebird near
Cemetery Hill Memorial Park in the west. Throughout, dominant mature oaks featured
singing Summer Tanagers (10).

We had transients and interesting summer residents, including some first of season
(FOS): Eastern Wood-Pewee (1, FOS), Least Flycatcher (1, FOS), Gray-Cheeked Thrush
(2), Swainson’s Thrush (25+, everywhere), Tennessee Warbler (1), Nashville Warbler
(8), Northern Parula (nests, 4), Yellow-rumped Warbler (2; in breeding plumage),
Yellow-throated Warbler (nests; 1), Black-and-white Warbler (nests, 6), Northern
Waterthrush (1), Kentucky Warbler (nests, 6), Common Yellowthroat (1, FOS), Hooded
Warbler (nests; 2), Yellow-breasted Chat (FOS), Clay-colored Sparrow (1), Lincoln’s
Sparrow (2), White-throated Sparrows (many; in constant song), Blue Grosbeak (nests,
FOS), Dickcissel (nests, 1), Orchard Oriole (nests, 3). We looked for Painted
Buntings in the usual places, but I guess were too early.

In Kessler Country, protected mountain forest verges into a bloviating walmartia.
But elsewhere, especially in the hard-to-access south, and the relatively
easy-to-access Farmington side, there are pastures and small farms. On these
not-so-often traveled roads, we especially enjoyed numerous sightings of those
notorious winter season skulkers — and hence hard to find Christmas birds — Brown
Thrashers, now turned roadrunner, with attitude, long tail, and long legs to prove

Joe Neal