The square-stern aluminum canoe glided silently through the flooded timber and stained water of this magnificent swamp.
A heron squawked. Gar swirled in the shallows. It seemed like an ivory-billed woodpecker could show itself any minute.
Bird-watch at Beaver Lake
Public parks at Beaver Lake are great for birding. Most have forests and open areas, which are home to a variety of birds. Waterfowl and bald eagles can be seen on the lake or flying overhead. Bald eagles are most common during winter.
— Staff report
But this wasn’t Bayou De View or some other fabled swamp far away in eastern Arkansas. This swamp is right here in Northwest Arkansas, along the south end of Beaver Lake.
When the lake is high, as it is now, a lowland along the War Eagle River floods with lake water. The rise creates a mysterious and beautiful swamp two miles downstream from the War Eagle Mill, where the river joins the lake. There are acres of swamp to explore. Paddling a canoe or kayak is the perfect way to see it.
Swamp paddlers can launch under the War Eagle bridge and head downstream to the woolly swamp of Beaver Lake. It’s a breeze to paddle back upstream to the bridge. Right now the high lake has water backed up almost to the bridge, so there’s little current.
Or, paddlecraft and power boats can travel up the War Eagle arm of the lake to the swamp.
Birds were the quest during a steamy trek into the swamp on a warm May 26. Joe Neal of Fayetteville had a handful of birds on his list that he hoped to see this morning on the river. A prothonotary warbler topped the list. Herons, vultures and cliff swallows soared or beat wings in the clear sky. Neal jotted in his field notes each bird species seen. The page was filling fast, and we weren’t in the swamp yet.
There was so much to see along the way. Bluffs from a few feet tall to 80 feet or more cradle the waterway downstream from the War Eagle Bridge. The retired U.S. Forest Service biologist and author is as savvy at identifying plants and wildflowers as he is birds. These War Eagle River bluffs are home to many plant varieties. Neal knew most all of them.
Bluffs on the west bank appear craggy and rugged. Downstream, bluffs on the opposite bank are more rounded. These round-shaped bluffs held an array of plants and wildflowers.
Wild columbine got his attention.
“Oh look, there’s some in bloom,” Neal hollered, reaching for his camera.
He pointed out a swamp dogwood bush, different than a flowering dogwood tree that’s common in the forest. The dogwood bush is more a prairie species. Ferns and other plant types thrived near a seep area of the bluff. They do well in a rocky realm where soil is minimal.
“You’ve got to have just [the] right habitat, and this is just the right habitat,” Neal explained. “This is a special spot. Not your average spot.”
Easy paddling pushed the canoe to the shady edge of the swamp. Flooded oak trees rise from the shallow water, among bushes and gnarly, fallen timber. A white-eyed vireo sang, accompanied by chirping crickets and frogs.
This Ozarks swamp is a sight to behold for a paddler enamored with a swamp environment. Neal’s bird list from the swamp included three wood ducks, which flew downstream and out of sight. Hardwood trees were full of singing birds — red-eyed, white-eyed and yellow-throated vireos; northern parulas; indigo buntings; great crested fly catchers; and summer tanagers.
A trolling motor on the back of the canoe made the trip back to the bridge a breeze. There were more birds to see, and Neal hadn’t seen his elusive prothonotary warbler.
Now it was noon, and cliff swallows were darting from their nests along the bluff upstream from the swamp.
“If somebody was paddling down this river 500 years ago, this is what they’d see,” Neal said, watching the darting and diving swallows. “It doesn’t change much.”
A hole in a dirt bank held a belted kingfisher nest. Neal saw the blue-feathered kingfisher flying up and down the river. He wanted a photo of the bird in the nest, but wildlife doesn’t always cooperate.
The end of this swamp paddle was near. That’s when Neal saw it. The bright yellow breast of a prothonotary warbler. Unlike the kingfisher, the bird perched on a branch in ideal light for Neal to shoot a photograph.
There’s still time to explore this Beaver Lake swamp, an “Okefenokee of the Ozarks” as Neal calls it. Beaver Lake will likely remain high for the next month or so. The swamp will be there as long as there’s water.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip
Sports on 06/20/2017