June 5, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal
From the perspective of those interested in birds, one of the gifts of living in northwest Arkansas is contained in that word “West.” We are not in the Great American West, exactly, but neither are we in the true East. Speaking biologically, we are at a crossroads. Things of the East are on the wane here, and things of the West either live here or pass through.
Eastern Kingbirds, for example, occur throughout northwest Arkansas and at Fort Smith there is now a nesting population of Western Kingbirds. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers can be found in many places in Arkansas, but not in the high numbers here. This is because the West of the Great Plains and prairies lies just west of our Ozarks. And in some places, we actually do have bird habitats much more typical of the West than of the East.
I was thinking about all of this while birding last Friday, in the rain. I was up at the Arkansas Game and Fish hatchery at Centerton in Benton County. They have been harvesting a crop of Walleyes for release into area lakes, and the drained ponds provide perfect migration habitat for certain types of migrating birds. I saw 10 or more different species of Sandpipers, plus a flock of migrating Black Terns.
Rain dimpled the wet mud and floated large bubbles on the shallow water. One bird stood seemingly unconcerned with a stormy spring afternoon. As thunder gave everything a good shaking, it balanced on one reed-like leg, the other pulled up against its body, black bill tucked back and hidden among black and white feathers. Orangey plumage of head and neck were striking. A dark eye open and slowly closed as though this American Avocet needed some rest midst wind and rain and booming. Perhaps because of the storm or weariness, it seemed less wary, tolerated closer approach.
Take a look at the range map in your Peterson Field Guide. Avocets are very much birds of the West. Many popular field guides don’t even show them as ever occurring in Arkansas, but we see them every year here. Many of these sightings involve single birds, but we also see small flocks of up to a dozen or so. No, these western birds aren’t lost. It is part of their migration through a vast range of the western US that, in some respects, includes northwest Arkansas.
Other birds, like Spotted Sandpipers, have a vast nesting range north of us that stretches across North American from east to west. We always have them here in migration. I saw a half dozen or so at the hatchery. I’ll bet if you have visited a big farm pond in an open field in southern Washington County in the past few weeks you have seen a small bird, working the shoreline for insects. It probably was a Spotted Sandpiper.