Monday, May 20, 2013

Birds of The Buffalo (and other Arkansas Waterways)

All trips on the Buffalo River include seeing spectacular bluffs and enjoying the water.  Most floats also involve chasing great blue herons downstream, while turkey vultures circle overhead and kingfishers swoop across the river nearby.  If you go on a less busy day, in the evening, or to a lonelier stretch you may get to see even more interesting bird species.

Here are some descriptions of birds you might see on a float down the Buffalo (or any other waterway in Arkansas):

Bald Eagle:  I saw this Bald Eagle a little downstream of Gilbert.  At first we just noticed a huge bird on the gravel bar.  I thought it might be a vulture, but then noticed its white tail.  If you are familiar with the book Silent Spring and  the history of our use of DDT, you'll know that Bald Eagles were a rare sight in Arkansas as recently as thirty years ago.  Now they can be easily spotted along rivers and lakes throughout the state.
Bald Eagle Buffalo River National Park Arkansas Gilbert Bird
Bald Eagle Downstream of Gilbert
Turkey Vulture: We see these birds every time we visit the Buffalo and on most outdoor outings in general.  Anytime you see large birds circling in groups, they are probably Turkey Vultures.  You can tell them apart from Black Vultures by their red heads and white feathers in the rear of their wings on the underside.
Turkey Vulture Buffalo National River Arkansas
World's Prettiest Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture
More Typical View of Turkey Vulture
Great Blue Heron: These are one of my favorite birds to see.  Due to their size and where they are typically found, they really embody wilderness for me.  One of the largest birds you'll see in Arkansas, Great Blue Herons spend their days wading in rivers and streams stalking fish, frogs, and other prey.  Since they love the water, it is common while paddling to come across one, spook it into flying downstream, and see it again many times over as the process repeats.
Great Blue Heron (This one not along the Buffalo)

Kingfisher: With their stylish mohawks, white neck bands, and tendency to swoop across the river in front of your boat while making a racket, these relatively little birds refuse to be outshone by their larger competition.
Kingfisher Little Rock Johnnie Chamberlin
Kingfisher in Nest
Green Heron:  I've always wondered why these guys were named "Green" instead of "Red" or "Purple".  I finally did 10 seconds of Wikipedia research and found a partial answer: purple was already taken and belongs to what appears to be the Great Blue Heron of Africa, Europe, and Asia.  While not as impressive as the other herons in Arkansas, these birds are awesome.  I think they look kind of funny with their short necks which they make look even stubbier by keeping them tucked in most of the time.  Add to that the fact that they can make that smooth, slicked back "hair" go full mohawk whenever they want and you've definitely got a character on your hands.
Green Heron
Night Heron: I don't see these very often and have never see one on the Buffalo, but other people have reported them.  They look a little like bandits due to the black stripes on their heads and some have amazing red eyes.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Little Rock Arkansas Creek
Yellow-crowned Night Heron On a Small Creek in Little Rock.
Less scenic view that better shows the head feathers

Swallows:  It is common to see birds swooping around bridges in Arkansas and if you float under those bridges, you may see them fly in and out of small mud nests that cling to sheer surfaces.  I've been told that most of these swallows in Arkansas are Barn Swallows, though Cliff Swallows can also be seen.
Swallow Nests under bridge

Have I missed your favorite bird on the Buffalo?  I limited this article to birds that I personally photographed (hence the crappy photos!), but if you want to send along a photo of a bird you saw on the Buffalo, I'd be happy to include it here and credit you.

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