April 10, 2012 by Joseph C. Neal
By Joseph C. Neal
Down around Fort Smith old cut-off Arkansas River meanders refilled after heavy rain in late March. Meanders are the big bends in the natural river as it winds its way toward the Mississippi. Many of these meanders were cut off when the river was straightened in behalf of barge traffic. Now big spring rains have temporarily restored them. Ordinarily they are pretty obscure, turned from their natural functions into squared-off and irrigated soybean fields.
You can see these meanders on aerial photographs, but despite many previous trips, I’d never seen them function ecologically-speaking, and assumed they’d vanquish under plow and dozer. Birds know what we don’t, apparently.
Birds have been migrating through this region for ages and they find meanders without GPS, Google, and iPods. All kinds of sandpipers and ducks lacking modern devices readily find suitable habitat in migration. I know this will come as a great shock to the executives at Google and Apple, that “primitive” creatures know where they are going, and how to get there, without digital support. Wonders never cease. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
One day in late March we counted 1,592 American Golden-Plovers between Dyer and Van Buren down in the river valley. It was a very high count for northwest Arkansas, and they were all using the muddy fields and flooded meanders. Besides the golden-plovers, there were Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipe, and a few other sandpiper species.
Duck species diversity and numbers were also extraordinary. Taking into account the big river itself, and these shallow flooded meanders of the old river, we saw all of the following duck species: Gadwall, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked duck, Lesser Scaup, and Hooded Merganser. Frog Bayou Wildlife Management Area was partly under water during this time—good for ducks.
One of the migrating ducks I enjoy most are Blue-winged Teals. The males are elegant during their spring passage through western Arkansas. Flanks brownish with numerous small black spots – a handsome feature all in itself, but what really marks them is a bluish gray head and a pure white half-moon type crescent stretching in front of the eye from chin to forehead. The females are not quite so gawdy, but plenty attractive with their large dark bills and earth-brown feathers.
Most of the teal seen are these blue-wings, but there are also quite a few Green-winged Teals. The male’s head is red, with a bold green sash that surrounds the eye and sweeps back down the neck. One day we observed a very, very rare bird for Arkansas: Cinnamon Teal: the male looks pretty, amazingly red! This is a very common bird in the far west – as common there as blue-wings are here – but it is so rare here that some folks drove from Little Rock to see it.