Monday, May 28, 2007

Bald Knob NWR, Arkansas

This morning started with somewhat of a surprise. There were no set-in-stone plans, so with that unexpected freedom Ted offered to take me to a National Wildlife Refuge I never knew existed. Up the road a bit is the town of Bald Knob, home to the 14,800 acre Bald Knob NWR.

Entering Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1993.

Ted, who grew up in Bald Knob, explained the area used to be all bottomland forest along the Little Red River. It was cleared acre by acre for farmland, primarily rice and soy bean, and at some 20,000 acres in its heyday, it became the largest farm in Arkansas (possibly the midwest, and who knows, possibly the U.S.). But at one point, and under some circumstance, the family lost the farm when the insurance company foreclosed on it. The government eventually purchased it to establish a refuge, predominantly for migratory waterfowl.

A male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher greeted us near the entrance.

It is an amazing refuge with a variety of habitats, which translates into very interesting wildlife watching, especially birding. In our 3 hours on the refuge we saw about 50 species of birds. I bet we would easily have seen more if we got there earlier and spent more time hiking around, but since this was an exploratory trip we mostly cruised along with a couple key stops in different habitat types.

Former rice field growing into shrubby "old field." Look close and you'll see a
Dickcissel perched on a bare stem, near the center of the picture.

One of the first things you notice is how flat the area is, and how the former farmlands are transitioning to shrubby areas. In addition to Killdeer and Mourning Doves we found lots of Dickcissels.

Dickcissel launches off of a young oak tree. The refuge managers are reforesting
4,000 acres of the refuge and there are hundreds of small trees already planted.

Dickcissels are among my favorite birds, probably because we don't regularly see them in the east. Unfortunately, I didn't have a scope so I didn't get any close-up shots of any birds.

A slough populated with cypress trees. Looks a bit like the
Cache River,which isn't too far (as the Ivory-bill flies).

We came to a small slough which looks suspiciously like Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat. Although connected through various corridors to the White River NWR, this habitat is pretty small and remote. We did see and hear various forest birds (Eastern Wood-pewee, Pileated Woodpecker) along with species that like shrubs (more Dickcissels, Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Yellowthroat).

The Little Red runs on the other side of the levee on the left,
a field of replanted trees on the right.

The road eventually follows the Little Red River for a bit, so we had a riparian forest following the river on one side and flat, shrubby, ex-farmland on the other. That makes for an interesting mix of species: Prothonotary Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers on one side, Indigo Buntings and Field Sparrows on the other.

Black Rat Snake crossing to the other side (I have no answer to "why did he cross?").
He just froze when I got out to photograph him, rather than immediately disappear.

And in the middle? We watched a Black Rat Snake crossing the road. When I got out to take a picture, he just froze and didn't move. As we drove around him he finally disappeared into the grass. This was not our only Black Rat Snake encounter for the day, but the other one is for another post - stay tuned for that one!

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird was foraging a bit,
then perched, and eventually toppled over backwards.

One of the most interesting parts of the morning was watching a Ruby-throated Hummingbird foraging on a Raspberry bramble. But something was not quite right with him, at one point we thought he was resting, but he just leaned back and kept going - until he fell over backwards. He was still holding on, so he didn't drop, but he was hanging upside down. We thought he had died right in front of our eyes.

I walked in and took him out of the bush, he was still alive but looked pretty out of it - mellow, somewhat drunk. Maybe he'd been feeding on some fermented nectar? Maybe he was actually sick? He sat in Ted's hands for a few moments while I took some pictures, then he lifted off and headed back into the Raspberry bush. We didn't see where he landed, but his flight seemed steady and directed, although we didn't see where he ended up. He plowed right through the bush and disappeared from our view. Hope he is OK!

So, from me, a big thank you to Ted! It was a great morning to be outdoors, especially in such a wonderful area. I can't wait to go back, maybe when all the wintering ducks and Bald Eagles are back. And next time I'll bring a scope so I can digiscope some birds. The full trip list will be posted shortly.
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