Winter in an upside down mode greeted visitors on the lookout for birds during a cold day at Swepco Lake.
Roads were safe and dry. It was foot travel on icy ground that was treacherous Feb. 4 during a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip at the lake.
Flint Creek Power Plant Eagle Watch Nature Trail one mile west of Gentry was the destination for some 15 birders who braved the conditions. The parking area along Arkansas 12 was a sheet of ice in the wake of a major sleet storm earlier that week.
Most of the year visitors walk the level one-half mile path to the water on mulch that’s easy on the feet. This cold Saturday, the trail looked like a drag strip for snowmobiles. The white, icy trail was hard enough a skater could do figure 8s.
Yet the bundled up group seemed eager to search the overcast sky and marshy lake shore on their quest for feathers. Taylor Long, field trip leader, gathered the birders together in the parking lot for a briefing.
“It’s going to be slick, so let’s not anybody break an arm or a camera,” he cautioned. “Hopefully this warm water will bring us some interesting birds.”
Did he say warm water? In February? That’s what makes Swepco Lake unique among every other reservoir in the region. The water stays springtime warm even on the coldest days.
Coal-fueled Flint Creek Power Plant looms gigantic on the eastern shoreline of the 500-acre reservoir. Water is drawn from the lake in the process of producing electricity. It’s discharged back into the lake at about 90 to 100 degrees.
Average water temperature around the lake is 60 to 70 degrees, even warmer near the warm-water discharge area near the plant. That makes Swepco Lake a haven for winter anglers, as well as feathered visitors like bald eagles, waterfowl and shore birds drawn to the never-frozen water.
Birders stepped carefully along the trail to the lake, pausing to search the landscape with binoculars or spotting scopes.
“There’s two gadwall and a great blue heron just beyond those reeds,” a birder piped.
“Oh, I see two great blue herons and there goes a killdeer,” another said.
The pathway leads to three wildlife viewing pavilions along the shoreline that shelter birders and nature photographers from the wind, depending on its direction. One was built years ago. The newest pavilion is named for the late Terry Stanfill, a longtime Southwestern Electric Power Co. employee who was a chemist at the power plant. Stanfill was also caretaker of the trail and property owned by the power company. The utility also funded construction of the pavilions.
Waterfowl were the stars of this field trip. A flock of 20 mallards circled the lake near the pavilions. Some of the ducks broke free from the flying platoon and landed on the warm water.
Long and some other birders brought powerful spotting scopes affixed to tripods for long distance viewing. One scope was trained on a pair of red-tailed hawks seen through a tangle of hardwood branches.
In warmer months, wildflowers and native grass types are abundant near the Eagle Watch Nature Trail thanks to annual Earth Day activities that Stanfill and other volunteers hosted. Eager youngsters tossed native wildflower seeds over the property and planted trees. Many are marked with small identification signs that tell visitors what kind of tree it is.
Those wildflowers might best be seen in May, when winter’s ice is only a cold memory.