This is the first in a series of guest posts from Mitchell Pruitt, a recent honors graduate of the University of Arkansas who will continue his studies at the university as a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences. An avid bird watcher for seven years, Mitchell – at age 17 – ranked No. 4 in 2011 on a list of people who had seen the most birds in Arkansas, when he documented 311 avian species.
Starting in mid-May, the Ozark National Forest is alive with life. Fawns snuggle against mom in a dew-laden field, snakes stretch on rocks in the sun, and birds arrive to begin their annual rituals. On an unnaturally cool morning – 35 degrees to be exact – life takes a little longer to get going at Cherry Bend Recreation Area. The first warm rays of sun hit the ridge tops at about 7:30 a.m., spreading the intoxicating aroma of wild azaleas and getting the birds revved up.
Slowly, every ridge began to sing in the warmth of the day.
Many of these birds are still searching for a mate, but even more have already begun nesting. The dynamic of these old woods is impressive. From deep in the valley a denizen of the pristine Ozark streams – the Louisiana waterthrush – can be heard. As the wind blows, the fleeting buzzes of a black-throated green warbler travels up from that same, foggy valley. This tiny bird deserves a place next to the British crown jewels.
From some high-up hollow, a worm-eating warbler, all tans and yellows, sings in competition with the fluting of a wood thrush. The worm-eating warbler doesn’t just eat worms, but it sure can get a bill full of caterpillars when it is feeding its young! It was one of my targets for this particular upland Ozark trip and, in turn, a reason why I got up at 5:30 a.m. to head to this wonderland. When I heard the first one nearby, I snapped out of my dream state and went after it with the camera. I waited, perched on a log on a steep slope, as it worked its way towards me. It kept checking the leaves for insects, always with one eye on me, and never got too close. I managed a couple shots when it sat still for a few seconds and then left it be.
The woods were surprisingly open here, but with a dense carpet … luckily most of it wasn’t poison ivy this early in the season. As I picked my way back down to the trail I was stopped by a loud ‘PEETsa!’ I had walked right into one of several acadian flycatcher territories in the area. Almost as soon as I heard it, I saw the nest at eye level above a small creek. As per acadians, it was equipped with oak tassels hanging from the bottom. After quietly taking pictures, the male escorted me from the premises.
The summer Ozark specialties continued as the morning progressed: red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos, more wood thrushes, a surprise blackpoll warbler lagging behind its other migrant buddies, and the oh-so-loud Kentucky warbler with an ovenbird, its big warbler cousin. At this point, I met back up with another birder. We split early in the morning with two different photography agendas. We carried on to the top of one of the nearby ridges, picking our way up a steep trail.
Finally, toward the top we heard the Holy Grail of the day … cerulean warblers. Their short, high-pitched buzzing came from the treetops, as usual. Normally a birder is disadvantaged looking for this bird due to its desire for height, but today we had the advantage. At the top of this ridge, you can be even with the treetops below. Up top, listening and looking for these tiny blue beauties, we were taken back in time to the days of logging up here in the early 1900s. To fully scour the area we had to pass through a landmark dubbed the Rock House: a bluff overhang walled in with local limestone, equipped with its own spring-fed cistern, used as shelter by loggers.
The first cerulean found us and landed on a low limb just above the old stone structure. Score! The first one I’ve ever been able to really get in my camera’s viewfinder. After taking photos of it – one of which is the main image above – I stepped back to enjoy it through my binoculars. The view couldn’t have been better. Cerulean warbler in the foreground, its back turned as if looking at the dramatic ridge-scape in the background. The day was complete!
Not only can Cerulean warblers be hard to find, they are simply hard to come by. The tiny, short-tailed warbler once dominated this high, woodland habitat. It was hit hard by logging in the 19th and 20th centuries and the problems continue. In Arkansas today, there are very few places where the species can be found breeding reliably. They are specialists in old-growth forests, which are even harder to come by than the bird itself. Cerulean warblers are strictly an eastern species and are fairly widespread during migration, becoming harder to find once breeding season starts. It was truly a blessing and a pleasure to see and hear several on this day, along with all their neighbors.