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February 27, 2018 Comments Off on Birders trek to loon central at Lake Tenkiller Latest

Birders trek to loon central at Lake Tenkiller

There’s more to the graceful form of a swimming, diving loon than just a pretty song.

Their mysterious, lonesome call evokes visions of North Woods wilderness right here in the Ozarks each winter. Loons migrate south to grace big-water reservoirs. There may be no better place to see them than Lake Tenkiller, a 13,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir in northeast Oklahoma.

Visit Lake Tenkiller

Lake Tenkiller is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir located about 70 miles southwest of Fayetteville near Cookson, Okla. Fishing, camping, boating and lodging are available at the 13,000-acre lake. Lake Tenkiller has 130 miles of shoreline.

The lake was built in the late 1940s with a dam on the Illinois River. It is named after the Tenkiller family who operated a ferry where the dam is today.

Source: Staff report

“Yodeling,” their song is called, said Joe Neal, an area authority on all things bird.

Neal makes the 70-mile drive from his home in Fayetteville to Lake Tenkiller several times each winter to see loons, hundreds of them, through his spotting scope and binoculars. Loons grace Beaver and other Ozark waterways, but Lake Tenkiller is bird-watching central to see loons, gulls, pelicans, ducks and geese.

Lake Tenkiller was in usual form on a cold Friday in late January for a loon-watching extravaganza at this lovely hill country lake near Cookson, Okla. Neal and Pooja Panwar, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, were armed with powerful spotting scopes, note pads and warm clothes.

Panwar will tell you she’s working toward her doctorate in birds or, technically, biological sciences. Birds are her passion and the focus of her studies.

The native of India was eager to see loons, but Neal cautioned that big wind forecast for the day might hinder the viewing. Loons are sort of a low-rider species on the water. High waves can hide them.

Neal’s plan was to loon-hop, so to speak, stopping at marinas and public parks on the east side of the lake. A stop at a boat ramp turned up a mother lode of loons.

“Oh my gosh! There’s a hundred loons out there,” Neal hollered with an eyeball fixed on his spotting scope. Sure enough, dozens of loons bobbed on the chop 100 yards out from the ramp. Gulls, pelicans and ducks also starred in the show.

Neal got as excited as Razorbacks fans get over a slam dunk or home run. Birds are his passion, too. He’s authored volumes of books about birds and birding, plus hundreds of articles. Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trips are frequently led by Neal.

So for Neal, loons aren’t just loons. At Lake Tenkiller, there are common loons, red-throated loons and the rarer Pacific loon. He jots down the number and species of loons and all birds he sees in a small notebook.

A 20-minute drive to another ramp had Neal on the edge of the car seat. “This is where we’re get our Pacific loon,” Neal predicted. Not only did Neal’s scope bear down on a Pacific loon, two other loon species appeared at the same time in the powerful glass. The view revealed common loons, red-throated loons and the Pacific loon. It was a first for Neal.

“A three loon day!” he cheered. “You can’t beat that.”

That’s three species of the nearly 150 loons Neal and Panwar counted at Lake Tenkiller. A cold wind didn’t whistle strong enough to spoil the “loony” show.

Loons are fish eaters that flock to reservoirs like Tenkiller for the food. They dive underwater to snatch a meal.

“Any place the fish are concentrated, that’s where you’ll find loons,” Neal explained. “But they’ve got to be able to dive and chase fish. They swim underwater with their eyes open so the water has to be clear enough to see the fish. That usually involves these big reservoirs.”

Lake Tenkiller is clear water surrounded by mountain scenery. Nearly all the loons counted were on expanses of big water on the downstream half of the lake.

“Loons will stay here until the ice melts up North, usually until the first part of April,” Neal said. “They may not be here in big numbers by then, but they’ll be around,”

Flip Putthoff can be reached at or Twitter@NWAFlip

Sports on 02/27/2018