(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.


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.


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.



post and photos by Joe Neal


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

A world of watchers

I’ve been reading A WORLD OF WATCHERS by Joseph Kastner (1986). This book is a very
good read about several hundred years of passions for birds in the US. According to
him, exchanges like those on ARBIRD about cats killing birds have been going on for
a long time. Kastner notes that most “discussions have been more emotional than
factual…” He documents cat fights back to at least 1915, when Edward Howe Forbush,
state ornithologist of Massachusetts, made a systematic survey and quantified the
cat-kill. Average kill: 2.7 birds per day per cat. My favorite line, “Most cat
owners, however, blamed the neighbor’s cat for the killing, not their own” (p. 81).
At one century in age, this is an old and ongoing debate, as periodic ARBIRDS
eruptions (or should I say irruptions?) demonstrate.

Joe Neal

Buffalo’s importance to birds

Buffalo’s importance to birds (part 1)

Buffalo National River is ecological glue binding to the benefit of birds an
extensive surrounding landscape of private, state, and other federal lands. The BNR
is but a narrow corridor of a thread 140 miles long. However, the public –
Republicans and Democrats – in what would now be termed a bipartisan way — blocked
planned dams on the Buffalo and resolved this into a National Park.

Adjacent landowners – private, state, and federal – have subsequently set aside
additional landscapes effectively protecting more of the Buffalo valley, more
tributaries, more of the steep, rugged forested headwaters. Besides the BNR itself,
we now have lands owned by Arkansas Game and Fish, the US Forest Service, The Nature
Conservancy, and many private property owners functioning to enhance Buffalo’s
ecological integrity.

Of course, not everyone marches to the beat of this drummer, as the ongoing hog
factory farm at Mt Judea shows. But, whatever the outcome, the arc of history is
clear in terms of the Buffalo. Republicans, Democrats, and most of the rest of us
want it protected and will have it protected.

My own angle here is not hiking, biking, camping, politics, or scenery. Rather,
birds. Last August I presented a program in Harrison about the importance of the
Buffalo National River to birds. The data I used was from the Compton Breeding Bird
Survey in the upper Buffalo region of Newton County. Established by Doug James in
the late 1960s, this BBS usually tallies Northern Bobwhites, Cerulean Warblers, Wood
Thrushes, and other avian treasures of conservation interest.

Compton BBS starts on private land high above the Buffalo in Newton County, descends
into the valley through Ponca and Boxley, then back up Cave Mountain Road. Along the
way, it includes farms, Arkansas Game and Fish property, the BNR, the Upper Buffalo
Wilderness (Forest Service) then back to private.

Cerulean Warblers are on every short list of birds of conservation concern, but is
the BNR important for conservation of Ceruleans? You be the judge.

On Compton BBS, I typically identify Ceruleans in two distinct places, but only one
is in BNR. The other is a high slope above the Buffalo, not within federal
ownership. It is easy to see these two places on Google Earth, also easy to see they
encompass a much broader suitable habitat. Bottom line: probably quite a few more

Ceruleans are also often reported on the Lurton BBS, in the Buffalo watershed, but
adjacent, but not within, the BNR. Unpublished data from the Arkansas Breeding Bird
Atlas shows heaviest Cerulean concentrations in the Buffalo landscape.

Breeding season distribution of Ceruleans in Arkansas was topic of a survey
published in 2001. Few of these locations were associated with the BNR, but many
birds were found on Forest Service lands in Newton County, including the Buffalo

If the river is ecological and political glue for this region, I argue the Buffalo’s
central importance for this reason alone.

Buffalo’s importance to birds, part 2

This probably makes it the most bird-rich single place visited in Arkansas, even though
priorities are swimming, canoeing, and hiking, not birding. Whatever the cause, if we treasure
Buffalo, we protect it and that includes, by design or default, birds and bird

I was among the million, completing my 24th season on the Compton Breeding Bird
Survey in the upper Buffalo watershed and some of the National River itself.
Bird-wise, Compton typically exhibits the highest bird diversity in Arkansas.
Whether they know it or not, visitors are thus exposed. As a condition of modern
life, this contagion may present long after long incubation. It makes no difference
if you arrive with paddle or binocular.

I have been thinking about this for 35 years or so, since I first met an energetic
bunch of UA-Fayetteville students on the Buffalo. It was in the late 1970s, after a
coalition of mainly conservative Republicans and Democrats wrestled the dammers to
the ground and got ‘em in a chokehold, creating in the process our nation’s first
free-flowing, dam-free National River. Most involved were not birders as such,
though Arkansas Audubon Society was the first organization with statewide membership
to publicly work against dams.

One of the first technical studies of Buffalo birds was Kim Smith’s ground-breaker
soon after proclamation of the National River in 1972. “Distribution of summer birds
along a forest moisture gradient in an Ozark watershed” was published in the
prestigious journal Ecology. He looked at avian habitat niches (examples: Ovenbird,
Hooded Warbler) along Leatherwood Creek, a Buffalo tributary in Newton County. He
demonstrated how bird habitats are situated along both dry and moist forest
situations, key to understanding Buffalo bird diversity.

Kim’s research was funded in part by Arkansas Audubon Society Trust. His adviser, Dr
Douglas James, UA-Fayetteville, was a leading force in the 1960s dam fight. Dr James
was also faculty adviser to nine UA students, who in 1979, and supported by a
National Science Foundation grant, studied the Buffalo’s biological habitats, birds,
vegetation, reptiles and amphibians, and small mammals.

Frequencies of occurrence and other indices were provided for 67 bird species.
Following Kim Smith’s findings, they covered the habitat range from dry to wet,
sunny to shady, from the Buffalo to the mountain tops. They censused birds in
fields, cedar glades, oak-pine forest, oak-hickory forest, floodplain forest, and
beech forest. Their report covered Northern Bobwhite, Yellow-throated Vireo, and
many warbler species. Examples include Prothonotary, Worm-eating, Blue-winged,
Yellow, Cerulean, Prairie, Kentucky, Redstart. Though numbers and populations have
changed, the broad diversity of birds remains in Buffalo country.

Taken as a whole, this report provided dramatic documentation for the Buffalo’s
importance for birds and the biota generally. Many of the students of 1979 have gone
on to distinguished professional careers. And following in their footsteps, more
students have come looking at the Buffalo’s importance to birds.

Buffalo’s importance to birds, part 3

VISITORS TO THE BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER know the place is important to
birds, even if their knowing is informal. In a stop at old Boxley mill pond, they see a bright
yellow bird in the sycamore. It’s a Yellow Warbler. Most folks are satisfied to call
it a “pretty little bird.” And down the river in a canoe: why, there are swallows
going back-and-forth. Birders know Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Most who float
don’t. Swallow is enough.

At 140 miles, it’s an extensive string of a river. Getting a handle on bird
diversity is complicated. In times when the value of public lands are questioned,
species-specific technical data can demonstrate why a National River helps preserve
bird diversity. But how can we obtain such information?

You can’t drive a car along 140 miles, stopping and counting birds every half mile
like it was a Breeding Bird Survey. In many places, the river is too narrow for even
a traditional strip census. However, habitats on adjoining private, state and
federal land form integral parts of the broad ecosystem with the National River at
its flowing heart.

For example, Big Piney and Sylamore Ranger Districts of the Ozark National Forest
adjoin the Buffalo in several places. The Forest Service conducts annual surveys of
land birds (Scarlet Tanagers, Kentucky Warblers for example) to monitor forest
health. Many surveys are within 9-13 miles of the Buffalo. Land ownerships are
different, but for birds it is only about available habitat. Because of proximity
and similar habitats, these surveys shed light on the river’s importance.

Participants who collected data for the Arkansas Breeding Bird Atlas examined summer
bird populations statewide, with survey blocks along the Buffalo’s length.
Unpublished data shows numerous bird species along the river. These include fairly
rare summer species like Bald Eagle and Cerulean Warbler to more widespread ones
like Green Heron and Wood Thrush.

The Float is another way to assess the river’s importance to birds. I am not
referring to boatloads of Missouri college frats on Spring Break, with a case of
beer and a gallon of Jim Bean. I’m talking about floats with a technical eye for

Some folks from Arkansas State University took The Float in 2000 looking for
Swainson’s Warblers. They systematically hauled out at likely-looking bottomlands
with dense stands of river cane. The Buffalo is a key habitat in the Arkansas
Ozarks. They found Swainson’s in at least 4 places.

How does the Buffalo serve in the effort for recovery of Bald Eagles? When I
contacted veteran floaters like Jim and Suzie Liles, data flowed. More came from
frequent floater Carl Jones and from former Arkansas Audubon Society President Jack
Stewart. Current AAS VP Adam Schaffer and UA student Mitchell Pruitt observed 1-2
eagles viewed during the annual Johnson Advanced Ecology Camp in July 2014.

Obviously, the Buffalo is solidly a player in the eagle recovery business.

Buffalo’s importance to birds (part 4, conclusion)

The Ozark Society was founded by Dr Neil Compton. Under his leadership, it aroused
opposition to proposed dams and campaigned for a National Park. According to Dr
Compton, “The struggle to save the Buffalo River in the Arkansas Ozarks brought to
the fore manifestations of a worldwide plague generated by the hand and mind of
man.” The plague continues.

Out on the Buffalo, I’m enjoying a Louisiana Waterthrush, just arrived from the
south. Down river, untreated waste from an industrial-scale hog rearing operation is
spread on fields, then percolates through cracked limestone bedrock, headed as
polluted groundwater for the Buffalo National River.

The international agri giant Cargill, known in other respects for environmental
sensitivity, backs this operation. It’s a real head scratcher. What point is Cargill
trying to make here?

Echoing Dr Compton, conservative columnist Mike Masterson says, “review the permit”
that allows untreated waste to reach what he has called “our sacred Buffalo.” The
birds have a say in this, too.

I can go almost anywhere on the Buffalo in summer and find Acadian Flycatchers in
shady moist woods and Broad-winged Hawks soaring. Camping on a gravel bar in June, I
wake to a dawn chorus. Hard to pick out all these native Greeters-of-the-Sun, but
warblers include at least Prothonotary, Black-and-white, Kentucky, Hooded,
Worm-eating, Yellow-throated, Northern Parula, Yellow-breasted Chat; plus
Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-throated Vireo. A Belted Kingfisher
rattles back-and-forth along the river, with a nest in a high bank topped with river

As riverine specialists, Louisiana waterthrushes rely upon aquatic invertebrates as
prey and riparian habitat features for nesting. UA-Fayetteville graduate student
Leesia Marshall initiated a study focused on how waterthrushes respond when their
habitat becomes degraded. Her dissertation, “Territories, territoriality, and
conservation of the Louisiana Waterthrush and its habitat, the watershed of the
upper Buffalo National River” demonstrated that as riparian habitat deteriorated due
to pollution, land clearing, and other disturbances, waterthrushes attempted to
compensate loss of habitat quality by lengthening their territories.

Habitat loss equals fewer waterthrushes. It’s the canary in the coal mine, or in
this case, waterthrushes in the Buffalo watershed, what Neil Compton was warning
about: “If we in our great wisdom cannot develop insight enough to control that
affliction, we might well become the principal agents in the ruination of our only
possible home in the universe.”

That’s what the birds are telling us. The Eastern Phoebe at its nest in the mouth of
a cave, the dawn chorus from a gravel bar, Ovenbirds singing along a hiking trail,
Northern Rough-winged Swallows zipping overhead during a float, Wood Ducks at Boxley
Mill Pond; these are the celestial messages.

The Buffalo is a place in the Natural State where the birds and these messages are
unmistakable. We listen and act, or like waterthrushes in Leesia Marshall’s
research, pay a price for what amounts to vandalism of the only place we may call

Joe Neal

Loons at lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma, March 12, 2015

Calm days this week permitted me to make two trips to Tenkiller Lake in northeastern
Oklahoma (about one hour from Fayetteville). I counted 299 Common Loons on Tuesday
March 10 and 196 on March 11; on the second day, with David Chapman. We speculated
the missing 100 loons may be migrating, as are other birds. On Tuesday, first
Northern Rough-winged Swallows; on Wednesday, first Tree Swallow and Fish Crows.
Loons are in heavy molt. I had begun to notice birds with that pattern of
black-and-white checks on their backs on February 25. Most birds still look much
like the brownish grays and whites of winter, but closer looks shows black-and-white
appearing on many backs and on Tuesday, first birds with heads mostly black, but
still patchy from molt. Lots of yodeling, too. Most of the Horned Grebes still look
like winter, but now some have acquired their black heads and golden horns. Besides
Common Loons, we have also observed a few Red-throated and Pacific Loons.

Joe Neal



AVIAN ECHOES is the name Jerry and Norma Stillwell gave their new home in Fayetteville in

September 1950, six miles from the UA campus AND two miles from the pavement.

They were birding luminaries sixty years ago. The growing post-WWII US birding community knew them from their highly professional and well-received field recordings of wild birds. When they settled in Arkansas, the Stillwells were in the middle of a 12-year, 180,000 mile journey that would result in three ground-breaking long-playing records: BIRD SONGS OF DOORYARD, FIELD AND FOREST (2 for eastern US, 1 for western).

Today that house is in the city, on pavement, just past the Mt Comfort church, on Hughmount Road. That much has changed, but their bird recordings are fresh as the day they were recorded.

Doug James knew them early in his career and invited them to give a program at the very first fall meeting ever held by Arkansas Audubon Society — at Lake Wedington in the Ozark National Forest west of Fayetteville, October 4-6, 1957. According to the AAS newsletter: “Friday evening everyone traveled to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Stillwell near Fayetteville to listen to their impeccably accurate recorded reproductions of bird sounds, which were accompanied by colored slides of birds, followed by refreshments… Saturday afternoon the Society enjoyed a visit with the Stillwells and with Dr. William Baerg, the author of Birds of Arkansas.”

Jerry was born in Kansas in 1888, Norma, also a Kansan, in 1894. Norma would eventually write the book BIRD SONGS (1964). According to Norma, “I grew up under a mulberry tree, whose fruits are doubtless the best natural lure for the greatest variety of birds. Not until I met Jerry, as a classmate at the university in Lawrence, did I begin to realize there are many kinds of birds in addition to robins, redbirds, and ‘Jenny-wrens’”

After our honeymoon Jerry began telling friends that, sometime after meeting him, I had thrown away my violin and bought a bird book. I gave away my violin after he had given me the bird book.”

Early in Jerry’s career as a mechanical engineer, he was an instructor at UA-Fayetteville (1921-1922) in Heat Power Engineering. The couple lived below campus, on west Dickson Street. Starting in 1926, Jerry found a career as a technical editor for the American Petroleum Institute in Dallas, which became home base.

He got his first Brush recorder on March 20, 1948. On March 31, while Jerry was at work, Norma successfully recorded a Northern Cardinal in their yard. “There flashed in both our minds the dream of a new hobby: recording bird songs on tape…”


WHEN IN 1950 JERRY AND NORMA STILLWELL PURCHASED AVIAN ECHOES, their country home near Mt Comfort in Fayetteville, they were 62 and 56 years old respectively, and retired from everything except collecting and publishing bird songs. They traveled North America during the avian nesting season, then returned to Fayetteville to relax and edit.

According to Norma, “Bird songs are more varied and they vary in more ways than we had dreamed.”

In 1955, for example, they were gone six months while exposing nearly eight miles of reel to reel tape. This was edited in their living room to 40 minutes on an eventual LP, 5-10 percent of what was recorded in the field.

Editing meant, not digital keystrokes, but cutting with scissors, rejoining with actual tape. Laborious to be sure, but they had fun. On one LP Norma says “The quick three beers of an Olive sided Flycatcher is loud. It should bring quick service.”


My Sony PCM-10 recorder uses two small batteries, stores hours of bird songs internally, has stero mics, and fits in my shirt pocket. The Stillwells required a truck and later a loaded station wagon.

Jerry the mechanical engineer is at a suitcase-sized reel-to-reel recorder, an even larger switch box with all manner of important-looking plugs, wires, dials and knobs to manipulate power supply and recording levels. Up to several thousand feet of electrical cable are plugged into an outlet, plus cable reeled out to Norma managing a parabolic reflector oriented to the bird of desire, microphone mounted on a tripod.

Today, NASA could launch a moon shot with so much gear. Indeed, the Stillwells were exploring space, though not everyone recognized the unknown avian landscape.


They sent recordings to one potential publisher who wrote back, “In this business, when there is a price tag on a few bird notes, they just use any kind of bird, or none at all…” Norma rejoined, “By this time we could have told that sound-effects director that it takes even more than a good engineer and a high quality tape recorder to obtain a good recording of a wild bird song.

We decided that radio director wouldn’t have recognized our bird-song pearls … It is this attitude which causes them to use a mourning dove song and call it a screech-owl, or the screams of an eagle with a picture of a heron …”

In Fayetteville they made friends including entomologist Dr William Baerg, tarantula expert who published two books on Arkansas birds (1931, 1951), and Eloise Baerg, “a pillar of the cultural and religious circles … sympathetic to birders.”

Norma also found a special friend. “Evangeline Archer and I were kindred souls in our love of wild flowers and hatred of billboards.” Within a few years, Evangeline would be a key leader in the fight to protect the Buffalo River from dams and create the nation’s first National River.



In the 1950s, Jerry and Norma Stillwell used the living room of their Fayetteville home, Avian Echoes, as an editing studio and generally as a retreat from bird recording travels across North America. However, they also taped local birds.

One Fayetteville subject was American Goldfinch, published on their first LP, BIRD SONGS OF DOORYARD, FIELD AND FOREST (1952). To reinforce learning, Norma imitates in a lilting voice two main songs, followed by recordings that, though from 60 years ago, are as clear as yesterday. In the background: Northern Bobwhites, Mourning Doves, American Crows, and chickens from nearby broiler houses. The poultry industry was then just beginning.

All recordings are introduced, and variations in songs explained, with Jerry and Norma swapping duties as in their field work. First up is Northern Cardinal, recorded in Jerry’s home town Erie, Kansas. Jerry explains, “No wonder the cardinal is popular. He’s a friendly dooryard bird with a variety of musical songs with glides and crescendos, lyrics of a prima donna.”

Between 1952 and 1956, they published three LPs with songs and calls of 165 species. Where it was useful, they included multiple songs, often placing songs of similar species together to illustrate technical differences and sometimes manipulating tape speed to reveal internal song structure.

Introducing Ovenbirds, Norma claims one sings “Keep keep keep” while the neighbor sings “Keep it keep it keep it.” Providing an example of complexity in Veerys, Jerry slows the tape, producing a one octave drop, like a track from 2001 Space Odyssey. The Stillwells were for sure exploring space for ornithological education.

Off the road and back from months of recording, I can easily imagine the Stillwells at Avian Echoes, trying to figure out what to say as introductions to voices of their avian treasures. There must have been fun in the work of cutting plastic tape and putting it back together since the final products are replete with colloquial humor, the sort always shared on good field trips.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds must have frogs in their throats” says Norma.

Jerry thinks flickers say, “IF IF IF.”

Gambel’s Quail call, “Where are you all?” according to Norma.

Jerry views the Red-headed Woodpecker as “a mischievous chatterbox.”

And Norma, who was studying violin when she met Jerry, views Northern Mockingbirds as “musical acrobats.”

Think back to 1948, when the Stillwells started their odyssey. There was no Arkansas Audubon Society. No iPhones with instantly available MP3 recordings of 800 bird species. Field recordings of birds had been ongoing since 1931, but it was tough.

So you know when in February 1954 the Stillwells visited Little Rock as guests of Herb Daniels, then president of what is now Central Arkansas Audubon Society (then Pulaski County Audubon) their recordings must have made a deep impression. There was a dinner in the Stillwell’s honor. According to Norma, “We gave a bird-song recital for a gathering of folks who expressed heart-warming appreciation.”

Wouldn’t you like to have been there.


THE BOOK OF SONGBIRDS by Leon Hausman, published in 1956, was an ambitious effort at environmental education for children. The format is 9 x 12 inches, sold for $1.95, with wonderful Ned Smith paintings of common species. Inside covers are paintings of bird nests. The bluebird box opening is a label of a “78 RPM recording of authentic bird songs… captured by recording in their natural habitats” by Jerry and Norma Stillwell.

Starting in the late 1940s, the Stillwells traveled North America collecting bird songs “in their natural habitats.” Since fall of 1950, they had returned from these journeys to Avian Echoes, their home in Fayetteville. Here they relaxed, edited miles of tape, and created three of LPs, BIRD SONGS OF DOORYARD, FIELD AND FOREST (1952, 1953, and 1956).


In the summer of 1958, the Stillwells sold Avian Echoes and returned to Dallas.

Spring 1959 found them along the Atlantic coast north to Maine, working on a hoped for fourth LP. Unfortunately, in some places they found that “summer homes had … completely monopolized the land. The few shorebirds were wary and silent.”

Norma would write a charming and often humorous account of these travels, sparing neither joys nor travails: BIRD SONGS, ADVENTURES AND TECHNIQUES IN RECORDING THE SONGS OF AMERICAN BIRDS (1964).

The scenery was wonderful along the Atlantic, but the shore birds we had hoped for failed to cooperate. At last it became clear that our dream of a record of water and game birds was not to be, for us.”

And now Jerry was sick. After a long hospital stay, the technical guy of this dynamic duo died in Dallas, September 1959.

No maudlin adieu, BIRD SONGS is pure celebration, as good in 2015 as 1964. Like Kenn Kaufmann in KINGBIRD HIGHWAY (1997), she shares a passion that the inexorable passage of time cannot diminish.

Back in those years before Avian Echoes, and before bird song recordings, Norma was a botanist. Native plants, and the connection to the health of native birds, are palpable in BIRD SONGS. She had published KEY AND GUIDE TO NATIVE TREES, SHRUBS AND WOODY VINES OF DALLAS COUNTY in 1939. I’ll bet she returned to it, after Jerry and bird songs. Someone in the Texas botany/birding community will have the details.

This is a life’s work, after all. No doubt she pursued it until her own passing, in October 1978.

As far as I know, there is ONE circulating copy of BIRD SONGS in the Natural State of Arkansas – a few used copies available on line. ZERO circulating copies of the vinyl LPs in Arkansas – check interlibrary loans.  Cassette tapes with modest sound quality problems ($8.95 + shipping). MP3 files can be downloaded from iTunes. Mitchell Pruitt told me yesterday the ones he listened to sound good.

Younger recorders now scout the shores and crouch in the bulrushes,” according to Norma. Here’s hoping. Go git ’em you bulrush crouchers. North America is ready for you now.

–Joe Neal March 2015

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PHOTOS The three black and white photos are reproduced from BIRD SONGS (Norma says the country road was at Avian Echoes.) The Stillwells owned a home in Fayetteville from 1950 to 1958. Color photos are from Avian Echoes as it looks in March 2015. The rock house has been remodeled, but still recognizable as the Stillwell place of 60 years ago. There are lots of flowers and shrubs over the place, perhaps planted by Norma. The old bird box is what remains of many 25 years ago when today’s owners bought the place. The pond, an old workshop that Jerry used, and foundations of a brooder house – all mentioned by Norma – these also remain.

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