Although I grew up in Southeast Arkansas, I haven’t done a lot of birding in this region of the state that generally goes underbirded from year to year. This region of the state features two major eco-regions: the Delta (having both Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers in this area) and West Gulf Coastal Plain. Consequently, this region is not highly populated and there are only a handful of birders here and even less that submit their bird records to one of the most valuable databases a modern birder can have: eBird. eBird makes bird records much more available and can lead an inquisitive birder to the underbirded regions of their respective state/province/region. Here, I will list a few southeastern AR counties and their species totals from 2017 (data from eBird): Arkansas Co.–144, Ashley Co.–123, Bradley Co.–38, Chicot Co.–151, Cleveland Co.–65, Desha Co.–230 (an exception), Drew Co.–120, Grant Co.–88, Jefferson Co.–203 (another exception with several birders residing here), Lincoln Co.–86, Phillips Co.–125, and Union Co.–101. The state of Arkansas had 327 species recorded on eBird for the year 2017, with Pulaski Co. (central AR)–231, Benton Co.–245, Pope Co.–214, Washington Co.–200 (all 3 in the northwest), and White Co.–247 (northeast AR) having the overall highest totals through the years (though their 2017 numbers are posted for more direct comparison).
Over the past couple of years, a few birders from central AR have made it their goals to bird underbirded areas. I work and live most of their in southwest AR, which is equally underbirded, so I hit several of those counties (primarily Columbia Co.). Southern Arkansas can hold several species that are on the northern limits of their wintering range, such as Henslow’s Sparrows, Blue-headed Vireos, and various shorebirds. During the first weekend of February, I visited a friend who lives in Monticello (Drew Co.) and we toured a few of the local birding hotspots.
One of the spots we visited multiple times was Warren Prairie Natural Area (on the edge of Drew/Bradley Counties). The main habitat here is pine savannah with various bluestem grasses and other forbs. This spot has nesting colonies of the highly endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I had never seen this woodpecker and we didn’t find any on this weekend. Our other target bird was a Henslow’s Sparrow. We walked bluestem patches and flushed Song and Savannah Sparrows at first. Then, we made it to an open, wet field of mostly three-awn grass. This looked like good habitat, so we spread out and started our flushing attempt. We flushed several sparrows right off the bat, but none would post up in an observable perch. They all went back to ground, hidden among the grass. After chasing a small group of birds, we finally got one to sit up in a young post oak. This bird was our target: a beautiful, ocher-headed, cryptic-backed Henslow’s Sparrow. We flushed up at least two other individuals and decided to leave the birds alone. When we left this field it was getting dark, so we moved to our woodcock spot. We picked out a spot near the edge of a pine plantation that provided a good look into a wet, scrubby field. There was still some light when we arrived so we watched and listened to a group of sparrows drinking from a small puddle. Here was an Eastern Towhee, Fox Sparrow, and Swamp Sparrow. The sparrows retreated to their respective roosts but continued calling well into dusk. When there was very little light left in the sky and all the sparrows had quit calling, we heard our first “peeent.” This odd call is only the tip of the iceberg for this odd bird that has the folk name of “timberdoodle.” After a few minutes we heard the soft wing whistles of male’s aerial display that crescendoed into something that sounded like a mix between a Chimney Swift and Purple Martin song. We were observing the mating ritual of one of our only year-round resident “shorebirds,” the American Woodcock. Our woodcocks are in the sandpiper family, Scolopacidae, but behave nothing like any other species of Scolopacid we have in AR. These oddballs like wet woods and perform their mating displays in late winter to early spring throughout the eastern U.S. Although we keep woodcocks year-round, some of ours will migrate to northeastern U.S. and/or southeastern Canada. Their appearance is most similar to the snipes, their closest relatives. They are a cryptically colored ball with a long bill. I’ve only seen one in flight, in very dim light. Where the snipe flies like most other shorebirds, the woodcock seems to flutter in flight (at least in some flights) similar to a meadowlark. Every year when February and March comes along, birders in AR head out to their nearest wet, scrubby field to listen for the “peeents” and wing displays of these fascinating birds. We listened for about 15 minutes, then they stopped. After the woodcocks, there was a brief period where we heard coyotes hollering in the distance. Once they died down, we heard a soft tremolo of a distant Eastern Screech-Owl. We never got to hear its descending whinny call, which is my favorite of their calls, but it was still nice to hear this species. This little owl only called a handful of times before it was interrupted by the boisterous caterwauling of a Barred Owl pair. These medium owls called on into the night as we left.
Another Monticello hotspot we hit was Lake Monticello. This is not a very big lake and it had been drawn down for the winter. This lake had a spike in popularity towards the end of 2017 as it hosted a migratory Surf Scoter. Any scoter is a nice find in AR, as they are semi-vagrant migrants. On this date we had no scoters, but we did have two Common Loons, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, and Buffleheads. We had a few songbirds along the lake, including several Hermit Thrushes.
On our second day, we hit Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (Union, Bradley, and Ashley Counties) and Overflow NWR (Ashley Co.). Felsenthal yielded several different songbirds and every AR woodpecker, save the Red-cockaded which are present at this site. However, it was very low on ducks, which was our target at this locale. We did get a good group of Mallards and Wood Ducks at a cypress covered lake close to the Louisiana state line. We made up for our waterfowl woes at Overflow NWR. Right off the bat we found a group of Mallards on a flooded field. About a mile down the road we hit a large group of Snow Geese being harassed by at least 3 Bald Eagles. Among the Snows were Greater White-fronted Geese and Ross’s Geese (which are basically miniature Snow Geese). We moved on down to a moist soil unit and found several more ducks. In this group we found more Mallards, about 18 Green-winged Teals, and a handful of Shovelers and Pintails. Alongside the ducks were several Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe, with a trio of Greater Yellowlegs in the mix. We watched these birds fly back and forth among the wet fields. They seemed to be easily spooked, but we just assumed that was caused by our presence. We were proven wrong shortly after when we found a bobcat sneaking around in one of the fields. We walked around until dusk, hoping to catch some owls in the field. We had seen a Northern Harrier hunting a field earlier, so our hopes were up for a Short-eared Owl. We listened as the field birds settled down for the night, our patience being rewarded with a calling Sedge Wren. We heard a distant Great Horned Owl “hoot hoot”-ing, which got us really pumped. While walking back along fields that had high owl potential, we had a large raptor fly beside us, low over the field. I quickly popped the binoculars up, despite the ever-dimming light, to view this owl-ish bird. The flight was definitely that of an owl and I prematurely shouted out “short-eared.” The bird flew about 100 yds before sitting on a utility pole. Still thinking it was a SE Owl, I stared the bird down in excitement. However, the more I looked at this bird the more I realized my mistake. This was a large, bulky bird. It chose to sit on a very substantial perch and it sat upright. My friend got a picture of the bird which revealed its true identity. The bulk and the substantial “ears/horns” told us that this was our Great Horned Owl and not the less common Short-eared Owl. No one was upset, as seeing/hearing any owl is an immediate daymaker. Getting 3 species of owls in 2 days was also a first for me.
We ended our weekend with over 70 species of birds, which was way above our projections. This was a great time of birding camaraderie in a really birdy area.