Goodbye, Autumn: Playing Catch-up in Pine Bluff

So, we are saying goodbye to Autumn.  Most of our long distance migrants are settled.  The leaves have fallen for the most part.  And, the feeders are crowded with winter sparrows.  The cycle continues.

At the beginning of the year I decided to focus on county birding, especially Jefferson County in South-Central Arkansas.  My birth county happens to be one of the most bird diverse counties in the state.  The county features the AR River and isn’t terribly far from the MS River.  The land is flat and low, featuring several bayous meandering through bottomland hardwoods with patches of coniferous and agricultural fields.  Within the last couple of days I visited Lake Saracen (Northeastern Pine Bluff) and Wilbur West Wetlands (Southern Pine Bluff).

I hit Lake Saracen close to dawn (I missed dawn because I slept in) to try and catch some calling rails.  Pine Bluff usually hosts overwintering Soras and Virginia Rails.  These are uncommon to rare winter residents.  They are somewhat common in the reed beds during April in the spring migration.  Two years ago, I found 4 Virginia Rails in these beds in late December and early January.  Unfortunately, I did not get rails but I did get several other good species.  The trip started on the N/S leg of the trail on the east bank.  A heavy fog had set in on the lake as the sun had risen on this near-freezing day, so birds on the water were shielded.  However, there were several water birds close to shore.  I watched Pied-billed Grebes dive next to bank dwelling American Coots and co-diving Buffleheads.  Around the lake’s southeastern island, near my starting point, I found a few White Pelicans, a Great Egret, and the only Great Blue Heron of the day.  A mixed raft of ducks swam around it and I found Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, and two male Hooded Mergansers.  The small tract of bottomland forest that is just east of my starting point was alive with the sound of birds.  The “old, sam, Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” song of the White-throated Sparrow was the most prominent.  As I approached a group of blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds, flew into it, giving the chorus a crescendo.  I walked alongside and watched Yellow-rumped Warblers chase each other around the edges of the woods.  Among them was a calling Orange-crowned Warbler that focused on these white berries borne from a tree (I originally thought that these were snowberries but I don’t think these get to tree proportions).  Sparrows and wrens flew about in the understory.  Carolina Wrens sang, while Winter Wrens gave their “tew-tew” calls.  This low tract of woods holds water during the winter which attracts all kinds of birds.  Today the show stealer was a Hermit Thrush that called near the wooded puddles.  I moved on to an open area, my focus was on the landward side for the fog was quite thick.  I could hear a distant Killdeer but it was from a distant field and not the one I was watching.  Northern Flickers called and flew over this open area from woods to woods.  Several mockingbirds called and chased each other.  As I moved closer to the approaching wetland, I paid closer attention to the rocky shore of the lake.  The shore had a lot of vegetation:  buttonbush, white berry shrub, dying herbaceous hibiscus, and grasses.  Within this vegetation were several Song Sparrows, two of which were singing.  Yellow-rumped Warblers flew in to join them as did several pairs of Northern Cardinals.  I only found one Savannah Sparrow in this section which is usually full of them.

Orange-crowned Warbler on mysterious white berry (surrounding leaves are of Ampelopsis cordata)

Orange-crowned Warbler on mysterious white berry (surrounding leaves are of Ampelopsis cordata)

American White Pelican group on SE island

American White Pelican group on SE island

Once I reached the wetlands I had to pause to catch up my tallies.  At this point the fog was clearing and flocks of geese were flying east while flocks of Double-crested Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls were flying west, toward the lake.  The first flock of geese was all Snow Geese (about 10% were blue morph).  There were about 5 more flocks that flew over and every other one contained a small portion of Greater White-fronted Geese.  Smaller regiments of Canada Geese took shorter flights to the nearby RC field.  The wetland, similar to the first tract of forest was alive with birds.  They were most of the same.  Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers flew about the snags of the wetland.  A House Wren (not the most common winter resident in the county) called from the edges of the wetland along with a singing Fox Sparrow.  A few Swamp Sparrows called here and there but were not as abundant as usual.  More Winter Wrens and Carolina Wrens were present here.  As the fog cleared even more I could see larger rafts of Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads.  A Belted Kingfisher flew down the power lines that lined the banks.  The next set of woods was like the first but much larger.  However, this was much less birdy.  I did pick up Carolina Chickadee and Brown Creeper from these woods.  Ruby-crowned Kinglets joined the calls among these woods.  The silence was probably due, in part, to the presence of two raptors nearby.  There was a buteo hawk at the edge of the woods that seemed to be harassed by either Blue Jays, Fish Crow, or American Crow.  All three of these corvids were prevalent throughout.  Past the woods, and in a open ball field, was a female American Kestrel that was hanging out on a power line.

Song Sparrow near wetlands

Song Sparrow near wetlands

I made it to the reed bed to find dozens of Red-wings and a singing Marsh Wren.  A few more Ring-billed Gulls were revealed as the fog rolled away but there was still surprisingly little activity on the water.  I took a 90-degree, left turn to continue on the E/W leg of the trail.  I only followed this for a 1/4-mile but picked up several species along a thin bayou that separated the lake from an agricultural field.  This field held tons of doves, both Rock and Mourning.  Probably hundreds of sparrows filled the dense vegetation that lined the bayou on either side.  Most of these birds were Song, White-throated, Fox Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbirds, recently arrived Common Grackles, Northern Flickers, Northern Mockingibirds, and American Goldfinches.  I returned the way I came and watched a large group of ducks fly eastward, headed to the AR River and its oxbow:  Lake Langhofer.  Based on shape and size, I believe these ducks to be Canvasback; however, I wasn’t sure enough to count them.  Canvasback are pretty common on the lake during the winter so this wouldn’t be a stretch.

Red-winged Blackbird probably immature

Red-winged Blackbird probably immature

After I hit the main trail, I ventured to a newly developed part of the lake.  This part is on the west bank, near the mouth of Brump Bayou.  I think the plan is to create a trail that winds all the way around the lake.  This area has a nice boardwalk that goes over the bayou’s mouth.  I’ve only birded this section during the fall/winter seasons so I’m not sure of its full potential.  I think it would be a nice place to check for rails in the spring because of its reed covered banks, as well as warblers that are passing through because the banks have mature, deciduous woods that are only separated by a thin bayou.  As for the winter, it holds Dark-eyed Juncos (are actually quite uncommon on the main trail) and Eastern Towhees, as well as the usual bunch.  A couple of coots meandered among the reeds while a Pied-billed dove around the boardwalk’s supports.  I left Lake Saracen with 53 species.

Ruddy Duck male in basic plumage

Ruddy Duck male in basic plumage

The next day I decided to chase a report of Virginia Rail and Sedge Wren at Wilbur West Wetlands.  This was a short trip that yielded neither bird.  However, I did pick up an overwintering Common Yellowthroat in buttonbushes of the main water.  A little further down I picked up an overwintering American Bittern.  The bittern is common at this site during the spring.  I have seen as many as four of them along the willow groves.  Also among the willows were Song, Swamp, Fox, and White-throated Sparrows.  An Eastern Phoebe hunted from above while a Winter Wren and Carolina Chickadee joined the sparrows below, near the water level.  A resident Red-tailed Hawk kept a close eye on the area so the birds weren’t too active.  We left the area with only about 16 species, making the two day total 58.  The bittern was the only new species for the year.

American Bittern

American Bittern

Over Thanksgiving break, I visited several Central American countries and did some extensive birding on one of the days.  This post is coming up.

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