Getting Your Feet Wet

October 6, 2011
Park Guests take part in a seining program.

Park Guests take part in a seining program.

The best way to learn is to get your feet wet, or at least that is how I feel when I give this program. These park guests are taking part in my creek seining program. It was developed to help monitor the aquatic life found in Lee Creek, but it turned into so much more.  As they were scooping up fish this little girl got her first look at a dragonfly larvae, she had no idea that these winged insects start their lives in the water. As we moved farther down the creek they continued to collect all sorts of things; minnows, darters, crayfish, dragonfly larvae, tadpoles, and even a snake. They couldn’t believe the amount of life that lives in this small creek. It was a great experience for all them to understand that this creek plays so many roles in the park, including home to many creatures.

This is why I enjoy resource management programs in the park. It gives everyone an opportunity to go behind the scenes, and become a citizen scientist. They get to see things differently, they get to hold the resources in their hand and get a better understanding of the park itself. This also helps us accomplish part of our mission “To safeguard the natural, historical and cultural resources.” To do this we keep a natural resource inventory in the park to monitor these resources. This can be a pretty daunting task, so having help is a great benefit.

Getting up close and personal with reptiles and amphibians.

Getting up close and personal with reptiles and amphibians.

Another program that involves collecting data is our bird hike. It is so much more enjoyable to see birds through binoculars than squinting to make out its colors and features. It is also fun to just sit back and listen, but regardless of how we are identifying them we are adding to our inventory so that we can continue to protect and admire these creatures. This monitoring was very important last year in the addition of Spotted Towhee, Lark Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow to our park list.

I also like to present programs that give an opportunity to explore and observe on your own, such as a reptile and amphibian program that showcase some of our native animals. This gives everyone the tools to identify what they find so they can report it back to us at the park. By gathering observations we can have eyes all over the park and cover more ground.

There are many opportunities to become a citizen scientist no matter where you live or what park you visit, so we encourage you to get out and start exploring. Help us by telling what plants you found or what animals you saw. By helping us you can be sure that our great parks will be around forever.

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie is a Park Interpreter at Devil’s Den State Park. He has been there since September of 2009. Prior to Devil’s Den he was a seasonal interpreter at Petit Jean State Park. He received a degree in Wildlife Management and Ecology from Arkansas State State. His main interest is natural resource management.


Wings on the Wind

August 30, 2011

Sitting on a bluff overlooking a vast landscape is a great way to enjoy a September morning on Mount Magazine. Scanning the horizon with a good set of binoculars helps spot wings on the wind. Southward migration has started for many species of birds and some butterflies. The unpredictable nature of migration watching requires diligence. Some days are a bust due to weather conditions. But other days can be outstanding with a good diversity of species and numbers of individuals.

For the column of states including Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana Mount Magazine is the highest point above sea level. Perhaps to a migrant it represents a landmark and/or an obstacle for navigation. For many it is a convenient rest stop.

A red-tailed hawk catching a thermal.

A red-tailed hawk catching a thermal.

Broad-winged hawks usually top the tally. They rest overnight in forested areas. As thermals begin to build during the day, one by one, they leave the canopy to catch rising air. Circling in these unseen currents hawks gain elevation rapidly. It is possible to have over a hundred broad-winged hawks swirling in a thermal at one time.  This is called a kettle. Reaching the top of the thermal they slip out, with wings set, gliding southward. Losing elevation as they approach the northern edge of Mount Magazine where they take advantage of updrafts to lift them just over the bluffs.

Tall bluffs flanking Ross Hollow create a funnel which many birds of prey use to cross over the mountaintop as if it were a major highway. The northern tip of Cameron Bluff offers a great vantage point for scanning the horizon and the hollow. Birds can be above, below, or even at eye level, offering opportunities to study field marks for identification.

There are many other species seen migrating over Mount Magazine other than broad-winged hawks. Red-tailed, red-shouldered, Cooper’s, and sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, ospreys, vultures, bald eagles, American kestrels, and even peregrine falcons have been seen from Cameron Bluff during September. White pelicans, song birds, and butterflies are also seen.

Monarchs and a few other migrating butterflies use the same updrafts to lift themselves over the mountain. Many will take the Mount Magazine exit to refuel on patches of wildflowers along park roadsides. Tickseed sunflower must appear like “golden arches” to these adolescent insects. Late arrivals often cluster together on “tree hotels” with southwestern views.  Some monarchs will be tagged and released to continue their way southward to their winter vacation in Mexican mountains.

A female Monarch Butterfly enjoys a stop over at Mount Magazine.

A female Monarch Butterfly enjoys a stop over at Mount Magazine.

On the south side of the mountain migrating hawks seek out more thermals over the Petit Jean River Valley to help them get through the Ouachita Mountains. Turkey vultures are masters of riding updrafts and thermals. It seems as though some hawks key in on vultures to find thermals.

While sitting on Cameron Bluff, waiting for the next passerby, enjoy either solitude with a spectacular view or conversations with other watchers with various backgrounds and experiences. Pick up tips on hawk identification. Take advantage of unique photo opportunities.

A park interpreter is offering migration watching sessions at Mount Magazine State Park in September. Check the schedule.

So pack your binoculars, lawn chairs, water, and snacks, drive to the northern tip of Cameron Bluff Overlook Drive in Mount Magazine State Park, and watch wings on the wind.

Don Simons, Park Interpreter

Don Simons, Park Interpreter

Don Simons is a Park Interpreter at Mount Magazine State Park. One of the state’s great naturalists, Don has been showing and explaining the “Natural State” to visitors for 29 years, at Daisy State Park, Lake Chicot State Park and now at Mount Magazine. Don is also an excellent photographer whose work can be seen throughout the Mount Magazine Lodge and Visitor Center and in publications. Don has the unique ability to entertain children and adults at the same time while also teaching about the world around them. Don is an active member of the National Association for Interpretation and is a Certified Heritage Interpreter.


Songs of the Woods

June 29, 2011
The Green Treefrog is a small frog with a big voice.

The Green Tree frog is a small frog with a big voice.

I almost always have music playing.  I have radios, cd players, mp3 players, and music on my computer and phone.  But when I go hiking I don’t take anything for music.  Nature has its own song.

The rhythm section is filled by the frogs.  Frogs aren’t the most melodic animals, but add a beat to the song of the woods.  Cricket frogs have a clicking noise that to me sounds like marbles clacking together.  Green Tree frogs look cute and small, but have a loud noise best described as a bark. And when you talk about frogs, you can’t forget the bullfrog, with its load croak that can be heard from more than a quarter of a mile away.

Insects, like this newly molted cicada, make an interesting addition to the song of the woods.

Insects, like this newly molted cicada, make an interesting addition to the song of the woods.

The background vocals are provided by the insects.  I like the katydids with their cry of “katy-DID, katy-DID.”  Late summer brings the cicadas which produce a constant hum, a sound that for many people becomes so common it fades into the background.  Crickets not only add to the background music, but you can actually figure out the temperature by counting the chirps of certain species.

Mockingbirds steal the show with a variety of calls.

Mockingbirds steal the show with a variety of calls.

Without a doubt, the lead singers of the woods are the birds.  Right now the mockingbirds seem to drown out everyone else, as if trying to steal center stage at the concert.  That doesn’t stop the others from singing though.  Every bird keeps up its call and they sing with no thought to harmonies and chords.  Despite the chaos of too many leads, it has a unique sound that works in a way that I don’t truly understand, but I certainly appreciate.

The best thing about this song is that it changes from day to day, moment to moment.  Some animals are out during the day, others only call at night.  Different species are calling at different times of the year.  This means that I don’t ever get bored; I just wait a little while and see what changes.

So take some time to visit an Arkansas State Park near you, there will be plenty of opportunities to listen.  Don’t forget to try a few different areas and times of the day.  Also, many parks offer programs that will help you figure out what it is you are listening to.  If you haven’t listened to the music of the woods lately, it is definitely time to turn off the radio and head outside.

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan graduated from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Administration and after college served two terms as an AmeriCorps member.   She began working for Arkansas State Parks in 2006 as the Park Interpreter at Crowley’s Ridge State Park.   Heather is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


Distracted by the Birds at Petit Jean State Park

March 31, 2011
A goldfinch visits a feeder filled with sunflower seeds

A goldfinch visits a feeder filled with sunflower seeds

My office at Petit Jean State Park may be a bit cramped, but I am fortunate to have a window right beside my desk to let in the afternoon sunshine and allow me to see the comings and goings of some of the visitors to our park visitor center.  However, it can be a bit challenging to stay focused on my work at the computer when the birds come to visit.  We interpreters like to feed the songbirds, and this helps folks who come to the visitor center get a better look at them, especially if they go into the exhibit room and look out through the large window at the pond, manmade waterfall and feeders in the back.  From time to time we also put out birdseed and suet in front of the building, which is where my window is located.  The Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, pine siskin, Northern cardinal, and dark-eyed junco are just a few of the numerous bird species that may be observed hanging around bird feeders here on Petit Jean Mountain.

 

Brown-headed nuthatch at Petit Jean State Park

Brown-headed nuthatch at Petit Jean State Park

In the time it has been taking me to write this, I have seen quite a few species of  birds, including white-throated sparrow, pine warbler, red-bellied woodpecker, American crow, white-breasted nuthatch, brown-headed nuthatch, brown creeper, Carolina chickadee, and American goldfinch.  (Not to mention that expert raider of bird feeders, the gray squirrel, busily stuffing itself and close enough to

 

touch if the window were open.)  The woodpecker is particularly distracting, with its brilliant red coloration on its head catching my eye, and the less noticeable red on its belly (which gives it its name) sometimes visible.  The male warblers are also eye catching, with their mixed coloration that includes olive green and vibrant yellow.  (As a co-worker of mine commented about an especially brightly colored male, “If that one doesn’t attract a mate, he’ll just be really unlucky!”)

This woodpecker has red on both its head and belly

This woodpecker has red on both its head and belly

It’s also interesting to observe the “pecking order” among the different kinds of birds.  Some birds give the appearance of being downright “mean” to other birds when competing for food (which is actually just a natural thing for them to do.)  A nuthatch may be chased away from the suet by a warbler.  The warbler is intimidated enough to move out of the way if a woodpecker comes along.  And if a crow comes to feed, all the other birds give him plenty of room as he hacks away and makes short work of the suet block!  (It’s typical to see the smaller birds scrounging on the ground after the crow leaves, cleaning up some of the mess he left behind.)

Educating the public about birds and presenting bird related programs is one of my favorite things about my job.  I am continually getting better at bird identification, and I enjoy observing and learning about birds, as well as inspiring park visitors to get interested in bird watching and make their own observations.

Well, it looks like the birds have consumed most of the birdseed it seems like we just put out for them.  Time to go give them some more!

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel is a native Arkansan and a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University, with a Bachelor of Science in biology.  Her interpretive experience includes work as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Dardanelle State Park, 1997 -1999, and as a full-time interpreter at Crater of Diamonds State Park, 2003 – 2007.   She has been a full-time interpreter at Petit Jean State Park since September of 2007.  Rachel is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and became a Certified Heritage Interpreter in 2009.  “One of my favorite things I do in my job is helping park visitors discover new ways to enjoy and learn from nature.”

 


The Mighty Mississippi River – Up Close

July 7, 2010
Canoeing at Dawn

Canoeing at Dawn

When I was asked if I was interested in going out on the Mississippi River to see the river firsthand, I said absolutely.  When I was told I had to meet in Helena at 4:30AM to make the trip, I didn’t hesitate.  When they said, “by the way, you will be in a canoe” I immediately thought of quiet stillness of a non-motorized vessel, slipping stealthily through the trees.   Okay, so maybe I thought that traveling on the largest river in the nation, dodging towboats and whirlpools in a canoe was a bit edgy, but my curiosity and excitement easily won.

The Mighty Mississippi at canoe level.

The Mighty Mississippi at canoe level.

It turned out that any apprehension I had of being in a small canoe on the open river was unfounded.  We were to be in a 14 person wooden monster and accompanied by two smaller, but not any less impressive, wooden craft.  We gathered our gear and made ready to get to the river.  In a few short minutes we transitioned from sleepy city to full awake forest.  After getting situated at the boat ramp, we sat forth on the gentle currents of the St Francis River at dawn.

Another chance in the making.

Another chance in the making.

Accompanied by the swirls of fish, calls of birds and a few stares from fishermen who weren’t sure what they saw, we made our way downstream the two miles to the mouth of the St. Francis.  Where it emptied into the Mississippi, we skirted over a flooded point that only a few weeks before I had driven my truck on.  The great expanse of the massive river stood before us and its mighty current began to be felt gently on our craft.    “7 mph” was the call from the front of the boat.  “My GPS says we’re doing 7 mph.”  Our paddles were motionless and staring straight ahead gave the illusion we were sitting still.  When we passed a channel marker the full power of the river was evident.  The 12 foot tall buoy was heeled over in the current, its cable so tight that it had to have been dragging the 1 ton concrete anchor on the bottom.  We had seen two already torn loose by the river and drifting in the backwater.

Paddling lazily south we skirted the top of Buck Island and made landing on an immense sandbar.   About 300 yards away, the sand was liberally spotted with nesting Least Terns.  While our hosts made breakfast, my wife and I headed cautiously out to the colony, where these endangered species were swirling and dipping in mating ritual and totally ignoring us.  We cautiously picked our way along the outskirts until I found what I was looking for- the small divot in the sand and a precious egg.  It was this little egg that made the biggest impact to me.  An endangered species, the Least Tern has suffered from loss of nesting habitat.  Its choice of sandy beachfront property along the gulf is always under pressure and its use of sandbars along our inland rivers has been mitigated by regular releases of water from dams.  On the Mississippi the tern colony was at the mercy of Mother Nature not to cause a rise in the river and wash the fragile nests away.  But even this precarious niche was threatened by man, for if the river dropped too low the locals could ride this same sand with four wheelers.

Crossing at Helena.

Crossing at Helena.

We ate, cleaned up and proceeded back onto the river.  Our guide pointed us to the opposite shore, and we paddled across the mile wide river.  After sampling the east side of the river we headed back across the Mississippi, dodging a tow boat as we slipped into Helena harbor.  Our adventure was over for today, but the enduring memories of the experience will go on for a lifetime.

John Morrow, Park Superintendent (left)

John Morrow, Park Superintendent (left)

John Morrow began work at Mississippi River State Park as the first superintendent for the park in February 2009.  He has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2000.   He has graduated from the Park Superintendent Training Program, is a Certified Heritage Interpreter, Certified Interpretive Trainer as well as a First Responder and SAR Tech II.  He likes spending time with his children and wife, pictured here, who took these photos.

Special thanks to Quapaw Canoe Company of Helena Arkansas.  You can have this same adventure and more by contacting them at www.island63.com.


Sounds of the Night

March 29, 2010
These little guys can produce quite the chorus.

These little guys can produce quite the chorus. The Gray Tree Frog.

Out of all of the relaxing things to do in an Arkansas State Park sitting around a campfire at night is my favorite. It is one of the best ways to experience nature in the park. Where else can you sit and experience such a variety of animals, and all you have to do is listen. After your ears get past the sound of a hot dog hissing or the crack of the fire you can hear how alive the park is. Night time is full of activity and there are many animals to listen for.

My favorite animals to listen for are frogs. There are about 20 different frogs that live in Arkansas and several of them are very common in our State Parks. One of the most common calls you hear this time of year belongs to the Spring Peeper. As the name implies, they make a loud peep and when several of them get together it can get very loud.

Say hello to the Grey Screech Owl.

It may sound like a horse but it's a Grey Screech Owl.

Another of my favorites is the Gray Tree Frog. These guys will be coming out a little bit later in the year and also occur at several of our parks. They can be found around the lights on buildings waiting for a tasty bug to fly in. Their call is a little different in that it is a quick trill.

Of course if you think about night time sounds you always think Owls. In most of the parks in the state you’ll be listening for three in particular the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Screech Owl. The Great Horned is the classic owl that most people think of. It has big yellow eyes and tufts or “horns” on its head. They have the traditional hoot sound and generally are vocal later into the night.

The next and arguably most vocal is the Barred Owl. This owl has a bar pattern on its chest and big brown eyes. Their call is very easily identifiable and most people refer to the saying “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” when trying to remember it.

The last and smallest is the Screech Owl, which looks a lot like a small Great Horned Owl. They have a very fun call that almost sounds like the whinny of a horse.

Owls are a fun animal to listen for and are very responsive to other owl calls. Check with your favorite park about going on an owl prowl with an Interpreter. If you want to listen to these calls before you visit a quick internet search will lead you to many choices.

Anything missing from your food stores? Check with this guy.

Anything missing from your food stores? Check with this guy.

The last animals to talk about are the ones that you have to listen very hard for. A soft step on the leaves may be the only sound you hear as they creep up, but they will soon let you know of their presence. About the time that you are finally nodding off they will tear into the hot dogs or Hershey bars that were not properly secured. Of course I’m talking about Raccoons, Opossums, and Skunks. These animals are notorious for getting into coolers and trash bags that are left out at night. I remember one summer night camping out at Crowley’s Ridge State Park and waking up to Hershey wrappers spread out all over the campsite and an empty bag of hot dogs in the cooler. I’ve since learned to be more careful with my food storage.

So whether it is enjoying frog calls, owl calls, or the sound of a hot dog hissing over a campfire I hope you will enjoy night time in an Arkansas State Park soon. Just remember to pack those hot dogs and Hershey bars somewhere safe.

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie is a Park Interpreter at Devil’s Den State Park. He has been there since September of 2009. Prior to Devil’s Den he was a seasonal interpreter at Petit Jean State Park. He received a degree in Wildlife Management and Ecology from Arkansas State University. His main interest is natural resource management.


Two Roads…

March 22, 2010

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.     -Robert Frost  “The Road Not Taken”

A portion of the Great River Road passes through Mississippi River State Park.

A portion of the Great River Road passes through Mississippi River State Park.

I’m lucky enough to have several roads less traveled in Mississippi River State Park.  Two of these roads are pretty well-known:  the Great River Road, running the entire length of the Mississippi River, and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, that highlights Arkansas’s most unique natural division.  Being two of only three national scenic byways in Arkansas, you would expect these roads to draw lots of traffic.  But here in Lee County, they, like much of the region, quietly exist.   Both byways turn to dirt roads as they plunge through the murky heart of the only national forest on Crowley’s Ridge.  I have seen it time and again: motorcyclists wisely turn around and bypass this section of road, while birders and nature lovers delight in the wilderness.

The Great River Road, or the “low road”, as called by locals, skirts the eastern edge of Crowley’s Ridge.   When the spring rains bring the Mississippi River out of its banks, the low road often goes under water.  Because of this floodplain, you can count on one hand the number of people living on the low road.  Here, Crowley’s Ridge acts as the levee to protect the rest of the Delta from flooding.  It also creates swampy lowlands bordered by giant overhanging trees.  At one point you can drive down to the banks of the Mississippi River, experiencing the river on a personal level.

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, called the “high road”, drives directly through the National Forest.   This section is uninhabited until you reach the outskirts of West Helena.  Overlooks allow views of the Mississippi River and the Delta.  Limbs seem to interlock overhead creating a green tunnel to drive through.  At times the winding, twisting road comes within 100 yards of the low road, just 150 feet higher and worlds apart.  The trees, the plants, and even the wildlife are different.

Wildlife abounds at Mississippi River State Park

Wildlife abounds at Mississippi River State Park

Animals abound along these roads.  Grey Squirrels prefer the upper forest, the huskier Fox Squirrels the lower areas.  Birds likewise separate into woodland and water-loving species.  At night, deer, opossum and raccoons seem to be around every corner.  Stopping, turning off your vehicle and sitting still will produce the sounds of the deep woods rather quickly.  Owls are guaranteed at this time of the year – Barred in the evening and Great Horned deep in the night.

These roads were not built for speed.  A stately 20 mph is about all you can do on the twisting, loose gravel.  On the high road, if you try to go too fast you can very quickly find yourself on the way to the low road.  This forces you to slow down, take in the scenery and appreciate the going, not just the getting there.

For me, in life and in traveling, the road less traveled is always the better one to take.  Take some time, take out your map and turn off the GPS – they don’t work well on back roads anyway.  Spend a little time exploring the back roads in your area.  That road that most folks say leads to nowhere, often leads to the best somewhere of all.

John Morrow, Park Superintendent

John Morrow, Park Superintendent

John Morrow began work at Mississippi River State Park as the first superintendent for the park in February 2009.  He has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2000, first as interpreter at Lake Chicot (2000-2003), then as interpreter at Petit Jean State Park (2003-2005), then as the first Chief Interpreter at Historic Washington (2005-2009).  His specialties are in interpretation and the application of interpretation to planning and managing a park.  He has graduated from the Park Superintendent Training Program, is a Certified Heritage Interpreter, Certified Interpretive Trainer as well as a First Responder and SAR Tech II.  He likes spending time with his family and antiquing with his wife.