Arkansas is geologically very diverse and this physiographic variation helps determine the vegetational patterns and land use practices that affect bird populations. The Arkansas climate is fairly mild and ample rainfall and long, mild growing seasons favor a broad-leafed deciduous forest across the entire state. Thus, bird life across the state originally favored woodland species of birds. As people moved into the area, more open spaces were created and prairie birds have become more abundant. The 366 species of Arkansas birds and many migratory birds can be enjoyed in a wide variety of environments, from backyards to wilderness. Here's a few of the lesser known feathered folk you may see in Newton County.
-Perhaps birdwatching is so appealing because it requires little or no special equipment or clothing and you don't have to travel for miles to enjoy it. For whatever reasons, birding is becoming the most popular reason for visiting Arkansas, according to studies done by tourism groups.
Although you need not move from your comfortable lawn chair to enjoy watching birds, you might want to consider a few hours in the Gene Rush/Buffalo River Wildlife Management Area in the eastern part of the county, along the Buffalo National River in the northern part of the county, or at one of the Forest Service recreation areas at Falling Water, Alum Cove, or Dismal Hollow in the southern part of the county.
Sightings of Bald Eagles are fairly common and you can easily identify this American symbol by his enormous size and the white feathers on his head, although he doesn't get them until he is an adult of about two years old.
Along the river and at ponds, watch for the Great Blue Heron, a common permanent resident. The Herons are a tall, long necked wading bird, grayish brown in color. The center of crown and throat are white and sides of the crown are black, with the stripes meeting at the back of the head, where the feathers lengthen to form a crest. The Great Blue Herons nest on platforms of sticks, usually in tall trees, though sometimes on the ground. Breeding season may start as early as February, but peaks in April and May. After that, large numbers of the birds may congregate in prime feeding areas.
Red Tailed Hawks are permanent residents of open areas all over the state and are especially numerous in winter. Most adults have red tails, but some do not. Likewise, some have a pattern of dark ventral marks or "belly bands", but some don't. Color can vary from light brown to very dark. All have the characteristic raptor head and beak and square tails. They find their prey while perched, rather than when soaring, and soaring appears to be territorial defense and courtship activity.
Ruffed Grouse have been the subject of a successful Game and Fish restocking program in Newton County, where they disappeared by 1900. They have variegated upper feathers of buff, gray and white and irregularly black-barred and tail feathers, and large tufts of glossy, wide black feathers at the side of the neck. The ruffed grouse drums a loud tattoo during mating season in the spring.
The Eastern Screech Owl, one of the many owls common to the hardwood forests, is adaptable to almost any location, including urban areas. He's one of the small members of the family, reaching a maximum length of about ten inches. The Eastern Screech Owl has conspicuous ear tufts, white lower body parts and rufous upper coloring, finely streaked with black. His call, or screech, is a rasping, weird, melancholy sound. His favorite home is an apple orchard, but he's been known to nest in dwellings and barns.
Whip-Poor-Will, a migrant who returns to the Ozarks in the summer is named for his call which can be heard in the evenings and early morning hours. Whistlers who can mimic it can often "talk" back and forth to the birds and even call them in closer. Whip-poor-wills belong to the nighthawk family and comes out at night to catch his dinner on the fly, but may be flushed up from ground level hiding places during the day. He has a head finely mottled with black and white, back feathers mottled with buff and black, black primaries with broken rufous bars, and an irregularly barred tail of black and buff. The end half of the three outer feathers of the tail are white with black on the outer vane of the outer feather extending further down then on the others.
The Northern Mockingbird is Arkansas' state bird and loves urban shrubbery and dense fence rows. He's a skillful mimic with a wide variety of songs and is likely to take an exposed position when singing. His upper feathers are ashy in color and the lower are white, as are the outer tail feathers. Mockingbirds nest in thick hedges from March through June.
You can easily identify many of the songbirds, the scarlet Cardinal with his black mask; the tufted titmouse with his gray upper feathers and distinct crest; the Eastern Bluebird with his red breast; the Indigo Bunting with his darker blue hues; the handsome Blue Jay in blue and white; the Redwing Blackbird with the red oval on his black wing; the orange and black Orioles and the gentle brown wren with its speckled breast and long beak and tail.
For more help with identifying birds, books are available at the local library and at the U.S. Forest Service District Ranger office in Jasper.