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Early Birds

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March 12, 2011 by wcobserver

By Joe Neal

Spring is already here, bird-wise. I had my first Fish Crow on February 15. It flew over giving it’s soft — and to my ear southern-accented —  AH-AH. We have two crow species here: American Crow, present all year, and Fish Crow that heads south for the winter, and only returning when daffodils push up first green. Fish Crows beat daffodil flowers this year.

American Woodcocks also migrate north during that part of the year we deem winter. At dusk on February 19 I relaxed in an open field with others from Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society and waited for the opening of intricate male woodcock sky dances performed for the females. As light faded, we had over-flights by Wood Ducks, just returned to the Ozarks. I slapped my first mosquito of the season. Chorus frogs and spring peepers were tuned up in pools left over from the big snow. Then, here came the woodcocks!

As we get into March my early bird list includes Ozark arrivals of Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Louisiana Waterthrush. I find myself drawn especially to Devil’s Den State Park, which is something of a magnet for these early birds. You don’t have to put out a lot of effort to find them, either. I do most of my finding by ear.

Our waterthrush is a small creature that hunts insects along streams. I visit spring runs in the woods, a good place for aquatic insects sure to draw waterthrushes. They are always somewhere along Lee Creek in the park. I wait for a calm day and take a casual walk, looking along the edge of the water, and especially listening. I hear a loud CHINK! And there it is, rapidly bobbing its tail as it perches on a cobble at the water’s edge.

Also pushing early into the Ozarks are gnatcatchers – barely larger than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird – and Black-and-white Warbler. When I’m out for early birds I like to park near the bridge over Lee Creek and slow walk into the nearby campgrounds, enjoying sights and sounds.  I’ll soon have a flock of Fish Crows, because they love the bottomlands along Lee Creek. But also, in a dense cedar say, I’ll hear a busy PISH PISH PISH. The source won’t be immediately obvious, but with a little patience, and a bit of coaxing, I’ll soon have a tiny gray bird with a bold white eye-ring and a twitchy tail – that’s our gnatcatcher.

So last, but not least, on the list is Black-and-white Warbler. About when I’ve got the gnatcatcher in my ears and binoculars, I hear something that sounds like a kid’s bike whose wheels squeak and obviously need a little oil. That’s the love song of our B & W, back for summer in the Ozarks. It’s a forest bird, and the Ozarks are its summer home.

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