By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Arkansas Birding Hotspots
In southwestern Arkansas, the large reservoir called Millwood Lake has long been a hotspot for waterbirds, as well as for an extensive list of rare species of all types. It’s at its best from fall through spring for waterfowl and gulls, and in spring and fall migration for unusual songbirds.
Millwood is a very large reservoir, and covering it requires visiting various lookout points. There’s a state park at the western edge of the huge dam, but the Beards Bluff area at the eastern end is usually a better viewpoint. A spotting scope is practically a necessity here. At times, the lake can be full of dabbling and diving ducks, loons, grebes, American White Pelicans, gulls, and terns. Though there are no guarantees, rarities such as Magnificent Frigatebird, jaegers, Little Gull, and Sooty Tern have appeared at Millwood.
Roads lead to the river just below the dam, which can be worth checking for gulls. Bald Eagles have nested at spots around the lake, and Rock Wrens appear with some regularity in winter along the dam.
A few miles northeast, the Okay Landing area of the lake can be productive also. A long levee here has hosted Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Say’s Phoebe, Couch’s Kingbird, Sprague’s Pipit, Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, and Snow Bunting, to list a few rarities.
Three of the sought-after birds of southern pine forests are Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow. The woodpecker is an endangered species, primarily because it needs old-growth pine trees for nesting, as well as an open understory. Modern forestry practices have made such a habitat rare. The nuthatch is fairly common in many kinds of pinewoods, while the sparrow prefers open woods with a grassy understory.
One place to find these birds is at a site in the Ouachita National Forest, reached by turning west onto a forest road off Highway 71 nine miles south of the town of Waldron.
Drive about three miles into the national forest and look for the kind of open pinewoods these birds prefer. It may take quite a bit of looking to find Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as they range widely to feed. The best time to find Bachman’s Sparrow is in spring and early summer when the males sing.
Around 150 birds have been recorded in this area, including nesting Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Broad-winged Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Kentucky Warbler, Pine Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Scarlet Tanager.
This refuge in central Arkansas certainly ranks with the state’s best overall birding sites, regardless of season. Established when a large bend in the Arkansas River was cut through to straighten the channel, it comprises bottomland hardwood forest, scrubby fields, wetlands, and frontage on the river. More than 270 species have been spotted at Holla Bend.
Highlights include songbird migration in spring, when the varied habitats attract a corresponding diversity of species. Among the birds nesting here are Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Kentucky Warbler, Lark Sparrow, and Painted Bunting. In spring, Yellow-headed Blackbird appears with some regularity, straying eastward from its main range.
From fall through spring, Holla Bend can host hundreds of geese and ducks, along with not-to-be-expected species such as Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Golden Eagle, and Sandhill Crane. Long-eared Owl has occasionally wintered in stands of thick cedars, and Short-eared Owl sometimes frequents grassy areas in winter. Bald Eagle is a common winter resident.
Much can be seen simply by driving refuge roads, but to find songbirds it’s better to walk the old roads into the woods, along with paths atop some of the levees. In fall, especially, it can be productive simply to find a viewing spot along the Arkansas River and watch what flies by, from American White Pelican and Osprey to Caspian Tern.
Along a stretch of 40 miles on the south side of the Arkansas River rise three monadnock-type mountains, set somewhat apart from other upland areas. All three have state parks on top, and all three—because of their extensive woodlands and their position as virtual islands in the river lowlands—are excellent places for spring songbird migration.
The farthest east is Petit Jean State Park, a popular destination with extensive trails and scenic gorges. Of the three, it’s probably best for spring migrants, and has nesting Greater Roadrunner (irregular) and Brown-headed Nuthatch. Twenty miles west, Mount Nebo State Park ranks third in this site list, but it’s a rewarding and often birdy experience to walk the 4-mile Bench Trail, encircling the mountaintop.
Mount Magazine State Park encompasses the highest point in Arkansas (2,753 feet), and in spring and summer its woods ring with the songs of nesting Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.
Magazine is also known for two special birds. For many years it has had the easternmost regularly nesting Rufous-crowned Sparrows in North America. The population has dropped to a scant few birds, however, and visitors should ask at the park visitor center for information. Also, in recent years Townsend’s Solitaire has been found with some regularity atop Mount Magazine in winter, significantly east of its normal range.
Formed by a dam on the Arkansas River, Lake Dardanelle has become a magnet for vagrant ducks and gulls, among its other attractions. Of course, visitors can’t expect unusual species on any given day (that’s why they’re called rarities), but at any time from fall through spring the lake and the dam will have plenty of birds to enjoy.
The river below the dam can be viewed from areas off Highway 7 in Russellville or upstream from the town of Dardanelle. In winter, Ring-billed Gull is by far the most common species, but birders have also found rarities from Black-legged Kittiwake to California Gull to Great Black-backed Gull.
On the north side of the reservoir, Lake Dardanelle State Park offers one opportunity to scan the water, as well as a visitor center with maps and other information. On the south side of the lake, Highway 22 passes several informal viewing sites and reaches the Delaware Park Recreation Area, another lookout point.
All winter, the lake hosts rafts of diving ducks such as Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and Ruddy Duck. Sharp-eyed watchers have found rarities such as White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Many rare gulls have appeared on the main body of the lake, including Sabine’s Gull, Little Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull.
A relatively new refuge, Bald Knob was established in 1993, comprising mostly former agricultural fields just outside the small town of the same name. In the years since, it’s taken a spot among the most productive locations in Arkansas for wading birds and shorebirds in spring and fall migration.
The refuge maintains seasonally flooded and drained fields, attempting to maintain shallow water and mudflats to attract birds. In the right conditions, thousands of shorebirds can be present, along with waterfowl, herons, egrets, ibises, and other waders. Peregrine Falcon is a regular visitor in spring and fall, preying on shorebirds.
This is one of the more reliable places in the region to see Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill in later summer. Just a few of the notable species reported here are Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Trumpeter Swan, Cinnamon Teal, White-winged Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, Yellow Rail, Sandhill Crane, Red Knot, and Sabine’s Gull. These are all rarities, but they indicate the productivity of the refuge for birding.
Roads on the refuge pass through various scrubby and wooded areas where nesting species include Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.
Once a vast wetland of bottomland hardwoods and bald-cypress swamps, eastern Arkansas has largely been drained and converted to agricultural fields. One notable exception is Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, more than 5,600 acres of open water, hardwood forest, and bald-cypress wetland. The refuge has often been described as an island of nature in a sea of cropland.
Wapanocca was a hunting club before it was acquired by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and hunting remains part of refuge activities. Find out when hunting is happening by checking the refuge schedule. Parts of the refuge are closed December through February to protect waterfowl.
More than 260 bird species have been found at Wapanocca. Waterfowl species are abundant from fall through spring, including the occasional rarity such as Brant, Eurasian Wigeon, Surf Scoter, and Black Scoter.
A few of the notable nesting birds are Wood Duck (very common), Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Anhinga, Bald Eagle, and Red-headed Woodpecker. The refuge’s location in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway makes it a haven for migrant vireos, thrushes, and warblers, including the occasional Connecticut Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Truly unusual species on the Wapanocca list include Tricolored Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Golden Eagle, Red-necked Phalarope, Glaucous Gull, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.
An auto tour road and a few trails provide access to the interior of the refuge, and there’s an observation platform alongside Wapanocca Lake.
The Fayetteville-Bentonville corridor has been one of the country’s fastest-growing regions in recent decades, but some productive birding areas remain amid the malls and apartment complexes. Lake Fayetteville, situated smack in the middle of the urbanization, boasts a list of more than 250 species.
The lake itself has attracted about 32 species of waterfowl, including rarities such as Ross’s Goose, Surf Scoter, and Long-tailed Duck. Other waterbirds include Common Loon, four species of grebes (Pied-billed is most common, with Horned and Eared regular and Western rare), American White Pelican, and five species of terns.
Lake Fayetteville is surrounded by parkland, and has an admirable list of songbirds. It’s one of the best local sites for spring migrants, and local nesters include Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Painted Bunting, and American Goldfinch.
Seven miles southwest, Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary is located at Fayetteville's West Side Wastewater Facility. This 46-acre site, with restored elements of tallgrass prairie, is accessible by walking raised berms between shallow-water impoundments. Despite its small size, the area has a big bird list of more than 200 species, including American Bittern, Least Bittern, Sora, Purple Gallinule, 21 species of shorebirds, Short-eared Owl, Northern Shrike, Lapland Longspur, Henslow’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Brewer’s Sparrow. Sedge Wren and Marsh Wren are fairly common in fall. This small area is a true natural gem for birders.
Just south of the small town of Centerton, the Charlie Craig State Fish Hatchery has long been one of the top birding sites in northwestern Arkansas. A series of ponds operated by the state Game and Fish Commission, the site welcomes birders, who have put together a list of more than 250 species.
Shorebirds are the main attraction here, though far from the only group of notable birds. Around 37 species of shorebirds have been spotted, including rarities such as Wilson’s Plover and Ruff. The hatchery is a fine place to find American Avocet, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Wilson’s Phalarope. Early to mid-May is probably best for the widest variety of species.
Wetlands and shrubs in and around the ponds are excellent for wading birds and songbirds in migration. Unusual but somewhat regular species include American Bittern, White-faced Ibis, Swainson’s Hawk, Virginia Rail, Sora, Peregrine Falcon, Marsh Wren, Harris’s Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Great-tailed Grackle has become regular in recent years.
Among other noteworthy sightings over the years have been Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, all three species of scoter, Least Grebe, and Say’s Phoebe. Additional breeding birds in the area include Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, and Dickcissel.
Since it was established in 2005, this wetland-restoration area has become a highly productive birding area in spring and fall for shorebirds and wading birds. More than 180 species have been found here and the list is growing rapidly.
Birders should keep in mind that this is a fairly popular area for hunting, and be aware of times when hunters may be present. However, the best birding times usually don’t coincide with the hunting seasons.
The area is not large (just 812 acres) but adjoins additional public land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Less than five miles from Interstate 40, it’s convenient for a quick trip. Shorebirds and waders are always dependent on water levels, so visits a week apart may yield varied bird sightings.
Denman Road runs through the main part of the area, and some birding can be done from a vehicle. Local birders usually get out and walk some of the levees that create the water impoundments to get closer to flocks. Take special care to avoid disturbing them. As usual with shorebirds, a spotting scope is highly recommended.
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is among 20 or so species of waterfowl found here. Waders include all the locally common species as well as the occasional American Bittern, Least Bittern, White Ibis, and White-faced Ibis. Peak viewing is in August for most of the 21 species of shorebirds seen at Frog Bayou.
Among other regulars in the area are American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Sora, Black Tern (fall), Forster’s Tern, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren (spring migration), Painted Bunting, and Dickcissel.
Crowley’s Ridge is a long, narrow strip of slightly higher ground that runs from eastern Arkansas north into Missouri. Surrounded mostly by agricultural land, this highland is a natural pathway for migrant songbirds, and also hosts interesting breeding species.
One way to explore it is to take Highway 44 south from Marianna into the St. Francis National Forest. U.S. Forest Service and Arkansas State Parks jointly operate a visitor center located on this road. Farther south, recreation areas are located at Bear Creek Lake and Storm Creek Lake.
In the summer breeding season watch for Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, and Prothonotary Warbler. In areas with cane, listen especially for the song of the often-elusive Swainson’s Warbler.
This area of the national forest ranks as a top choice destination for Arkansas birders during spring migration, when the forests ring with the songs of vireos, thrushes, warblers, and tanagers.
Located in the southern part of Jonesboro, this 692-acre city park has a list of more than 210 species of birds. It’s a popular local recreation area, with playgrounds and trails, and during most of the year it hosts typical birds of an Arkansas mixed woodland.
Nesting species include Wood Duck, Broad-winged Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Summer Tanager. From fall through spring, the park’s lake sees a variety of ducks, Common Loon, and grebes.
Prime time for birds and birders is spring and fall migration. This park’s location on wooded high ground in a mostly suburban and agricultural region makes it a magnet for migrant songbirds, including seven species of vireos and 36 species of warblers. Keep an eye out for regionally uncommon or rare species such as Connecticut Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Gray Warbler. Peak migration periods are generally the first week of May and late September.
Other rarities that have shown up here include White-winged Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, and Sage Thrasher.