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Deep Woods

Known as the Gulf Coastal Plain for the great sea that once extended into the region, southwest Arkansas is unique. Blackland prairie intersects vast loblolly pine forest, itself intersected by murky rivers and bottomland swamp. One such swampy river—the Little River—was tamed for flood control in the middle of the last century, creating Millwood Lake, a roughly 30,000 acre, 47 square mile reservoir. On the eastern side of the lake, a landmass extends two miles out from shore. Here, the ghost town of Okay lies in state alongside the Ideal Cement Company, both afforded protection by said landmass: the Okay Levee. The extensive earthworks were used to protect the cement company’s quarries and rail line; multimillion dollar additions that were what it took to get the company on board with federal plans to dam and flood the region all those years ago. Now, the land holdings are a ghost town themselves, with quarries flooded and rail line largely dismantled.

With open water of the lake on one side and preserved bottomland forest on the other, the Okay Levee has become a rite of passage for avian and odonate (dragonfly) enthusiasts in Arkansas. The levee boasts extreme rarities on both accounts, no doubt thanks to the fight put up by a cement company of all things. On a normal day of a normal weekend is how I enjoyed the levee. No rarities to speak of, just usual inhabitants of the deep woods and their lazy backwaters. A life of quarantine and the summer’s heat has all but killed my desire for getting up early, but this day saw me up around sunrise, knowing it would be well worth the morning struggle. Iced coffee in hand, I stumbled to the car and drove off into the forest. The humidity was intense, but open windows let in a cool breeze as I sped towards the Okay Levee.

Thanks to coffee and cool air, I was just beginning to come to life upon arriving at the base of the levee, but all around me the birds had been up for some time. Drawing me into the forest, like a golden siren, was the methodic “sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet” of a Prothonotary Warbler. This first of many provided mere glimpses in the thick and tangled vegetation. Up on the levee, it wasn’t long before I found an adult male tending a fledgling; likely an immature female. He was all too happy to flit around the intruder to its domain. I caught him on several compelling perches among the vines.

Named after papal clerks—called prothonotaries—who don golden robes, this warbler was difficult to miss, standing in vivid contrast to the verdant sea of leaves over wet forest. Prothonotaries are one of just two of about 50 species of North American wood-warblers that nest in cavities, using old woodpecker excavations or snags riddled with breaks and holes. It was from one such site the fledgling likely came.

Though it wasn’t easy, I knew I had to move on from the Prothonotaries if I was to see anything else before the heat became oppressive…and the temperature was rising. Along the levee’s length, a channel of flooded bottomland provided just what I needed to continue. Away from the light of the morning sun, the woods below the levee were still dark, but that didn’t stop me from getting eyes on a swamp ghost. Perched on a submerged log, the Black-crowned Night-Heron was gone as soon as I saw it, vanishing into a screen of trees, orange legs dangling behind it. This heron, a squat unheronlike heron, has the distinction of being the most widespread member of its family in the world. Not only is it at home in the swamps of south Arkansas, but similar waterways and wetlands across the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, and even some islands of the South Pacific. As the name suggests, night-herons are largely active at night, using a robust bill to capture fish and invertebrates. Unless roosting in the open, they’re easy to miss during the day, sitting in unmoving silence for hours at a time.

Perhaps cheating a bit, I didn't photograph this night-heron in the swamps of Arkansas, but on Maui, Hawaii!

Continuing along the levee, I was drawn into a game of push-and-pull between birds of the land and birds of the water. I hadn’t long left the night-heron before being halted again. This time by one of North America’s favorite birds, and one of mine too. Perched on a bush, the ultimate patchwork of color, was a male Painted Bunting. Though a common species in the right habitat, I can’t help but gawk in their presence. Impressive males are one of the continent’s most colorful birds, while green females are one of few North American birds who can claim that color. I watched a male sing alongside the levee for a sacred few seconds.

I was pulled from the color palette I had become lost in by a wheezy whistle overhead. Fluttering in to land on a tree was a noisy pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Yes, that is actually their name and yes, they landed in a tree. Found throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas, this duck defies the behavior of most other ducks by both regularly perching in trees and nesting in tree cavities. Unsurprisingly, their former name was tree-duck. Southwest Arkansas is the core of their range in the state, though in recent years they have expanded significantly, even into the northwestern quarter of the state, where I live.

While in the area, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and I were able to spend some top quality time together. The birds I had just observed landed in a snaggy marsh, likely near a nest cavity. A social species, it didn’t take long before multiple pairs whistled into the same plot of marsh, all congregating together. In the depths of the night-heron swamp channel, I happened to spot a cooperative group, stacked together on a cypress snag.

Here I should take an aside to detail more of my experience with the whistling-ducks. More than a mile across the lake, as the duck flies, a large cypress snag stood sentinel just offshore from our campsite. Riddled with old Pileated Woodpecker cavities and branch tears, the snag was a bona fide whistling-duck apartment. During the course of a two-day stay, at least three different pairs poked in and out of the numerous cavities.

They would glide to the snag early in the morning or late in the evening, probably checking on nests hidden somewhere within. Not only could you hear them coming from afar, but their fluttering flight and bicolored wings gave them away from a distance. Bright pink bill and legs work somewhere on the brink of harmony and discord with their more muted, multicolored bodies. Both beginning and ending the day with whistling-ducks was a great pleasure.

Back on the levee, I had just finished a climb to the top after dropping down to swamp level to photograph some of the whistling-ducks. A “shreep, shreep” alerted me to the presence of Great-crested Flycatchers. A large, forest-loving Myiarchus flycatcher, Great-cresteds are expected in such habitat, until about midway through the Great Plains. Further west, they’re replaced by Ash-throated Flycatcher, another Myiarchus; hardly differing by more than sound and slight variation in coloration. Such is the case with genus Myiarchus, represented by 22 species throughout the Americas—they are nearly all the same color scheme of gray, rust, and yellow. Our Great-crested Flycatchers are usually found in the canopy and, lucky for me, I was eye-level from my position on top of the levee. For just a few seconds, one individual exited the forest’s shroud before darting off again.

Walking on, I kept an eye towards the swampy backwaters below the levee. I sought a quarry rare, but present in south Arkansas. Passing by an area of open, flooded woods, I found what I was looking for. Cold gray and white wings brought the large bird from somewhere in the depths of the forest. With long legs, it landed on a sunken log to hunt. Immediately, its neck tensed and it readied for a plunge. Like a dart, its yellow face, red eyes, and multicolored neck cut through the water and into a fish. I watched this Tricolored Heron for half an hour, willing it closer. It didn’t oblige, so I settled for the diagnostic habitat shot: water green from duckweed, arched sunken log, heron on the hunt, apparitions of trees long fallen all around. This was a special moment for me. It was at this exact same time and place a decade ago I had my first experience with this species in the state. At the time, I was engulfed in a state Big Year and didn’t stay long to enjoy the treasure, but not this day. This day I spent a sufficient amount of time with the stunning heron, reveling in the blessing of its presence.

Tricolored Heron was by far not the only wading bird in the area. There was a constant stream overhead as herons, egrets, and ibis moved back and forth from the lake to the bottomland, most likely carrying food to nests waiting somewhere beyond my vision. The Tricolored was the best of 9 species of wading birds on the levee, unprecedented in other regions of my home state. Great variation in size and behavior could be observed among the waders. Tall, lanky Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets have the ability to hunt larger prey in deeper water. Medium-sized waders, like the Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, and Snowy Egret must satisfy themselves with smaller prey and are less likely to be belly-deep in the water, like their larger cousins. A small wader, like Green Heron, is confined to still smaller prey, but can access areas of denser vegetation the larger waders cannot. Meanwhile, the night-herons are set apart by activity period; their local relatives being active during the day while they are active primarily at dusk or night. So too, small Cattle Egrets are less frequent in marshy areas and more frequent in drier fields, where their relatives wouldn’t be caught dead. In this way, the marsh world works. Everyone in their place, or niche, as ecologists say; with minimal number of toes stepped on.

A diminutive Green Heron photographed in SW Florida, where waders are abundant.

A more distant relative to the herons and egrets is the White Ibis. Like Tricolored Heron, this is a species often associated with coastal areas, but happens to thrive limitedly in inland swamps. One of these odd characters raised its head into my field of view as I quietly photographed the earlier mentioned Tricolored. Snow white, extremities of scarlet, and an icy blue eye come together in one dazzling bird. Their long, decurved bill allows them to stay largely out of the niches of their neighbors, by opening up a whole world of invertebrates buried in wet sediment. Much like a vulture, their bare face and receding hairline allow them to maintain cleanliness in an otherwise muddy life.

As the day became hotter, amplifying the humidity, my time on the levee came to an end. Back at camp, a relaxing afternoon—perhaps with a margarita or two—was a good way to bide time before the final show. Yes, it was the Fourth of July, but the final show wasn’t fireworks. Dripping from the trees and every object near the water were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of mayflies. After a dinner of fried fish across the campground, I returned to the water’s edge to find it alive in a way I had never seen before. As the sun dropped below the horizon, so many mayflies had taken flight that there was a low hum from a normally dainty and silent insect. I could almost hear David Attenborough narrating the natural wonder. The dizzying frenzy was the mayflies’ main breeding event.

A close-up of the evening mayfly flight.

Precious little time had passed since emerging from the water over the previous days and already their lives were ending. After entering a swarm of males to mate, the females fell to the water to lay eggs and stayed there, exhausted, to be eaten by fish. In keeping with the region’s food chain, numerous American Alligators—large and small—floated silently, awaiting fish that came to take the mayflies. Some were successful, others just patrolled the area.

An alligator floats where there would have been a fog of mayflies an hour earlier.

An intense storm during the night didn’t help the case of the surviving mayflies and felt as though it would take the rest of us with it! The world was wet. Dripping, along with everything else, a Barred Owl was the last major observation of the trip. One individual sat dejected on a powerline; feathers fanned out to dry in a sad look. If you spot an owl during the day in eastern North America it is likely to be a Barred Owl, one of the most common species, and one whose activity period often includes daylight hours. Widespread in many forested habitats, it has experienced a range expansion over the last half-century, whereby it crossed the Great Plains and now occurs in the Pacific Northwest. Here, it has become a major problem for its endangered congener, the Spotted Owl. Mentioning Barred Owls is sure to spark debate and, sometimes, hostile arguments among the ecological community of the region. They have been dealt a difficult hand where the main option seems to be kill one owl to save another. Efforts to remove Barred Owls from Spotted Owl hotspots have been successful and their remains can be used by researchers the world over. Back in Arkansas, the species is not so controversial. The individual I observed is likely one member of a large population that thrives in bottomland swamp, subsisting on herpetofauna and invertebrates, like crayfish. Even in my own corner of the state, I’ve often found Barred Owl pellets near mountain streams filled with crayfish remains. Dive on into the deep woods and take a look for yourself!

Downy owl feathers aren't the best at repelling water, so I can imagine how this owl felt.

Literature Cited

Frederick, P. C. (2020). Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Heath, J. A., P. C. Frederick, J. A. Kushlan, and K. L. Bildstein (2020). White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Hothem, R. L., B. E. Brussee, W. E. Davis Jr., A. Martínez-Vilalta, A. Motis, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

James, J. D. and J. E. Thompson (2020). Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Lowther, P. E., S. M. Lanyon, C. W. Thompson, and T. S. Schulenberg (2020). Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Miller, K. E. and W. E. Lanyon (2020). Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Petit, L. J. (2020). Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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