Lake Columbia and beyond

Lake Columbia

The primary birding hotspot in Columbia County, Arkansas, is undoubtedly Lake Columbia.  As with any non-oxbow lake in the state, this is a man-made lake created by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.  This is a fairly shallow lake that features large amounts of emergent vegetation and snags.  Looking at the lake, one may assume that it is teeming with bird life throughout the year.  It is, for the most part.  However, I have not had a huge day with water birds at this lake.  With that said, I have usually moved out of the county before the waterfowl have moved in for the winter and I arrive when they are beginning to move out.  This year I hope to participate in the Lake Columbia/Magnolia Christmas Bird Count.  The lake is so important to the area’s birdiness that it co-hosts the CBC.  During this count, I hope to find many waterfowl species.  Of the 27 CBC circles in Arkansas, this one has one of the lower turnouts of participants from year to year.  In preparation for this count, I attempted a pre-CBC big day in Columbia County.  My focal point for this big day?  If you guessed Lake Columbia, than you’re spot-on.

I split Lake Columbia into two sections:  northshore and southshore.  Unfortunately, there are several spots that I have probably missed because of my complacency.  I very rarely bird these two sections on the same day.  However, on the 15th of November, I birded the lake in its entirety, as it’s known to me.  First, I hit the southshore, birding Melvin Chambers Park and the Southshore Landing.  I drove across a little causeway to get to the park and was rewarded with several American Coots dawdling in the shallows and a sunning Double-crested Cormorant on a log.

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American Coots

I drove into the park to find a flock of Canada Geese foraging on the lawn.  Among these Canadas was the ugly gosling:  an immature Snow Goose.  Even though Snow Geese are some of the most numerous species found in Arkansas, I rejoiced.  I had not seen Snows yet this season and I had not seen a Snow in Columbia County ever.  Besides being a good tick, it was a majestic bird to watch.

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Snow Goose

I moved on, trying not to disturb the geese, and instead disturbed a group of Northern Flickers that had been foraging on the ground.  They flew up to hide in trees, showing off there golden plumage and their white rumps.  I drove on through this wooded park.  I heard many of our woodland troupe calling and singing from this open woodland.  A Pine Warbler sang its ringing song, chickadees and titmice tweeted about, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet rattled about, and the golden-crowneds “see-see-see”-ed their lungs out.  An occasional Yellow-rumped Warbler gave an obligatory “chup” while the Dark-eyed Juncos chattered about after being flushed from the roadside.  I drove around one tree and nearly had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker fly into the open window of my car.  It picked a more suitable perch as it landed against the trunk of a loblolly pine.  I moved along the banks and found a Spotted Sandpiper teetering along the muddy shore.  This one may just be migrating through, or it might decide to overwinter.  I’m hoping for the latter.  Carolina Wrens and Song Sparrows were holding auditions for Lake Columbia’s Got Talent.  While winding my way back to the entrance, I flushed a Belted Kingfisher from its perch.  It flew across the bay to the Southshore Landing, our shared destination.

I moseyed over to the landing and heard many of the same woodland birds that I had picked up on the other side of the bay.  There were more American Coots, as well.  The coots were joined by a few Pied-billed Grebes.  I looked out across the water and found hundreds of cormorants on cypress snags and in the water.  A Great Blue Heron flew in close to the boat ramp, where I was stationed.  I took too long fumbling with the camera and it took off before I could get its picture.  I walked around a bit and gawked at the coots.  After a few minutes I left, heading for the northshore.  I tallied 27 species at the southshore, one of my better tallies for this locale.

The northshore has more vantage points of the lake, but they aren’t named as well as the southshore spots.  First, I stopped in the middle of a off-shoot, county road and looked at the northeastern section of the lake.  I immediately found a group of Pied-billed Grebes with an interloper.  This interloper, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a Ring-necked Duck.  While watching these divers, a fast moving bird caught my eye.  Some small raptor had flown off of a nearby perch and was headed south.  It had a dark, blue back, which leads me to believe that it was either an Accipiter hawk or a Merlin.  The bird was gone before I could get a pic and I never saw it again that day.  At the first boat ramp I stopped and started counting Great Egrets, coots, Pied-billed Grebes, Lesser Scaup, and Gadwall.  I was impressed at the waterfowl yield of this area.  Along the nearby road was a scrubby shore line.  This scrub held such gems as a Song Sparrow, Winter Wren, both kinglets, Carolina Wren, and a Field Sparrow.  The Field Sparrow was a first for me in Columbia County.

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Black Vulture (foreground) and Turkey Vultures (background)

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Bald Eagle

I drove on to a small causeway and saw more coots and a Great Blue Heron.  There is usually quite a bit of Wood Duck activity at this part of the lake, but only one flyover was observed on this outing.  Further on down, there was a clear cut that had grown back.  I listened for sparrows and got a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals.  Following this path, I ended up at the second boat ramp of the northshore.  There were, again, several coots and many Pied-billed Grebes.  Great Egrets were easily spotted as they sporadically lined the banks.  A handful of Red-winged Blackbirds gave flight calls as they flew overhead.  I got out the scope and scanned the distant reaches of the lake.  I scanned every emerging snag and trunk, looking for gulls.  I found none.  I did find two Common Loons in the distance, though.  I found one loon earlier in the year at the southshore and was completely blown away.  Finding these two gets me to thinking that this may be a good, loony lake.  I usually depend on other lakes to get my loon fix, but I’ll be overjoyed if my “neo-backyard” lake has loons.  After scanning the lake I turned to the woods.  I walked the rocky shoreline and picked up a lone Savannah Sparrow (another first for Columbia Co.).  Some Indian heliotropes (Heliotropium indicum) were in bloom on the shore.  This is an invasive (possibly native to some part of Arkansas) wildflower that is loathed by many botany enthusiasts in the state.  It does, however, attract a lot of different butterflies.  This day was no exception.  It was a warm day for November and the butterflies took advantage of it.  I stopped and had a photography session with them then followed the shore into the woods.  In the nearby woods I could hear a Hermit Thrush giving its “quop” call.  I spent a little more time in the woods, soaking up the sounds of our winter birds.  After a few minutes of marination I headed back to my abode.

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Fiery Skipper on Indian Heliotrope

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Phaon Crescent on Indian Heliotrope

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Common Buckeye

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Variegated Fritillary on Indian Heliotrope

And Beyond

As with most employed birders, I work a week then bird on my days off.  Currently, the sky is dark at about 17:20, which is twenty minutes after I get off work, leaving me little time to bird during the week.  So, my birding happens in clusters and, instead of putting up a couple of different posts a day, I tend to make one post about multiple outings.

My first notable sighting, after my Lake Columbia excursion, was a complete surprise.  My route to Little Rock from Columbia County takes me through some really pretty country.  There are bayous, sloughs, farms, and forests that I drive by.  One stretch, in particular, has a large farm pond.  This pond often features water birds throughout the year.  This time I drove by and glimpsed a horde of Canada Geese and two diving ducks, one of which resembled a Redhead.  I turned around and got closer to the pond.  I could see that the horde of Canadas had an extra, a Greater-white Fronted Goose.  I waited for the diving ducks to return to the surface from their exploration.  They finally emerged and I could see that one was, in fact, a Redhead (first of year).  The other was a Ring-necked Duck, not a female Redhead as I had assumed.  Completely happy and surprised, I drove on to find a hawk in the top of a roadside pine.  I noticed the hawk because a crow was dive-bombing it.  My first assumption, based on size and shape, was a Red-tailed Hawk.  I still believe this to be true, but I think it is a light-morph Harlan’s subspecies.  There are several different subspecies of Red-tails in Arkansas during the winter.  The main one that is encountered is the eastern subspecies (Buteo jamaicensis borealis).  However, Harlan’s, Krider’s, Western are also found in Arkansas.  Each subspecies seems to have three main color morphs, including a dark and light morph.  These factors make identifying a common species to subspecies level quite a challenge.  Its a fun challenge, but one I’ve not had a lot of experience with.  The light-morph Harlan’s looks like a Krider’s.  However, the LM Harlan’s has a belly band and a snow white breast.  This bird had both of those traits.  I never saw the underparts, as it only perched.  Seeing the bird in flight would have yielded a more conclusive ID.  Therefore, I left the species identification at the species level, for now.  To add to the confusion, there are intermediate color morphs and these subspecies hybridize.

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Red-tailed Hawk, maybe light-morph Harlan’s

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Ring-necked Duck (right) and Redhead (left)

The next day, I decided to go to Lake Maumelle in Little Rock to look for more diving birds.  This is a great place to look for loons.  It is also a good place for diving ducks, grebes, gulls, and eagles.  Many rare species are seen here, annually.  I packed up the scope and headed out.  The vista point is at the western edge of the lake.  I usually stop here and make my way back to Loon Point, then Bufflehead Bay.  The vista was crowded with people, so I skipped it.  The area around Loon Point had recently been burned, but the songbird activity was still high.  I stopped at a lookout point that was built up on some rocks.  I scanned the lake and found only one Common Loon.  I had to look away rather abruptly, for something was scurrying at my feet.  Rustling in the dry leaves were two chipmunks.  I don’t live in rocky habitats, so I don’t get to see chipmunks that often.  Needless to say, I was quite elated to see this rodents.  They are cute little boogers that stole the show from the birds.  After watching them for a bit I decided to move on to my final spot Bufflehead Bay.

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Chipmunk

This bay features a nice marina and a good walking trail.  I had several songbirds in the buttonbush and bramble beside the trail.  One Hermit Thrush walked on the trail in front of me for a ways, until it got tired of the chase and fled to the shrubs.  As if on cue, a group of Buffleheads flew into the bay and showed off their striking white and iridescent black plumage.  This is a very aptly named bay, for I always see Bufflehead here in the winter.  These small ducks were joined by Pied-billed Grebes that had been foraging around the marina.  Moving on through the trail, I came to the mouth of the bay and walked along the shore.  I found two more loons but little else.  A Red-bellied Woodpecker called from the woods and it was joined by kinglets and chickadees.  On a sweetgum sapling I found a White-tipped Black Moth.  This species is having a boom year and have been found almost throughout the state.  I have seen gobs and gobs of pictures from Facebook friends.  They aren’t typically found in Arkansas but they are abundant this year.  I was glad to have finally seen one.  I had a good list of birds for the outing, but the non-birds definitely shined, which is odd for winter.

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Hermit Thrush

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Black-tipped White Moth

Recap

With these outings, I have added to my Columbia County Year List and my overall year list.  My goal for the Lake Columbia, pre-CBC day was 60 species.  I fell one species short on the day, but made up for it in the days following.  Here is a list of species by locale:

  1. Greater White-fronted Goose (first of season, FOS)
  2. Snow Goose (FOS)
  3. Canada Goose
  4. Wood Duck
  5. Gadwall
  6. Northern Shoveler (first for Columbia Co.)
  7. Redhead (first of year, FOY)
  8. Ring-necked Duck
  9. Lesser Scaup
  10. Bufflehead (FOS)
  11. Common Loon (FOS)
  12. Pied-billed Grebe
  13. Double-crested Cormorant
  14. Great Blue Heron
  15. Great Egret
  16. Black Vulture
  17. Turkey Vulture
  18. Sharp-shinned Hawk (first for Columbia Co.)
  19. Bald Eagle
  20. Red-tailed Hawk
  21. American Coot
  22. Killdeer
  23. Spotted Sandpiper
  24. Belted Kingfisher
  25. Red-headed Woodpecker
  26. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  27. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  28. Downy Woodpecker
  29. Hairy Woodpecker
  30. Northern Flicker
  31. Eastern Phoebe
  32. Loggerhead Shrike
  33. Blue Jay
  34. American Crow
  35. Fish Crow
  36. Carolina Chickadee
  37. Tufted Titmouse
  38. Brown-headed Nuthatch
  39. Brown Creeper
  40. Winter Wren
  41. Carolina Wren
  42. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  43. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  44. Eastern Bluebird
  45. Hermit Thrush
  46. American Robin
  47. Brown Thrasher
  48. Northern Mockingbird
  49. European Starling
  50. Pine Warbler
  51. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  52. Chipping Sparrow
  53. Field Sparrow (first for Columbia Co.)
  54. Dark-eyed Junco
  55. White-throated Sparrow
  56. Savannah Sparrow (first for Columbia Co.)
  57. Song Sparrow (first on the year for Columbia Co.)
  58. Swamp Sparrow
  59. Eastern Towhee
  60. Northern Cardinal
  61. Red-winged Blackbird
  62. Eastern Meadowlark
  63. American Goldfinch
  64. House Sparrow
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