HAW and THRUSH

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

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SPRING MIGRATION ON AND ADJACENT KESSLER MOUNTAIN RESERVE

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
it.

Joe Neal

IN EARLY DARK, AND WAITING FOR THE CHICKENS

(by Joe Neal April 2015)

Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-28  Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-26

THE GENERATION OF THE 1880s remembered why old Fayetteville was Prairie Township. An ancient black oak was a venerable landmark in a grassy expanse that had become town and university. It stood in the way of modernizing Dickson Street. In 1888, tears were reportedly shed as the old oak was sacrificed, cut down like bison of the 1820s and then, prairie chickens.

The little town was mega-izing, becoming a bigger town. The old oak had to go and so did the prairie.
Many generations of Greater Prairie-Chickens had known our town square and university hill, long before either. But already by the 1880s, the wild chickens were so rare as to evoke newspaper comment when someone saw even a single bird.
Skip forward seven generations and maybe history explains why after a 3-hour drive, it’s zero-dark-thirty and I’m on a school bus-load of folks waiting for chickens. We have been previously warned to get our personal business “all took care of” first, and especially not to drink coffee, because once we get on the bus and start waiting for chickens, there will be no talking and no moving around, and for sure no potty breaks even for the bladder-impaired.
Yes, now for better or worse, I’m on the trail of chickens. Where does this lead? Native grasslands of Prairie Township are two centuries past. To see prairie chickens, I’ve driven 150 miles north, or on a different morning, 200 miles northwest. That is to say, the chicken frontier has receded. I’m on the frontier, but not to add Greater Prairie-Chicken to a personal list.
The pattern in our species and civilization is preference for mega-church and mega-mart, and not, for example, prairie chickens and mega-prairie. Why is this? Why do we erase everything in our … well, path to … where?
Out here on the chicken frontier, people who know stuff, know prairie chickens among native grasses and flowers. Know wild chickens survive in the world of meadowlarks and nostalgic “western” movies. Know these largely invisible birds blend seamlessly into grassland fabric but gather in spring in a radical mating celebration. From a discrete distance, those on the bus hope to see the dance.

BIRDER’S HANDBOOK puts it this way: “… males spaced ca. 30’ apart, occupy lek; male inflates air sacs on sides of neck, tail erect, wings drooped, then rapidly drops head and deflates sacs with “boom.” Jumping displays follow and males run at each other with tail and neck tufts erect, sacs inflated.”

Ancient and meaningful as great pyramids; and like them, powerful symbols. It looks that way from the bus, too.
Two hundred years ago, high grasslands of today’s Fayetteville Square and the University hill were booming grounds. Genes that flowed through them flow through the chickens booming on native prairie grasslands in Missouri and Oklahoma.

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Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-19    cream wild indigo Tallgrass April 13, 2015

SYMMETRICAL, GOLDEN HEADS OF CARROTLEAF LOMATIUM (Lomatium foeniculaceum) rise between abundant rocks. Lomatium’s filmy, fern-like leaves spread at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Not a household word, lomatium? Not for me, either.

More than a century has passed since there were Greater Prairie-Chickens in or near Fayetteville. Memories of plowing the prairie and native chickens went to pioneer graves. This is why the concept of prairie, and prairie chickens, seems exotic in Arkansas’s Walmart Country. Indian trails became highways, a pioneer cabin became a city. A university campus stands in place of Big Bluestem Grass. We have lost our past.

It’s a 3-hour drive west into the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. Good old basic rocks are why it’s not further. Prairies in Arkansas were all plowed to death. No plow would survive five minutes in the Flint Hills. Sounds like a harsh place, but consider that in early April, what will be tall native grass by late summer is green sheen a few inches tall emerging among natural pavement.

Harvey Payne, who would become founding director of The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, as a kid rode horses through the Flint Hills. Rocks that made plowing impossible rang like bells under their hooves.

In April the Preserve is all about flowers. Besides lomatium, there’s immaculate Fringed Puccoon (Lithospermum incisium), with distinctive crinkled edges of yellow flowers and heavenly blue buds of Prairie Iris (aka Celestial Lily, Nemastylis geminiflora) that, like lomatium and puccoon, makes home among abundant rocks. Impressive masses of cream-colored, pea-like flowers cover wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

Cattle ranching and oil and gas production took root where no culture-of-the-plow could survive. Bison again live on the Preserve, with their old prairie associates, wild chickens.

Coyotes howl just before day breaks. Upland Sandpipers, arrived from winter in South America, announce with their wolf whistles. Eastern Meadowlarks sing all around. At bare first light, 6:30, come low rich hums and excited cackles of male Greater Prairie-Chickens, gathered on their booming grounds.

Tallgrass is about many things, not just chickens, but it includes firm commitments to their future. They strut, jump and cackle three hours from where there used to be prairie, and chickens, in Arkansas. Right now, this commitment conflicts with a modern version of the plow that wiped out chickens in Arkansas: our insatiable demand for energy fostering expansion of the wind energy industry.

Consider comments in Bartlesville [Oklahoma] Magazine (March-April 2015), by Bob Hamilton, Director of Tallgrass Prairie Preserve: “… The wind company is trying to wrap itself in the green blanket. But this entire area, even outside Tallgrass, is a significant area for prairie chickens, which will not stay in areas with tall structures … “

So here we have some pretty clear choices to make, don’t we, about what we want for a future.

3

bison wallow Tallgrass April 14, 2015-2    Flint Hills after burn Tallgrass April 14, 2015
Bison wallow, and Flint Hills after a burn.


GROWING UP IN THE WESTERN ARKANSAS CITY OF FORT SMITH, I sure enough played my fair share of “cowboys and Indians.” Bowing at the waist, patting a hand over my mouth, singing “woo woo woo” in a supposed war dance, or something, probably learned from watching Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

I had to become a bird student to realize in our unwashed youth we ignorantly mimicked real dances of Plains Indians, who for millennia had watched and admired mating antics of prairie chickens with whom they shared that vast grassland. So maybe it was in that callow youth I was inoculated with chickens, or maybe later, starting in the 1980s, on a Doug James-led UA-Fayetteville Ornithology class spring break field trip that included a stop at Eagle Lake, Texas, on a refuge for endangered Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens.

The story here is habitat degradation and loss that unites endangered species. There’s nothing wrong with endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers that suitable habitat can’t address. While I worked for the Ouachita National Forest, we created a special management area over 200,000 acres, where everything you’d expect from your National Forest — camping, hunting, and logging, etc — continued, but with a twist in favor of habitat suitable for woodpecker recovery.

I got to thinking about this near Woodward, at the Oklahoma panhandle, sitting in the early dark, waiting to see Lesser Prairie-Chickens. It’s ranching country, with lots of sagebrush. Horned Larks are singing before sunrise. Tumbleweeds barrel across the highway when the wind blows, a little unnerving, especially in the dark, especially if you’re not used to that sort of thing.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers slid toward extinction because of rapid, widespread cutting of old growth pine forests. Lesser Prairie-Chickens declined because they, like the woodpeckers, require a lot of suitable habitat. Birds associated with a lek, where the males display for females (remember my “Indian” dance here) may require 12,000+ acres over all seasons of high quality unfragmented rangeland with a workable combination of native grasses and forbs.

Woodpecker habitat was primarily fragmented by rapid logging over huge areas. In chicken habitat there is oil and gas production, roads, urban growth, new crops, sometimes overly-intense livestock grazing, and more recently, wind power. Chickens figured out long ago anything a hawk could use for a perch, or that is high and vertical — that is, perch-like — is a threat. They realistically abandon such areas.

Woodpeckers in the Ouachitas are making a comeback as fragmentation issues are addressed, with involvement by the Forest Service, loggers, and other partners. Nearly everything in Woodward County and adjacent counties with chickens, is private ranchland, so their buy-in is critical. Back in my Forest Service days we often made the case that a healthy population of woodpeckers signified an ecosystem suitable for all. Biologists make the same case about chickens.

Like woodpeckers, these wild chickens know their land. If we pay attention, they will share secrets with a big pay out in long term survival.

Eared Grebe at Centerton

Kyle Jones photographed an Eared Grebe in breeding plumage at the state fish
hatchery in Centerton on April 9 and left a message for me. I was out of town on a
trip to western Oklahoma, but upon return I went up to the hatchery yesterday
morning and found it right where he said it was, in the northeast-most pond. We
don’t see many Eared Grebes around northwest Arkansas and especially not in such
immaculate summer plumage. The bird was still present today (Saturday April 11).
There is also a Pied-billed Grebe in the same pond, also in a remarkable breeding
plumage, though not so striking as in the Eared Grebe.

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post and photos by Joe Neal

FIVE STARS FOR CRAIG HATCHERY

MIKE MLODINOW AND I ARRIVED AT ARKANSAS GAME AND FISH’S CRAIG STATE FISH HATCHERY
IN CENTERTON this morning just as a strong N front was coming in with falling
temperatures and rising wind. Not much shorebird habitat today, because most ponds
are still full of water (and fish). But one small drained pond produced satisfying
views. For the hatchery as a whole: Killdeer (8), Greater Yellowlegs (7), Lesser
Yellowlegs (20), Solitary Sandpiper (1), UPLAND SANDPIPER (1, early-ish; in a
pasture just E of hatchery), Least Sandpiper (1), Baird’s Sandpiper (1), Pectoral
Sandpiper (40), Wilson’s Snipe (24; most in grassy edge of upper reservoir pond). We
had Blue-winged Teal (56) on three small farm ponds south of the hatchery, plus
another 27 at the hatchery. Despite little suitable shorebird habitat except when
ponds are being drained and fish caught for stocking, the hatchery is indispensible.
We can view and study birds closely, often using the car as blind. By comparison,
there were many, many more shorebirds at Frog Bayou WMA during the NWAAS field trip
there March 28, but they were much, much harder to see — all on foot and extremely
difficult to get close enough for satisfying study. Today as always, we could study
that Baird’s Sandpiper as long and as closely as we wished, north wind blocked. In
job performance reviews, I give Craig hatchery and its personnel ***** (5 stars).
Where else are there such opportunities, available to all, including those with
walking impairments or on a day like this, with a strong front blowing?

??????????Baird’s sandpiper, photo by Joe Neal

 

 

Joe Neal

CINNAMON TEAL (0) AND THE IDEE FIXE

The French might call pursuit of a spring Cinnamon Teal in Arkansas an “idee fixe.”
That is, belief against the odds that northward-bound flocks of Blue-winged and
Green-winged Teal must include this common western bird. It’s a useful, if almost
universally unfulfilled, idea. But I’m ahead of myself here.

Our Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip to Shores Lake-Fern commenced in a
light cool rain, happily soon ended. Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler,
Yellow-throated Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrushes around Shores Lake were welcomed
spring firsts for most.

Bill Beall and Jim Nieting had previously scouted for Brown-headed Nuthatches in the
shortleaf pine stands in this scenic area of the Ozark NF. Bill worked up a
hand-out, with mileage, for 15 spots where they found nuthatches on March 14. As
usual, these cavity nesting birds were in the secretive mode, but at the very first
stop we had good looks at two birds. Pine Warblers and Eastern Towhees sang at every
stop.

It would have been easy enough to spend all day here, especially with the sun
beginning, among spreading pussy toes, among all that is novel and beckoning in
fragrant mountain pines, and most especially, since there were many more places on
Bill’s hand-out. But the idea about those valley teal also beckoned, and lying
between us and them, the bathroom and snacks at Dyer truck stop.

Sandy Berger conducted us through the valley with focus on Frog Bayou WMA. Morning
rain had given way to an enthusiasm-dampening sharp east wind. Out in Dyer bay, duck
species (~200) were too far away and water too choppy for ID. Closer: American Coot
(40) and Snow Geese (snows and blues, ~100). Arkansas Game and Fish has modified the
original moist soil units.

It was too uncomfortable to walk the whole thing, but we did see a promising large
shallow water pond that reminds me of those birdy units at Red Slough, especially in
the future with development of aquatic vegetation.

We walked in far enough to see an extensive attractively muddy flat. And even being
blown around, we were able to tally American Golden-Plover (~125), Greater
Yellowlegs (~40), Northern Shoveler (~60), Blue-winged Teal (~40), Green-winged Teal
(~30), Gadwall (~20), Hooded Merganser (11). Bald Eagles (2 adults) and American
White Pelicans (14) flew over us. With its new focus, Frog warrants investigation on
the next calm, warm day.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (6) were right along the road as we drove toward Alma
sewer plant. In a farm pond just east, Blue-winged Teal (~125), closely attended by
a mixed-species flock of swallows: mostly Tree (~60), but also Barn (10),
Rough-winged (2) and Cliff (1). Behind, a cloud of American Pipits, that just
vanished.

After picking through those flying swallows for a Bank (0), they rewarded our
efforts with a Roger Tory Peterson look, all perched pretty-as-a-painting on wires,
right above us.

Joe Neal

WAH’KON-TAH PRAIRIE VIA OAKLEY EXPRESS

MATT HILL OF THE MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION posted an invitation to see
Greater Prairie-Chickens Saturday, March 28, on MDC’s Wah’Kon-Tal Prairie, just
north of El Dorado Springs, about 2.5 hours from Fayetteville. Saturday is
impossible because we have an NWAAS field trip. David Oakley was agreeable to this
morning.

We left Springdale at 3:30 AM and arrived in the dark via the Oakley express.
Wah’Kon-Tal is over 3000 acres. Since we weren’t part of an organized trip, we were
unsure where to look. This proved no problem. MDC has placed white flags on barbed
wire to reduce deadly impacts by low-flying chickens. Then we saw a sign, with a
1,2,3 list consisting of simple respect for the birds and chicken-viewing etiquette.
We park and wait.

Half an hour passes with no chickens. Then we see headlights of two school buses
from El Dorado Springs. They pull up next to us. A polite young woman invites us
aboard: “You will be able to see them better.” So here are two retirees grabbing our
gear and mounting the steps to spend the morning with school kids. But the buses are
borrowed. Today we have MDC employees, including some who have been working the
restore chickens here for over three decades.

Talk about dumb luck. We hit the jackpot. Then in first light, Greater
Prairie-Chickens.

Their ancestors had been here 40 years ago. The old prairie, and it chickens, was
lost to intense agriculture. Then, where chickens danced had become a feedlot. There
were 14 birds in 1980, then for two decades, zero. Extirpated.
One woman on the bus this morning started her career as a biologist, working for The
Nature Conservancy, which acquired the feedlot and additional acres. Then MDC became
involved at Wah’Kon-Tah and she went to work for them.

Native prairie seeds were collected nearby, beginning a process of restoring the
vegetation damaged in the feedlot days. As prairie returned, in 2008 sub-dominate
male chickens were trapped in western Kansas where they are still relatively
numerous. These are the males with little chance to mate. Moving them is not thought
detrimental to existing breeding groups. Likely it increases chances for these
chickens to find a mate. They have now successfully nested.

It was cold this morning and heavily overcast. Our viewing point a respectful
football field from the chicken displays. I counted 13 at one point. The process of
restoration is working.

The Osages believed that to secure Wah’kon-tah’s blessings, they had to show their
respect and reverence. Wah’kon-tah resided in everything. Recognizing the need to
restore what was lost here shows this reverence, in a modern, inspiring form.

Then it was Oakley Express home. Back in Springdale, with Greater Prairie-Chickens
on the mind, at 11:00 AM.

GDO_0619-Greater Prairie Chicken
photo by David Oakley

Joe Neal