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

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

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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

 

BISON, BIRDS, BOTANY AND BUTTERFLIES

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.

JAYS OVERHEAD, MONARCHS IN THE WOODS September 25, 2015

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.

BISON ON THE ROAD, MONARCHS IN THE SKY September 26, 2015

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