Thursday, June 22, 2006

Petit Jean, Thursday and Friday

Coming out of the heat at Holla Bend late in the afternoon, climbing Petit Jean Mountain, out of the flat rice fields into the dissected canyons and long views, was a relief and a sweet surprise. I had never been there, but had looked at it once in a mapping program, where I had the impression it was a lowland park, since it had a big lake as a prominant feature. But we got to the Mather Lodge, named for one of the early guiding lights of the National Parks, and found a CCC era building, all big stone and big logs, overlooking a wooded valley. We unloaded luggage yet again, and found our way to our rooms, mine on the end on a lower level.

With an obnoxious roaring AC. I ended up turning it off to get some sleep. But that was later. Once more a big feed in a portioned off area of the dining room, and nother presentaion by the Park interpreter, whose name escapes me. He was good though, speaking on how Petit Jean had been the start of the Arkansas State Park system, and the history of the CCC in building the initial park. As it got dark we vanned down to a waterfall overlook, and played owl tapes. Really loud, echoing down the canyon. And eventually it worked, with an Esatern Screech Owl flying around us in the dark. Unfortunately we never did get a good look with a spotlight. Someone thought they had heard a Barred Owl earlier from the lodge overlook, so when we got back there we repeated the procedure with Barred Owl calls, but there was no response. The party broke up and Kristian and i went to move the vans to their night-time position. As we were walking back two Barred Owls went off behind the cabins. Our first guess was that the ranger was playing the tapes again, but then we saw him driving off. So the calls had worked but we had just not been sufficiently patient.

Another breakfast the next morning, the meals coming in their relentless predictability, and then a hike through the woods on a path that skirted the upper edge of the canyon from the lodge to the falls overlook. It was surprisingly rough and challenging, and a few folks decided it was too much. Had I been there before I might have been in a position to give fair warning. We did get some good birds, looks at Great Crested Flycatchers, and toward the end of the hike i decided to try calling up Pileated Woodpeckers. For some reason I didn't think it would work well, but two males came in from opposite directions (It must have been on a territory boundary) and flew around giving all great looks. One person considered that the high point of the whole trip. Another example of a bird that's quite common in Arkansas, but a desired crowd pleaser for those from out of state.

We got to the old version of the Fals Overlook, and I was surprised by Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I played the Cerulean Warbler song, hoping for another show stopper, but my luck had run out. Gloria had brought the vans down to meet us, and we set out for some other places that had been productive on previous trips, but one had closed restrooms, which sent our aging bladders on down the road. We made a brief stop at the lake, I was hoping for some late ducks or Pied-bill Grebes, but nothing. We did find a mystery oriole, which is still not properly IDed. Then back to the lodge for checkout and a simple lunch. Afterwards, with the vans loaded, we made a stop at the Visitor's Center to watch Goldfinches and other feeder birds, and some folks bought souvenirs. On the way out of the park we stoped at a wonderful overlook above the Arkansas River and the flood plain. There was Petit Jean's grave, and the sad tale of thwarted love, and a Roadrunner as we left. I tried calling the other van with the radio to get them back, but they had driven out of range.

Then the drive into Little Rock, more heat and traffic, but Gloria had saved a colony of nesting Cliff Swallows for the end. On the way there I had the thrill of a car out of control on an entrance ramp smashing its way across four lanes right in front of us. I got past where the traffic would jam, then got out and checked the driver of the offending vehicle. Young woman, scared, hurt, some small apparent bleeding, tried to calm her a little, but as soon as Id turned my back she was ut of the car and limping, asking for a phone. Fortunately someone had already stopped and called the cops, and was still parked nearby. I kicked some broken plastic out of the road, checked that somebody else was attending the other most damaged vehicle, and then got in the van and made an escape before traffic stopped. The swallows required a longish side-trip to one of the Lock-and-Dams on the Arkansas River, but the view was excellent. Really hot too. As an added bonus we found a very public Loggerhead Shrike on a power line along the road, were able to get the second van on it, and they found a second individual as well.

Back at Holiday Inn Express, Unload the vans again. Try to get a connection to check email. Gather wits and then walk up the hill to the big Holiday Inn for dinner in their pub dining room. It had another group there, a reunion of some kind, was noisy and not very cool. The service was trying, and the food not exceptional. But since it was the recap and final gathering of the whole group, we enjoyed it a lot. I guess that was the last time i saw some of the folks, since breakfast the next day was not enough draw to drag folk out of bed on the first late sleeping morning of a long trip. I left fairly early, and took a long way home via the productive Fish Farms (again they were good) then Bald Knob NWR, too hot and no habitat for shorebirds to speak of. Final stop on the way back was Bell Slough, which I'd never checked out. Looked like a great place, but it was dried up and hot mid-day when I got there, so not good birding. But it was enough of a stop to guarantee that I'll try it again some day.



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