Sunday, December 30, 2012

Arkansas interlude

A very poor photo of a loggerhead shrike

Every spring and fall, there is are a couple of weeks where yellow-rumped warblers are so numerous they almost seem to have taken over the trees. My first yellow-rumped sighting of each season is always exciting; then, after a while, they're just birds I'm sorting through in my search for "really good" warblers. I know, birding has so many insights into the human condition.

One things I've never consciously asked myself, during this biannual influx of butter butts, is where they are all going. I knew that they were vaguely heading "north" in the spring and "south" in the fall, and that was enough for me. (At least some of them are heading for Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the breeding season, as I have seen them there in July.)

And in the fall, they are heading to Arkansas. It probably should not have surprised me as they are fairly hardy little warblers (last February I found one here in Illinois at the Morton Arboretum), but still, I was not expecting yellow rumps and yet found them by the dozens.

Greenturtle and I had to make a quick trip down to his family in Arkansas last week due to a sad occasion (his step-father unexpectedly passed away), but while there, I did find time to grab my binoculars and stroll through a park a couple of times.

One day, I visited the Bona Dea Trails in Russellville, a swampy sort of place where, on a previous trip, I saw a prothontary warbler. This time, as I walked through the pines and skirted the ponds, I saw many of the birds that migrate through Illinois or winter here in modest numbers: yellow-bellied sapsucker, golden and ruby-crowned kinglegs, white-throated sparrows, winter wrens, American robins and yellow-rumped warblers were all well represented.

In one pond, I saw a flock of gadwall that were so beautiful in the sunshine that it took me a moment to realize what they were. I'd never noticed how shimmery their plumage is or how they are not colored dull brown but with an exquisite cinnamon wash. A red-shouldered hawk and a pair of pileated woodpeckers rounded out a good morning of birding.

The day before I left, while Greenturtle was running some errands, I strolled around another park in Russellville, over by the dam with some dirt bike trails, where I was excited to see black vultures (which I have not seen since 2007 when Sunwiggy and I went to Texas), and then a life bird, brown-headed nuthatch.

As the day's errands looked like they were going to stretch on for a while, I then went to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, which on a previous trip had yielded a life bird, Mississippi kite.

This stroll was much more pleasant, as none of the mosquitoes which had plagued us last time were active. I also find Holla Bend to be a more familiar-looking territory, as it is a flat expanse of alluvial floodplain--a wide open space filled with sparrows.

In addition to numerous white-throateds, I saw a lot of fox and song sparrows, along with a single Savannah and a pair of Henslow's. A hermit thrush made an appearance. Flocks of meadowlarks flitted over the grasses, while higher up, northern harriers drifted back and forth on silent wings. Even higher, a bald eagle soared by.

Waterfowl included green-winged teal, gadwall, ring-necked ducks, American coots and a pied-billed grebe. More black vultures perched in the trees, while the Arkansas River presented vast flocks of American white pelican and double-crested cormorant.

For the best sighting of the trip, I pulled the camera out of the trunk; alas, all of that rummaging around scared the bird to such a distance that only diligent zooming and cropping brought him out: a loggerhead shrike, not a life bird (I saw one in Texas), but still his appearance seemed like a particular gift to me at that particular moment.

The Arkansas Interlude kind of ruined my plans for summing up my year in Illinois, but that's the great thing about birding. There's always something to go out and see.


  1. I wish I could magically teleport myself to Russellville, Arkansas, tomorrow. It will be January the First, when every bird is new again, and we begin our 2013 Year Bird List. I'm hoping to "get" 20 birds tomorrow to start mine; it sounds like Russellville could easily offer up 50! But, as you wrote, "there's always something to go out and see," even here in the cold, dark, and snowy UP! Wish I'd seen your brownheaded nuthatch! MOM

  2. My species list for the trip (which was three days in and around Russellville and Dardanelle) was 66, with some really "choice" birds, as I mentioned. It didn't compare to my trips to Texas, but it was a nice change of pace in the winter birding.