Thursday, June 08, 2006

Elderhostel Trip in Central Arkansas, Sun and Mon

The Ivory-bill zone

I agreed to lead some bird walks and drive a van for the University of Arkansas Elderhostel offering labeled, "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Other Exciting Arkansas Birds". This ran from Sunday May 21 2006 thru Sat May 27. The trip Co-ordinator was Gloria Young, a retired anthropology professor. There were thirteen participants in two vans, who came from OK, TX, KY, MI, WI, AL, and one from California.

We met at the Holiday Inn Express in Little Rock at the Airport on Sunday afternoon, materials were distributed by Gloria Young, the hostel co-ordinator, and we got in the vans for the first of many times to drive to North Little Rock to a BBQ place, Lindsey's, that was great. After dinner David Luneau, the guy who took the video of the IBWO, gave a talk on the general situation, how the video came to be, and the process of analysing it to establish the validity of the identification. The phase I liked the best was when they built models of Pileated and Ivory-billed birds and flapped their artificial wings in various positions to study the patterns of black and white visible from various angles. Comical but convincing.

Back to the motel for an early start on Monday. We drove to the Apple Lake Birding Trail, east of Dagmar WMA, but west of Brinkley on State Hwy 70. Even though it was a late start by hardcore birder's standards (that's the crack of dawn at 10 above), we found a good variety of birds along the trail. We started finding lifers for folks, critters they'd never seen before, the first being a Prothonotary Warbler. It was the first performance for my bird calling rig as well. That's a 1 Gbyte Sansa Mp3 player Velcro'd to a Radio Shack portable speaker. It has about 600 tracks of birdsongs that I spent dark evenings in the winter making into a usable form. I played the Prothonotary. It flew right to us, where before it was 50 yards out half hidden in the boughs of swamp trees. Score one for technology.

I ended up using it several times to call birds for satisfactory looks, and it ended up being a staple of the trip. I would usually try to see the bird without it at first, which sometimes worked, but was often frustrating, the critters tending to be hidden or distant. I didn't want to give the impression that finding and IDing birds was just a piece of cake. I was also trying to get the folks to use their ears as well as eyes. Keep in mind that everyone (except Kristian, the other van driver) was at least 55 years old, some with compromised senses, and some having difficulty with steep or uneven ground. Apple Lake was a good place to start since the trail was a wide level path on a levee.

One good bird was a flyover Ibis, a dark one, which I guessed (!) as Glossy. Another was a pair of nesting Baltimore Orioles. We also had good looks at some more usual birds like Indigo Buntings, Northern Parulas, and Ruby-throated Hummers. The Heron show was good as well.

Having seen, or heard, around fifty species at Apple Lake we boarded vans again and took lunch at Gene's BBQ in Brinkley, and the non-Arkansans got to try some local specialties including fried pickles. After lunch we briefly checked out the Ivory-bill Shack, a store devoted to the bird, it's images, and books, T-shirts, postcards etc. They opened up especially for our group.

Back in the vans and up Hiway 17 to the famous bridge over Bayou de View, where David led us into the woods north of the bridge to a place where he had an automatic camera monitoring a major dead limb with a lot of Woodpecker work. The area was an experimental plot containing trees fully or partially girdled to create various amounts of dead-wood, in the hope that the insect grubs favored by Elvis would prosper, and draw him in. We found one Water Mocassin, which got some attention before it hid in a flood trash pile. David was having some trouble finding his camera, since he couldn't find his landmark, the big limb with suspect workings. Because it had brken off its tree and was laying on the ground. One of the Hostlers, Dale, rolled it over and we saw deep conical pits drilled in the wood. David recalled that conical pits had been reported in the old Ivory-bill research, and we set about measuring their diameter and depth. Several were two inches deep or more, and we fell to discussing how deep a Pileated could drill, and how one would rule out a Pileated as the maker. Skull models? Plaster casts? Anyway, food for thought. The camera also contained 10,000 plus images taken at 18 second intervals (I'm not certain on those numbers), and David removed that chip, installed a new one and new bateries. Back to the vans, thoughts of mosquitos and ticks on all minds. Hard to come out of those woods without every tickle and itch being suspect.

I had called Kenny Nichols the day before and asked about the fish farms that were sort of on the way back to Little Rock. He'd said he thought shorebird migration was basiclly over. But then Sunday night there had been a post on the ARbird listserv saying quite a few species had been seen at Saul's fishfarm, including one I needed for my State list. So I sort of twisted Gloria's arm to make a stop there. We went to Treadway's first, which turned out to have no mud flats at all. Still we were able to find some Black Terns, but went on toward Saul's. A brief stop along the gravel road netted Meadowlarks and Dicksissels, which northern folks didn't know. When we got to Saul's, there was a pool with lots of mud and lots of birds. One was an absolutely posing Black-necked Stilt. Three species of ducks. Stilt and other sandpipers. Best of all were two Hudsonian and one Marbled Godwit together for a perfect comparison. We were lucky to have a former Californian, Andi, who knew them well and had the sense to make the distiction, then get everybody to see it. Dale found a Dunlin, and there were some White-rumped/Bairds types, but too far off. A great stop for the group, adding about ten species. We ended the day at 71, not a bad start for the week.

Gloria was fretting that we were getting behind schedule, since we had dinner reservations at Bosco's in downtown Little Rock. But the trip back was quick and easy, and there was plenty of time to spare. The food and atmosphere were both top notch, I had a wonderful small pizza, and slept contentedly with a well-earned heartburn.


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