Valco Ponds

I birded for 4 hours at Lake Pueblo State Park. Here are my best photos.

Female Common Goldeneye

Bewick’s Wren

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Bird #558 — Tropical Kingbird

tyrannus (monarch, ruler) melancholicus (melancholy)

Thursday, December 24, 2020 — 8:41 a.m.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas — Lake Saracen

This was a very cooperative bird. It was first found along the shore of an artificial lake in the middle of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, over a year ago—on December 12, 2019 to be exact. We didn’t get to Arkansas for Christmas that winter, but the bird stuck around and I hoped it might still be around when we went camping in March. But camping was cancelled due to stupid, and the bird was last seen on March 16 anyway, so …

But then the same bird was found in the same place again on December 7 of this year and we were heading over for Christmas. Would it stick around? I drove down to find out on Christmas Eve. It hadn’t been seen for six days, but if figured it was worth a shot. But there was another problem. The day I chose was very windy, with gusts up to 40 mph. Not at all ideal weather for birding. I walked the path along the lake and froze in the damp, cold wind off the water. There were a few pelicans hunkering against the lee shore, but otherwise, I wasn’t seeing much.

I decided to think like a flycatcher. Even if it wanted it be out and about in that wind, it wouldn’t be finding any flies. But down below the levy, out of most the wind, there was a strip of swampy woods. I walked along a road through the trees where I was much more comfortable and saw some actual birds.

And a Tropical Kingbird. I first spotted it when it flew to a mid-level perch back in the trees. After flitting here and there a few times, presumably catching flies, it landed on a low branch right along the road and posed for pictures.

Tropical Kingbirds are found throughout Central and South America. They are commonly only seen in the United States in Texas, Arizona, and California, but they occasionally wander—even as far north as Canada.

The key marks are the size (large for a flycatcher), the long bill, and the bright yellow belly. The wings and tail are brownish rather than gray. The tail is notched and without white edges. It’s almost impossible to distinguish a Tropical Kingbird from a Couch’s Kingbird by sight, but this particular bird has been verified by vocal comparisons. (It made no noise when I was there.) The buffy edges on the wing feathers are also a Tropical mark.

The flycatcher is the tiny greenish-gray spot near the direct center of the photo. The lake is beyond the trees to the left, and that’s the direction from which the howling winds were coming.

I stuck around for perhaps 15 minutes, but after its initial flurry of flying about, it pretty much just sat on the branch, out of the wind, and looked around.

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Arkansas Birding

Wednesday, December 23 was damp and overcast, with rain forecast for most of the day. I drove to Heber Springs to see the Trumpeter Swans that have chosen three random ponds as their annual wintering spot. When I first visited two years ago, it was also a gloomy, damp day. There weren’t quite as many swans this year, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any.

I saw Ring-necked Ducks and Buffleheads at all three ponds, but at the third location, they paid no attention to me and allowed me to get some amazing photos.

Bufflehead

Ring-necked Ducks — Males outnumbered females by about 20-1. I wonder why?

The rain never came, so after a McRib lunch and a stop at an antique mall, I wandered around Beaverfork Lake in Conway.

A few of perhaps 20 Northern Cardinals that were hopping around under the pines.

A Brown-headed Nuthatch. Not a great photo, obviously, but I caught the bird in mid-shiver and I think it’s kinda funny.

Slate-colored Junco

On Thursday, I drove to Pine Bluff to see the Tropical Kingbird (next post). There was a twofer on rare flycatchers in Arkansas this year. Somebody found a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in rural Desha County, about half a mile west of the Mississippi. This is a South American bird, but every year one or two wander north and show up somewhere in the states. I saw one in Cook County in 2005. But I didn’t have my camera then. Since November 16, it’s been hanging around the fields along a country road—and sometimes on the road or on the wire that crosses it. There’s nothing about the spot that looks particularly inviting, particularly on this day when the wind was howling across the flats.

I parked and watched for it. Then I got out and walked. Then I got back in the car and watched some more. After perhaps 20 minutes, I figured I’d missed. I drove south along the road for perhaps half a mile, then turned around and drove slowly back. I spotted the bird as it landed low in a bush about 25 yards off the pavement. I pulled up next to it. For the next 10 minutes, I looked at it while it looked around and tried to balance in the wind.

You can see it in this photo as the small gray spot in the lower center.

It flew back behind me to a wire, then off into the field on the other side of the road, then to the wire that crosses the road.

When one of the many trucks from a nearby paper company rolled by, it flew off across the field and disappeared. The only other birds braving the wind in that field were a few Savannah Sparrows.

On my way back, I went by way of Stuttgart and passed seven or eight huge flocks of geese. Most of them were Snow Geese—both blue and white phase—but there were also many Greater White-fronted Geese and a few Ross’s Geese. When I say huge, I mean 10s of thousands. They never let me get very close, so my photos aren’t great. Here is a small flock of White-fronts.

On Sunday, I spent several hours at Holla Bend. If you made a list of the 50 birds most likely found in Arkansas in December—that’s my list. I saw nothing out of the ordinary, but I had a good time and got my walking miles in.

White-throated Sparrow

Rain was forecasted for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so I went out on another gray, gloomy day on Tuesday to Bona Dea Trails in Russellville.

Carolina Wren

Pileated Woodpecker

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Hermit Thrush

Other photos I took during the week.

Bonaparte’s Gull at Big Piney Bay

Red-bellied Woodpecker near London

I ended up with 82 species for the week.

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Fantastic Caverns

We’ve driven through Springfield, Missouri, many times. We’ve seen signs for Fantastic Caverns, “America’s ride-through cave” many times. And while we usually are willing to stand in line for quirky tourist attractions, this one seemed too cheesy even for us.

But we hadn’t seen anything during 2020 because the world shut down, and we (well … mostly me) were starving for cheese. As we approached Springfield from the north, we saw several dozen signs advertising the caverns, and since our route went right by it, we decided to stop. We never thought to ask about the price, so we were somewhat startled to discover it cost $28 each. We wandered about the gift shop/visitor center for about 15 minutes until our tour was called.

A young woman (properly masked) led us down a ramp and into a wagon of sorts that was hitched to a jeep. There were 12 people on our tour, plus the guide—us, a group of four women, and a family of six. We rode about 100 yards down a slope and turned under a ledge where a steel-framed doorway led us into the cave.

We soon saw a photographer standing on a rock, and our driver stopped so we could get a group photo. We were told we could take off our masks—those of us who were wearing them. I and the father of the family were not. The group of four ladies left theirs on, which makes the photo forever dateable (hopefully).

There was no reason why the tour had to be drive-through. It was considerably shorter than many cave hikes I’ve been on. That was just part of the gimmick. And we stopped approximately every 50 yards so our guide could get out and tell us about the history and geology of the cave. They were so desperate to increase the length of the tour that the guide gave us a lengthy demonstration of mining saltpeter for gunpowder during the Civil War—and then ended her spiel by explaining that troops had never entered the cave during the war and even if they had, there wasn’t enough bat guano to make gunpowder for one shot from a cannon. The demonstration took place in a part of the cave that once served as a speakeasy. Among the first explorers was a group of young women who signed their names on the wall.

Other than that, we got all the cave tour stuff—evolution, wildlife, discovery and early exploration, and, of course, a few moments in pitch blackness so we could see what it was like before electricity. The whole thing lasted less than an hour but again—we were so desperate for tourism fixes that we enjoyed ourselves.

Here are some random shots from our tour, most taken from cell phone video and lightened up considerably.

The tour route is shaped like an upside-down “Y.” There “road” passes on either side of a rock outcropping, seen in the next photo. On our way in and on our way back out, there was another tour group on the other side of the rock.

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Northern Shrike

An immature Northern Shrike is hanging around the neighborhood this winter.

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