Bird enthusiasts made an altitude adjustment, migrating south over the lofty Boston Mountains to the lowlands of the Arkansas River Valley to see sandpipers and other showy birds on their way south as autumn nears.
Fall seemed far off in the 90-degree heat of a Saturday morning Aug. 19 in Alma as birders gathered for a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip through the Kibler Bottoms area. The hundreds of flat acres are a mile or less north of the Arkansas River.
Trip leader Taylor Long congratulated the group of 20 birders before they headed out in a caravan of vehicles.
“You could be home in air conditioning or off to a cool movie theater, but you’ve chosen to be here where it could be 100 when we’re done,” Long said.
Unlike most field trips where bird watchers gather at a destination then walk through it, this trip was a slow driving tour through the vast bottomland. “We’ll stop here and there to get out and do some observing,” Long coached.
The caravan put Alma behind them as pavement turned to gravel along a sea of short, green grass. These acres of flat land are a sod farm that belongs to West-Ark Sod. The caravan traveled public gravel roads, and the company welcomes enthusiasts to scan their property for birds. Employees have occasionally joined in at some stops to peer through spotting scopes set up for viewing, said Joe Neal with Northwest Arkansas Audubon.
Upland sandpipers and uncommon buff-breasted sandpipers were the target species that the group hoped to see. The sod farm seemed like an unlikely place to harbor birds, but it did not disappoint. Stops revealed upland sandpipers, buff-breasted sandpipers, and least sandpipers eyed through spotting scopes and binoculars. One stop was on sod farm property, and Neal noted that West-Ark Sod is gracious enough to allow the Audubon group access.
The nine buff-breasted sandpipers seen were in the midst of a migration of thousands of miles, from the Arctic to South America, Long said. “It’s a full continent migration,” he told the group. “They’ll stop, rest and refuel, then move on.” The birds spend around eight months of the year in South America.
Buff-breasted sandpipers find short grass to their liking, Long explained, because it’s similar to the tundra habitat of their Arctic breeding grounds. Extensive loss of grassland habitat has contributed to the decline of buff-breasted sandpipers, according to Cornell University. The university in New York is a national leader in bird research.
Sandpipers may be seen in all kinds of short-grass locations such as airports, sports fields and sod farms. Four kinds of sandpipers were seen during the morning caravan.
From West-Ark Sod, the birders moved on with a short drive to bird-rich Frog Bayou Wildlife Management Area. It’s 2,000-plus acres of public land managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission along the Arkansas River. Frog Bayou was the finale of the field trip. By now temperatures inched toward 100, but the hardy birders were rewarded with sights of great egrets and several black terns in flight. By trip’s end at noon, 32 kinds of birds were seen, including waterfowl, vultures, a hawk and one hummingbird.
The next Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip will be at 8 a.m. Sept. 24, a Sunday, at Logan Springs Preserve east of Siloam Springs. Anyone interested in birds is welcome on any of the group’s field trips. Audubon membership isn’t necessary.
At Logan Springs, birders should see summer birds but also an array of birds on their way south during fall migration, Long said.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com .