If spring migration is nigh, can bobolinks be far behind?
The approach of April fills the hearts of Arkansas’s bird lovers. Here come the painted buntings! Warblers! Scissor-tailed flycatchers! Rose-breasted grosbeaks!
“Rose-breasted what?” If “what” is your question, here is your answer: The (male) rose-breasted grosbeak is a fat-billed, black-headed, white-bellied bird with a splash of deep rose across the breast as if someone hit it with a paintball. But if your question is “Rose-breasted where?” then that means you want to see one. The Arkansas Times is here to help.
Around 422 species have been seen in Arkansas (the number changes as new species are sighted or lumped or split taxonomically). Some live here, some travel through every year, some are lost and as shocked to see you as you are to see them.
North American bird populations are down by a tragic, staggering 30 percent since the 1970s, which is why you need to see them now before they, and the world with them, have gone to hell in a handbasket.
The first thing you have to do to see a bird is open your eyes. We all know those things with wings are in our yards, on our wires, at the neighbor’s feeder, but we may not bother to actually see them; they may just register in our minds as “bird.” So really look at the bird. As the saying goes, the eye can’t see what the mind doesn’t know. Then consult a field guide, like the Sibley guide or Roger Tory Peterson’s.
It’s also a good idea to find a birder.
Birders are better than books at helping you find the birds. Almost all are enthusiastic about sharing their passion with new avian aficionados, and their fine-tuning is essential to accurate identification. They’ll teach you how to pish up (that’s a sound, psh) a common yellowthroat warbler, how to tell a distant caracara from a trash bag.
But how to identify a birder? Consider:
Is there a woodcock in their freezer?
Is their car littered with muddy boots, bird books, tortilla chips and cans of bug spray?
Do their faces light up at the forecast of a big storm or hurricane winds?
Do they frequent sewer treatment plants?
Have you ever seen them saying psh, psh, psh to a bush?
Do they slow nearly to a stop in the middle of a country road/city street/interstate highway when a hawk flies over?
If the answer is yes to those questions, you may have a birder on your hands.
Here’s another way: a field guide to the birders. Like any field guide, ours tells you where to find birders (habitat), how to identify them (field marks), where they go to see birds (range), what you might hear them say (song) and a narrative to inspire you to join the flock. Follow along with a bird guide and look up the birds they talk about.
Note: Those mentioned here are just a smattering of Arkansas’s best birders. There are hundreds; to include them all would require volumes.
The Arkansas Times Field Guide to the Birders
Life history: Fort Smith native, retired wildlife biologist for the USDA Forest Service, author of “The Birdside Baptist” and other books.
Habitat: “Northwest Arkansas City” (his description of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville corridor), prairies.
Range: Oklahoma on the west, Missouri (Prairie State Park) on the north, the Buffalo National River on the east and the Arkansas River Valley and Ouachita Mountains on the south.
Field marks: Winter plumage is a “Birder’s Buddy” vest and a green duck hunter’s cap.
Song: Western Arkansas-Eastern Oklahoma bass twang.
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 10×32.
Favorite place to bird in Arkansas: Tallgrass Prairie in Oklahoma (it’s a mere 361 miles from Fort Smith, nothing if you want to see a prairie chicken).
Best place to bird in spring after a downpour and when he’s short on time: Lake Fayetteville, Wilson Springs Preserve, Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary (all 5 miles from his house).
Life list: Around 500 species.
Favorite bird: Upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).
“You can’t beat an upland sandpiper,” Neal said. The tall, skinny, big-eyed shorebird is the “ultimate grassland bird,” he said, and “very charismatic.” Its call has been described as a wolf whistle, and its trill is a sopranic rise and fall. Lucky for Neal, he can hear them call as they fly over his Fayetteville home during their spring migration to North Dakota and Canada.
“Northwest Arkansas is mostly famous for the Hogs — they are a fairly recent addition,” Neal said, “and secondly famous for the Ozarks.” But it once had enough prairie that the upland sandpiper nested there. The prairies are disappearing thanks to development but you can still find upland sandpipers in migration in the Arkansas River Valley, Chesney Prairie in Siloam Springs and in western Benton County.
Neal’s own bird guide was the late and much admired University of Arkansas biology professor Doug James, with whom Neal authored “Birds of Arkansas: Their Distribution and Abundance.” “He totally changed my life,” Neal said, and was responsible for turning hundreds of Arkansans on to the delight of birds.
Life history: Freelance writer, native to Conway, fled nest for Little Rock, author of “A Birder’s Guide to Arkansas” and “Angry Birds: 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, and Furious.”
Habitat: Mid-century brick, Hall High School neighborhood.
Field marks: Bearded, near wine on territory, often seen in wrinkly blue jeans and in company with mate, Hope Coulter.
Song: A trumpet trying to sound like a flugelhorn.
Binoculars: Leica Ultra 10×42.
Favorite place to bird in Arkansas: Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge.
Life list: Around 2,800 species.
Favorite bird: American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla).
Mel White has birded all over the world, thanks to a career freelancing for National Geographic and other publications (he’s also a past editor of the Arkansas Times). But he doesn’t have to leave his yard to see good birds, and he says that’s true for everyone. “I don’t think people realize how many birds they can see if they just pay attention in their own neighborhood. You don’t have to drive two hours to go birding,” he said.
White and his wife, Hope Coulter, like to sit on their deck in spring “with our wine and our binoculars.” When the American redstart, a black and orange warbler that often fans its tail just so you can find it, shows up in spring, “it’s a nice little reminder that we haven’t totally screwed up the world,” he said. Tiny brown-headed nuthatches, which sound like rubber duckies when squeezed (according to Cornell Lab ears), visit their pines; a great-horned owl has nested nearby, as have proprioceptive Cooper’s hawks, “all right here half a mile from Park Plaza.” His yard list alone, which includes flyovers, totals 122 species.
White has had such terrific experiences in the field as having a lammergeier (an African vulture) fly so close to him on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro that he could hear the wind over its wings, and an early morning up-close-and-personal visit by an ornate hawk eagle on top of a Mayan pyramid in Belize. Seeing nature unedited — and not on a “stupid TV show” — is the reward of birding, he said: “You saw it and it really happened and it was nature and nature works so beautifully.” But it was his childhood copy of the “Burgess Bird Book for Children” and his recognition of a scarlet tanager in Boyle Park as a college student that triggered the birding habit. (Coulter’s “spark bird” was the red-billed, blue-capped, yellow-legged purple gallinule she saw in the bayou in back of her home in Alexandria, La., White said. She thought it had escaped from the zoo.)
If you want to see a bunch of different birds in Arkansas, White said, there’s no place like the Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge on the Arkansas River near Dardanelle, hands down his favorite Arkansas birding spot: “Think about it. It’s got the Arkansas River with pelicans and eagles, it’s got grasslands for stuff like Northern harrier in the winter.” There’s swamp, for prothonotary warblers and red-headed woodpeckers; thickets for painted buntings; sparrows in the brushy fields. White suggests Cook’s Landing in North Little Rock and the River Trail — where one can find such showy birds as Baltimore orioles and scope out big birds like gulls and herons and cormorants — as a non-frustrating place for beginners who might give up if their only previous experience was a neck-throbbing search for a high-in-the-canopy parula warbler.
Life history: Native to the foothills of the Himalayas, dispersed to Arkansas in 2015, pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Habitat: Deciduous and pine forests, also frequently found in classrooms at UA Fayetteville (teaching assistant).
Range: Grasslands of Missouri, Ozarks of Arkansas.
Field marks: Covered in sound-recording equipment.
Song: Silent so she can hear better.
Binoculars: Nikon Monarch 10×40.
Favorite place to bird: Whitney Mountain near Beaver Lake.
Life list: Around 900 species.
Favorite bird: Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca).
The writings and reputation of the late University of Arkansas professor Dr. Doug James was the lure that brought Panwar from India all the way to Arkansas, where as a graduate student she’s studying whether bird song can be used to measure the health of the environment. (She’s still analyzing her data, but so far it looks like the poorer the habitat, the quieter the birds.)
Panwar quit a career as a software engineer because she was “missing so much just going outside and observing more birds,” a favorite pastime since childhood. One of her best outings in Arkansas was finding red crossbills, “really cool birds” with a bad overbite. Red crossbills are irruptive — they don’t always show up in Arkansas — and in 2016, Panwar and a colleague had the first confirmed sighting of a breeding pair in the state, high in a pine tree.
Though her research is showing the sad impact of development, the surprises that birding brings is “what keeps me going,” she said. She suggests that if you feel the call of birding that you put up a birdfeeder. “Once you start looking up close you get really fascinated by them.”
Life history: Native to Nebraska, dispersed to Central Arkansas, retired from the Bureau of Legislative Research.
Habitat: Shore of Lake Willastein in Maumelle.
Range: Worldwide, found in 54 countries so far.
Field marks: Rufous hair, otherwise camouflaged.
Song: Woooooo pig sooieee.
Binoculars: Eagle Optics 10×42.
Favorite place to bird: Craighead Forest Park (Jonesboro) for warblers, Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge for waterfowl and shorebirds.
Life list: Around 3,000 (378 in Arkansas).
Favorite bird: Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula).
Karen Holliday holds the keys to the avian kingdom for Arkansans wanting to know a bit about birds. As the field trip coordinator for the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas, Holliday leads field trips to see birds once a month (except December) and all are welcome. Though she can boast of seeing 378 species in Arkansas (and a total of 3,000 worldwide), she shares, rather than shows off, her bird knowledge. She has even created a happy dance — sort of a hula-hoop twist that she demonstrated for this writer in Starbucks — that she uses on field trips to celebrate a newbie’s first sighting of a particular bird (aka a “lifer”).
Like all who love to get out in the woods to see birds, she loves sighting wildlife, like the river otter she watched play in a stream deep in the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.
You don’t have to be a member of ASCA to join a field trip, and you don’t even have to have your own binoculars. Holliday has spares, and a good attitude, making sure everybody gets to see all the birds out there. Find the trips at wp.ascabird.org.
Life history: New England native dispersed to Fort Smith, substitute teacher at Fort Smith’s Northside High School for 20 years.
Habitat: Find along Arkansas River, Alma sewer ponds.
Range: Northwest Arkansas, including Oklahoma on west, Fort Chaffee on the south, Frog Bayou on the north, irruptive to Trinidad and Tobago.
Field marks: Zip-off hiking pants, burgundy shirt with a whooping crane on it, New England Patriots sweatshirt in winter.
Song: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Binoculars: “Cheapo” Atlas Radian 8×42.
Favorite place to bird in Arkansas: Arkansas River Valley, Frog Bayou, Kibler Bottoms, Alma sewer ponds.
Life list: Around 600 species.
Favorite bird family: Shorebirds.
Favorite bird: Chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica).
Sandy Berger is living proof that if you keep your eyes open you will see unusual things. Like the brown booby she saw last October flying over the Arkansas River with a flock of Canada geese. The seabird landed 30 feet from her. Or the Western kingbird, which when she located it years ago was the first reported in Sebastian County. She sees so many birds — rarities and residents alike — because she looks for them “every chance that I can get.”
Berger, whose love for birds took flight in Arkansas (“It was just in me waiting to get out”), said one of her favorite places to go is also the easiest: Sunnymeade Park in Fort Smith, which has a walking trail that passes by the Arkansas River. In the high grass there last fall, she found a Nelson’s sparrow, a little bird with an orange wash on its breast, taking a break from its travel south to its winter coastal home.
Like all good birders, Berger also loves a good sewer pond — not every great place to bird is scenic (see Brownsville Sanitary Landfill on the Texas Coastal Birding Trail) — and the one at Alma produces such specialties as long-tailed duck (formerly oldsquaw, a name that ruffled feathers), least terns and black-crowned night herons as well as Berger’s beloved American pipits, Lapland longspurs and horned larks.
Berger also attributes her health to birding: In 2002, a place on her neck rubbed by her binoculars strap swelled, and stayed swollen for months. She finally went to a doctor, who diagnosed her with Hodgkin lymphoma. After two years of chemotherapy treatments, she was declared clear. “I say [birding] saved my life,” Berger said.
(a.k.a. Kenny and LaDonna Nichols)
Life history: Native to Arkansas, formerly seen with miniature poodle.
Habitat: Nest above Lake Dardanelle.
Field marks: Always as a pair.
Binoculars: Bruntons, 10×42.
Favorite birding place: Prairie County minnow farms, “when the light’s low and the shorebirds are peeping and cheeping.”
Life list: 1,612 (386 in Arkansas).
Favorite birds: Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea), Baltimore oriole, etc.
Kennyandladonna, as they are known in the birding community, started looking at birds as a way to get closer to Kenny’s grandmother. After Kenny’s mother died when he was just a boy, his grandmother, a passionate birdwatcher, was so devastated she could not bring herself to visit the family in Arkansas. She and Kenny kept touch with infrequent phone calls.
But Kenny wanted more. He and LaDonna decided they would study birds so they’d have something to talk to his grandmother about on the phone, and got a birdfeeder. On Jan. 1, 1991, a yellow-bellied sapsucker came to the feeder and Kenny called his grandmother. “I kind of shocked her,” he said. “I kept keeping a list, and when I saw something new I’d call her and tell her.”
Thus were family ties strengthened and the pair, who can find super rare birds as easily and often as most people find Northern cardinals, were off and running. They had to be off, because Kenny ran out of birds at the feeder. He knew from the National Geographic field guide his grandmother gave him that there were many more to see than come to a feeder. So he asked his grandmother, who’d once lived in Searcy, where to go and she told him she’d always found a blue grosbeak past an old red barn outside town. Because that was so long ago, Kenny doubted they’d have success. But he and LaDonna went and looked just in case and, sure enough, there was a grosbeak on the fence past the barn. “We really got hooked,” Kenny said.
Flash forward to May 1, 2016, the year of the Great Oriole Descent on Arkansas. There had been a storm the night before. By morning at their lakeside home, “every tree was covered, ” with orioles, blue grosbeaks, tanagers and other songbirds: They were migrating by the thousands past Lake Dardanelle. Finding trees dripping with colorful birds outside your front door and family ties: two good reasons to take up birding.
Life history: Native to Jonesboro, noted for keen eye early in life, dispersed to Fayetteville to get a doctorate in biology.
Habitat: Urban (downtown Fayetteville), found in flocks of young birders at the University of Arkansas.
Range: Ozark Mountains.
Field marks: Long-legged, wears image of owl on cap.
Song: Notoriously silent.
Binoculars: Eagle Optics 10×42.
Favorite places to bird: Ozarks, Craighead Forest Park, Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge (Crittenden County).
Life list: 917 worldwide (331 in Arkansas).
Favorite bird: Saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus).
By the time he turned 17 in 2010, Mitchell Pruitt, a student at Valley View High School in Jonesboro, had seen between 150 and 200 bird species in Arkansas. In 2011, he decided to do a big year, a midnight Jan. 1 to midnight Dec. 31 chase to see as many species as he could. For Pruitt, that meant checking out of school to see rare birds; for his parents, it meant lots of driving.
The year took him to every corner of the state, including to the OK Levee on Lake Millwood, where he and birder Charles Mills walked for three miles in the hot summer sun to see a tricolored heron only to find it by Pruitt’s truck when they returned (see Kelly Chitwood, below). His big year count of 311 species was the fourth highest in the state, and he hadn’t even graduated from high school.
Pruitt, 25, has continued to make ornithological history with his research into saw-whet owls in Arkansas. In 2014, his undergraduate advisor, the late UA biology professor Kim Smith, wanted a student to help him determine if, as suspected, saw-whet owls migrated through Arkansas in fall. Saw-whet owls, wee black and white things that breed in the boreal forests of the north, “are notoriously silent in winter,” Pruitt said, and though they had been sighted in Arkansas, they weren’t much studied. Pruitt and Smith set up mist nets at the Ozark Natural Science Center outside Huntsville “and the first night in the field we captured a bird.” His work has confirmed that saw-whets winter in Arkansas. He’s returned every year since to continue the study; this fall will be his sixth at the mist nets.
“I encourage people not just to think about birds as this individual thing — ‘There’s a cardinal at my feeder’ — but [see] there’s a cardinal and a chickadee and a titmouse and how they fit together ecologically.”
Life history: Native to El Dorado, musician and graphic artist for El Dorado Packaging.
Habitat: Rural hilltop on 11 acres off U.S. Highway 63.
Range: Arkansas, also stages with females of species for forays to birding spots outside the state.
Field marks: Fluffy and robust, gray streaks on head.
Song: Loud southern drawl.
Binoculars: Swarovskis EL 10×42.
Favorite place to bird: Rick Evans Grandview Prairie, Columbus (Hempstead County), Boxley Valley at Ponca (Newton County).
Life list: 395.
Favorite bird: “I brake for painted buntings (Passerina ciris).”
When Kelly Chitwood was a girl, a white pelican landed in her school yard. The injured bird was rescued by Game and Fish biologists, but not before the children named her Nanette. So Chitwood was interested in birds from an early age. But it wasn’t until 15 years ago when she got Lasix surgery to correct her very poor vision that she had what she calls “an epiphany.”
“When I had that done, I swear my vision was so good I could see the leaves pulsating. That’s when I became curious about the warblers — I could see them so much better.” She decided she wanted to identify “everything that I could see.” She wants young people to see, as well, because “children today are now completely brought up with their faces on tablets and phones” rather than on the delights of nature. She took her own daughter along on field trips to see birds. “Now, when you go out with Delos McCauley,” a Pine Bluff birder, Chitwood said, “he’s going to find a snake. I’ve had him ask me, ‘Would you hold this for me while I go get my camera?’ ” and hand her a green snake. Now, Chitwood’s daughter happily handles green snakes. “Anything like that you can share with a child … maybe that will come back around.”
Like all birders worth their salt, Chitwood has braved sleet and snow to see Yankee snow buntings who strayed to Lake Millwood — after a freezing 5-mile hike on the OK Levee, Chitwood returned to find them close by her car, as luck would have it (see Mitchell Pruitt, above) — and survived a hot, thirsty climb 8 miles up the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park to see the Colima warbler. (“People were dropping like flies,” she said.) She missed the warbler, she said, so “I went ahead and bought the T-shirt.” There was also the possibility of running into another kind of creature in nature: Matthew McConaughey, said to frequent Big Bend. “That would be one to tick off the list,” Chitwood said.
Dan and Samantha Scheiman
Life history: Conservationists dispersed to Arkansas from points north and east.
Habitat: Amid native plants at a Hillcrest bungalow.
Range: North and South America, expanding to Newfoundland.
Field marks: Patches from national parks, wildlife refuges, etc., on rump (of cargo pants, Dan); oversized sweaters and caramel-colored boots (Samantha).
Song: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants (Dan); “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado (Samantha).
Binoculars: Swarovskis (10×42 for Dan, 8.5×32 for Samantha).
Favorite place to bird: Stuttgart airport (Dan); Craighead Forest Park (Samantha).
Life lists: 1,732 (363 in Arkansas, Dan), 1,625 (340 in Arkansas, Samantha).
Favorite birds: Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum, Dan); roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja, Samantha).
Shortly after moving to Little Rock for graduate school, Samantha contacted Dan Scheiman through the birder listserv maintained by the University of Arkansas to ask for a ride to Bald Knob for an Audubon bird-watching trip. “When I wasn’t looking at him, I was looking at shorebirds, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, Mississippi kites. It was very exciting,” she said. Not only did she find life birds, she found a life partner. (This writer can vouch for this mating strategy.) Once a year, the couple rises before dawn to take part in the Audubon Arkansas Birdathon, a competition to see what team can find the most species in a 24-hour period. The pledges they collect support the nonprofit, where Dan Scheiman is bird conservation director. Picture it: You get up just as most people are falling asleep, fill a thermos with coffee and a bag with lots of snacks and head out into the dark hoping to find whippoorwills and nighthawks and owls. You spill your coffee on a friend’s bird guide. You turn the snack bag upside down on the floor of the car. You yawn during the afternoon doldrums. Yet, you keep on going, aiming to get at least 100 species in Pulaski County. “It’s a pretty special day,” Samantha, who is a grants coordinator for the state Natural Heritage Commission, said. Often, Dan will go out looking for just one bird, and when he finds it clue you in. Last year, as he was buying seed at Wild Bird, he was shown a photograph of a bird and asked to identify it. Dan looked at the photograph and exclaimed, “This was in Arkansas?” It was a brambling, a European and Asian finch with a quizzical expression thanks to a band of white feathers around its eyes. He went to the home where the bird was being found, saw it and got the word out. “I don’t think he [the owner of the property] was quite prepared for the influx of birders from all over the state,” Dan said. To see a winter visitor from the Canadian tundra, head to the Stuttgart airport to see Smith’s longspur. It takes a lot of walking, and its winter plumage is nothing to get excited about, but people come from all over to see it. Dan’s advice to the interested: Study your field guide for expected species so you’ll know what you’re looking at when you find them. Go birding with an experienced birder and learn from them. Start with your yard birds, give them long looks. Then “expand your horizons.”
Where to Find the Birds in Little Rock and North Little Rock
Besides your own backyard, here are a few hotspots recommended by the Audubon Society of Central Arkansas (and a personal recommendation by the author):
Gillam Park: This former city park south of Interstate 440 on Springer Boulevard is managed by Audubon Arkansas. Its trails are great for migrating warblers and vireos and other perching birds.
Knoop Park: Take the park’s trail that circumnavigates the waterworks to see migrating warblers, bluebirds, chimney swifts and barn swallows, summer residents like indigo buntings and vireos, fall sparrows and, if you’re lucky, an owl.
Two Rivers Park: Find all manner of birds in the varied habitats — marsh, open fields, piney woods — at this city-county park between the Little Maumelle and the Arkansas River. It’s accessible by state Hwy. 10 and the River Trail.
Murray Park, the Big Dam Bridge, Cook’s Landing: Baltimore orioles nest in the sycamores, cliff swallows build their mud nests under the ramp to the Big Dam Bridge, fall migrants pass through the park, sparrows find a winter home here. From the bridge, see gulls, cormorants, great blue herons, terns and occasional rarities. Audubon has counted more than 200 species on the North Little Rock side of the Big Dam Bridge. Find ducks, grebes and geese on the Arkansas River backwater on Cook’s Landing Road, warblers along the creekside Isabella Jo Trail.
Lake Maumelle: Sadly, gone are the pre-911 days when you could set up a scope in the parking lot by the dam and see ducks, loons, eagles, grebes, herons and gulls. Fortunately, there are several other viewing areas on Lake Maumelle, including Bufflehead Bay (0.2 miles west of Hwy. 10 and the Chenal Parkway) and Loon Point (7.8 miles).
Thibault Road, Frazier Pike, Dam Site Road and David D. Terry Lock and Dam: This is one of this writer’s favorite birding routes. Birds this writer has seen from Thibault Road (Fourche Dam Pike off I-440) and the road to the dam include a merlin (regularly found in a particular tree in migration), sandhill cranes, bobolinks, dickcissels, scissor-tailed flycatchers, rusty blackbirds, red-headed woodpeckers, thrushes, grosbeaks, vireos, warblers, painted bunting … . You get the picture.
You can also find out where birds are being seen statewide by signing on to the University of Arkansas’s listserve ARBIRD-L@listserv.uark.edu, where birdwatchers post their sightings.