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.”

 

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Exploring Nature on the Trails at Cossatot River State Park

March 15, 2011

“The book of nature has no beginning as it has no end.” (Jim Corbett)

I am excited to tell you about the four trails we have and how our longest trail (“River Corridor”) is now completed for you to “experience the seasonal natural beauty along this wild and scenic river.”

The Visitor Center at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area is a good place to start before any hike.

The Visitor Center at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area is a good place to start before any hike.

Starting with our shortest trail, “The Waterleaf Interpretive Trail.”   This trail begins at the Visitor Center and includes a section of barrier-free trail along the ridge top.  This ½ mile trail goes down the North Slope to the Highway 278 river access.  Please be careful and enjoy Arkansas’s natural world.  The trail is marked with yellow medallions with a backpacker in the middle to help guide you along.  This trail is rated easy to moderate (moderate meaning a hill to climb either way back to the top of the ridge).

Brush Creek Nature Trail Sign.

Brush Creek Nature Trail Sign.

Our next shortest trail is, “Brushy Creek Interpretive Trail.”  This trail starts on the west side of the river and provides barrier-free access to a pedestrian walkway over the river.  The trail continues to the picnic area on the east side of this recreation area.  This ¾ mile trail meanders through mixed—Pine and hardwood, and offers a scenic view overlooking the Cossatot River/Brushy Creek union.  The numbered trees in the Trail Guide brochure corresponds with numeric labels placed near matching species along the trail.  The Trail head is located 9 miles east of Vandervoort on the east side of Brushy Creek Recreation Area.  It will end after you descend a flight of stairs into the parking lot.  This trail is also marked with yellow medallions with a backpacker in the middle to help guide you along.  This trail is rated easy to moderate (moderate meaning stairs to climb and a few small hills to get to the top of the ridge).  Please be careful and enjoy Arkansas’s natural world.

Harris Creek Trail Sign.

Harris Creek Trail Sign.

Starting with our longer trails, the “Harris Creek Trail,” begins just off of Highway 278 near the Baker Creek Bridge and meanders through 3.5 miles of mature forest between Harris Creek and the river.  The trail is marked with a blue medallion with a backpacker in the middle to show you the way.  The trail is scenic, and sections of the trail are rugged and steep.  Wear appropriate shoes and clothing and carry water.  This trail is rated easy (short section of the trail), then moderate to difficult (moderate meaning several inclines and then it changes into steep switch backs.  After you have made it to the top of the switch backs you will be walking on an old log road back to the parking area/trail head area.)  Please be careful and enjoy Arkansas’s natural world.

Finally, our last trail is the “River Corridor Trail.”  The River Corridor trail has been reconstructed over the last two years and is now a first class hiking facility. This trail is 14 miles long with several access points along the way.  The trail is divided into three segments the first section starting at the park’s Brushy Creek Recreational Area on Arkansas Highway 246; approximately nine miles east of Vandervoort.  It ends at Ed Banks, which is a five mile hike.  The second section is from Ed Banks to the Falls, and it is a 2 mile hike.  The third and final section is the longest part.  It is a 7 mile hike from the Falls to the U.S. Highway 278 Access Area, below the Visitor Center.

River Corridor Trail Sign.

River Corridor Trail Sign.

Steps and Bridge on the River Corridor Trail.

Steps and Bridge on the River Corridor Trail.

This entire trail is blazed in blue and is rated strenuous.  Hikers have the option of walking the entire trail or choosing a particular segment.  The trail is excellent for a two-to-three-day backpacking adventure; however, hikers are asked to camp at the park’s designated camping facilities located at the Cossatot Falls, Sandbar Area, and the Ed Banks Area, or the undeveloped U.S. Highway 278 Access.  Also you need to stop in at the Visitor Center (located on the U.S. Highway 278 Area) to fill out a Yellow Slip (Trail Register) to hang on your mirror.

According to Park Superintendent Stan Speight, “hikers have the opportunity to choose a trail length that best fits the amount of time they have to go hiking.”  He noted that the shortest segment is the middle section which stretches two miles in length.  “Trail enthusiasts can enjoy a morning or afternoon hike, and all-day hike, or a weekend of adventure experiencing the entire 14 miles,” said Speight.  “And since the trail follows the Cossatot River Corridor, each segment offers the opportunity to experience the seasonal natural beauty along this wild and scenic river.”

With all four of our trails, Please take only pictures and leave only footprints.  We support the LNT (Leave No Trace) Principles, which are:  Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave what you Find, Respect Wildlife, and Be Considerate of other Visitors.

If you have any questions or comments contact a park ranger or call (870) 385-2201.  We hope you enjoy your stay at the Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area.

From start to finish there are 20 –miles of different diverse hiking trails.  Trails are a great way to engage in nature.  There are amazing things to see if you look close enough.  Start with experiencing aspects of nature that you can directly relate to with your physical, sensory, or emotional senses.  You can also join or make reservations to have a personal Interpreter Guide as you hike along a trail.Your connections with nature will continue to go deeper and deeper as you ask questions and follow your sense of wonder.  This connection is what brings about a sense of meaning in our lives—it deepens in each one of us a sense that we have a special place in this precious world.

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

Shelley Flanary is a park interpreter at Cossatot River State Park – Natural Area. She has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2001, starting out as a seasonal interpreter at DeGray Lake Resort, Lake Catherine, and Petit Jean State Parks. Shelley earned her degree in Parks and Recreation Management from Henderson State University in 2005. She is also an NAI Certified Interpretive Guide, recreational kayak instructor, and emergency first responder.


Spring Fever!

March 1, 2011

It’s spring fever.  That is what the name of it is.  And when you’ve got it, you want – oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!Mark Twain

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. Margaret Atwood

Who’s ready for spring? Signs of this much-anticipated season are everywhere, from fields carpeted with henbit to blooming elm trees; March reminds us that warmer weather is on the way. After this harsh winter in the Arkansas River Valley, I freely admit I have spring fever.

Falcate orangetip

Falcate orangetip

When I look ahead to March on the calendar, “spring break” comes to mind, a reminder that it’s time to schedule park programs that coincide with wildflower blooming and emergence of butterflies. It’s time to wipe the dust off the boxes holding my spring crafts for kids. It’s also time to work on my garden chore list and think about plants for this growing season. See? I have spring fever.

Due to higher elevation, spring temperatures come a bit later to Mount Magazine. A general rule of thumb is to add one week of greening or blooming for each 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The door of the season still opens in March.

Serviceberry dots the mountain.

Serviceberry dots the mountain.

Serviceberry will soon dot the landscape with bright white blossoms. Spring beauties, trout lilies, and daffodils begin to emerge this month. Bloodroot, with its one-day-only white flowers and large leaves will emerge like a phoenix from the fallen leaves.

The symbiosis of flowering plants and animals is easily seen during the spring months. In mutualism, both organisms benefit. Flowers advertise their nectar rewards with specific colors, shapes, and nectar rewards, much like the advertising we see everyday in every form. Insects and birds are attracted as the consumer, and pollinate the plant in the process, enabling the plant to reproduce. Lack of color, unique shape, and putrid scent attract flies and gnats as pollinators.

Count the question marks.

Count the question marks

As birds begin to migrate north, many will drill into trees in search of food. Sap trickling down a tree trunk left behind afterwards attracts butterflies that have emerged from torpor. Question marks, goatweed leafwings, and mourning cloaks feast on the sugar-laden sap.

Zebra swallowtail

Zebra swallowtail

Butterflies that emerge from chrysalides in early spring are darker and smaller than summer forms in order to use the sun’s energy more efficiently. Zebra swallowtails, falcate orangetips, hairstreaks, duskywings, and elfins begin to take nectar from sources such as plum blossoms, redbud, spiderwort, wild hyacinth, blue star, and so many more. Ruby-throated hummingbirds usually arrive the first full week of April, and the flowers of Ohio buckeye and yellow honeysuckle are usually ready for them.  The best way to experience these flowers is to bring a field guide, get a park wildflower checklist, and of course, go on a wildflower hike with a park interpreter.

I’m not quite certain when my love affair with wildflowers began. Part of my affection stems from my love of butterflies; a lepidopterist has to be part botanist in order to understand the relationship between them. But my love of spring wildflowers is separate, and not just because the majority of them aren’t pollinated by butterflies. I admire these flowers with a short blooming period; completing their life cycles before the leaves take over with such precision and efficiency.

Seldom-seen yellow trout lily

Seldom-seen yellow trout lily

After so many years of living and working at Mount Magazine State Park, I delight in being able to take visitors to fire pink, spiderwort, Ohio buckeye, historic quince, and lilac shrubs on Will Apple’s Road Trail; bloodroot, trillium, and crested iris on the Signal Hill trail, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the Cove Lake trail. I am asked lots of questions about which trail to take to see wildflowers, and am often asked to identify photos of wildflowers after the hike is over. Helping visitors connect to nature in this way, and helping them gain confidence in their identification skills, and helping kids begin their own butterfly gardens are highlights of spring.

If not during spring break, then at some point in spring, I encourage you to visit a state park and walk a trail to cure your spring fever.

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer has been a volunteer at Mount Magazine State Park since 1997, and is chairman of the Mount Magazine Action Group. She holds a M.S. in entomology and is the author of Arkansas Butterflies and Moths.


Snow Business Beats No Business

February 15, 2011

Now I’ll be the first to admit I am not a fan of the snow.  In fact I consider snow a 4-letter word that should not be spoken aloud, but when it adds to the fun and enjoyment of park visitors joining me for a program even a die hard rather melt in the sun individual such as me can find snow a positive thing.

Snowman on the Lake Dunn Dam.

Snowman on the Lake Dunn Dam.

Last month as the snow was blanketing the park the wheels in my head started spinning.  You see I had planned a Guardian and Me:  Mammals program as one of our regular weekend programs trying to entice our locals to bring their little ones (3-6 year olds) out to the park.  The program was already planned I knew I would introduce the children to the world of mammals and tell them how mammals are different from other animals.  I was going the bring out our furs and skulls for them to touch and examine,  we were going to make animal track soaps for the children to take home, and of course no trip to the park is complete without a hike to look for animals.  But as the snow piled up and started to stick I thought if we get lucky it be fun to make snow mammals as part of the program.

Snow Squirrel

Snow Squirrel

So I hoped the roads would stay clear and the ground would stay covered.  Well when Saturday arrived the snow was starting to melt, but we still had several patches.

The children seemed to really enjoy making snow mammals.  We had a snow bunny, a snow squirrel and we almost had a snow deer but there just wasn’t quite enough snow for the deer.  The remaining snow also increased the success of our hike.  The snow was a great medium for animal tracks especially on the many bridges along the trail, so even though we did not see any of our resident mammals we saw more pristine animal tracks then I have ever seen on a group hike.  We had several canids (mostly domestic dog), what was probably a member of the cat family and an eastern cottontail Rabbit.  So I guess I will have to change my mind about snow and maybe remember that a little snow can be a great thing.

Mamma & Baby White-tailed deer tracks.

Mamma & Baby White-tailed deer tracks.

Dark-Eyed Junco tracks.

Dark-Eyed Junco tracks.

Raccon Tracks

Raccon Tracks

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Raised in Kingsville, TX, Tara’s family moved to Jonesboro, AR in the mid 1980s where she graduated from high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in science education from Arkansas State University.  Tara taught high school science for 3 years before finding out about the profession of interpretation.  She has been the park interpreter at Village Creek State Park since 2008. “I cannot imagine a more fulfilling job.  What other profession allows you to connect people to the things you are passionate about?”


The Clean-up Crew

November 12, 2010

We had a school group come the park today and they raided the snack part of our gift shop during a break in the program.  So, it will be a good evening for our clean-up crew.  We have a special clean-up crew that works nights, 365 days a year, without holidays.  No, I am not talking about the two-legged kind of maintenance crew that comes in every morning early to shine the bathrooms, empty the trash, and get us ready for a new day of visitors.  I’m talking about the two- and four-legged kind, both furry and feathered, who make their appearance as soon as the last employee and last visitor leaves the public parts of the park–the squirrels, raccoons, opossums, crows, and other birds.

I often work farther into the evening than other staff members, so I hear noises that sound like some ghost or spirit is rattling around outside my office.  One night I found the source of all of that after-hours racket.  A raccoon hopped out of the trash can just as I walked past.  I think that we were both scared an equal amount.  Most evenings as I walk up through the parking lot, I will also disturb two or three crows stalking around and looking for treats.

A missed learning opportunity

A missed learning opportunity

Once in a while I eat lunch on our upper deck after a school group like today’s has sat and eaten their snacks or lunches.  That’s when you find out which are the braver songbirds living in the park.  Especially the tufted titmice seem to have no fear of humans when the snacks are really plentiful.  First, they fly to the rail that goes around the deck.  From there if you watch you can see them carefully scoping out the tables vacant of people and with the best looking crumbs under them.  The birds then flit down, grab up some of the good stuff, and head back to the railing to enjoy the treats.  After an hour or so of this diligent work, they can have things pretty well cleaned up.

I don’t mean to imply that I think that this human food is particularly good for our animal friends.  Sometimes I wonder if those jalapeño Cheetos ever keep them up at night like they do me.  Most of the time parks try to limit the amount of access that the animals have to our leftovers.  So, the design of garbage cans continue to evolve, as the animals continue to get smarter.  They can leave an awfully large mess when they really go through a trash can.  The mess shown in the photo below shows just how bad things can get.

Our "Old" Trash Cans

Our "Old" Trash Cans

Our "New" Trash Cans

Our "New" Trash Cans

The raccoons are the most adept at getting into human trash cans.  So, our old design trash cans had a hidden latch that you had to work before you could open the lid.  The problem with these cans was that the latches were so well hidden that humans had to study the little instruction picture carefully and then try it two or three times before getting the hang of it.  The raccoons never did figure it out, but they certainly did love the piles of trash that were left on top of or next to the trash cans by frustrated visitors.  Now I think that the trash can designers finally have the winning design (see below).  No fancy hidden latches, but a fairly heavy lid that covers the entire top of the square can.  If the raccoon tries to open it from on top, then their own weight and the lid’s weight will keep it closed.  A side attack doesn’t work either, because the tops of the cans are too high to be reached from the ground by even the tallest raccoons, and the cans don’t have any lip for the acrobatic raccoons to hang on as they lift the lid.

So, as we phase in these new-design cans, the pickings for those furry folks who are used to dining out on our leftovers will become much slimmer.  That is the reason days like today are a smorgasbord feast for our evening “clean-up crew”.

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks, Park Interpreter

Margi Jenks is working on her “next” career as a park interpreter.  For twenty years she worked as a geologist, making new geologic maps of parts of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington State. Her research interests were volcanoes and their interactions with ancient large lakes.  So, working at the Crater of Diamonds State Park is a natural fit, with its 106 million-year-old volcanic crater containing those fascinating diamonds.


The Milkweed Archipelago

October 8, 2010

“The universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it.”  Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A tiny island of orange beckons an orange butterfly.  Down she goes as millions of her ancestors have for eons of time.  This brilliant orange flower and this beautiful insect have a relationship common in nature.  Milkweed is required for the reproduction of the Monarch butterfly.  The plant has many defenses for protection from hungry bugs.  One of the most potent is a chemical called cardiac glycoside.  It is poisonous to most animals.  It is life to the Monarch.

The female carefully sticks her cone shaped eggs to the bottom of the milkweed leaves.  In a few days they will hatch, and the tiny caterpillars will find themselves on a salad bar perfect for their taste.  Cardiac glycoside is the flavor they crave.  They like it so much it becomes part of them, stored in their tissues.

When they emerge from the chrysalis, their bright orange wings will fill with fluid.  Not only are they bold and bright in color, they fly slowly.  They are an easy target for insect eating birds.  Monarchs are easy to catch, but hard to digest.  Glycoside from the milkweed causes a nasty stomach upset for the hungry bird, and the bright orange and black pattern of the Monarch makes it easier to remember the nauseating dining experience.  It is no longer on the menu.  Monarchs that fly past this bird in the future can pass in safety.  The bold pattern of the monarch is a warning coloration.  While many species in the animal kingdom try to blend in, the monarch, armed with its own version of chemical warfare, stands out.

At least two other insects have adapted to eating milkweed and making glycoside their own.  The Milkweed Beetle and Milkweed Bug feed only on milkweed.  The orange-red Milkweed Beetles are often seen on the leaves, and the red and black Milkweed Bugs can be found on the seedpods.  They are brilliant, beautiful, and a sickening meal for predators.

 

Milkweed

Milkweed

 

Rich Mountain is an excellent stopover for Monarchs due to the many species of wildflowers that bloom during the end of September and the beginning of October. We can’t predict the exact days of the migration, but it usually happens in the first days of October.

A wave of orange will descend onto the white, yellow and blue flowers along the Lover’s Leap Trail.  The adult Monarchs are not limited to milkweed, but nectar on many different wildflowers.  Only as caterpillars are they tied exclusively to members of the milkweed clan.  Thousands of Monarch butterflies will steadily move over the mountain toward their wintering ground in Mexico.

A few Monarchs trickle through the park all through August and September. These early individuals are just the preview of the flood that will come.

This remarkable phenomenon of the fall season reminds us of the unending cycle of life. Each year Monarchs wing their way across the Ouachitas persistently fluttering toward the southwest.  Grounded, we watch them pass and take comfort in the promise it gives us for the years to come.

Next year the Monarchs will head north from their wintering ground in Mexico searching for the scattered clumps of milkweed. Their islands of survival, the milkweed archipelago, is the center of the Monarch’s universe.

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman, Park Interpreter

Brad Holleman has been the park interpreter at Queen Wilhelmina State Park since 1991. He started his career in 1983 as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Ouachita State Park andLake Fort Smith State Park. In 1984 he received a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Management from Arkansas Tech University. Brad worked as an interpreter at Lake Catherine State Park from 1984-89 and then at Petit Jean State Park from 1989-91. He is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and is a Certified Heritage Interpreter. He is also active with the Talimena Scenic Drive Association and on the Board of Advisors with the Ouachita Mountains Biological Station.


Night Lights

July 28, 2010
A field of lights, photo by gmnonic.

A field of lights, photo by gmnonic.

Recently, I had an eye opening experience.  It was when my back sliding glass doors were replaced.  You see, the old ones had clouded over to the point that you couldn’t really see out of them into my backyard.  I had lived with it that way for a few years and had gotten used to it.  However, when the new doors were put in, my eyes were opened up to all of the things I had been missing over the last couple of years.  It really hit home when one night a few weeks ago my backyard lit up in a dance of lights.

Fireflies in a jar, photo by jamelah.

Fireflies in a jar, photo by jamelah.

When I was a child, one of my favorite evening pastimes was to chase down the little flickering lights in my yard known as Lightning Bugs.  Others may know them as Fireflies.  They are the small flying beetles that create light and flash it in patterns that help to attract mates.   My friends and I used to love catching a bunch and putting them in a glass mason jar with holes in the lid and watch them light up.  They would dance around inside and climb up the walls of the jar flashing their lights and generating wonder in our minds.  A short time later we would release them back out into the night and watch them dance away, still repeating the same patterns as we had watched earlier.  We would do this night after night until it was time for us to go inside.

Firefly up close, photo by James Jordan.

Firefly up close, photo by James Jordan.

When I was cut off from that sight on a nightly basis it made me forget the wonder that I felt watching those tiny beetles.  Sure, I still saw them from time to time when I was out in the evenings.  But when my back doors were replaced and I was able to watch for them on a nightly basis, that excitement crept back in.  It was fun waiting in anticipation for the first one to flash each evening.  It drew me outside again to watch them dance and catch one or two to marvel at.  They opened my eyes to what I had been missing spending too many evenings indoors instead of outside enjoying the sights of the transition from day to night.

I’m glad those back sliding glass doors were replaced; not because they let more light in or because they are more energy efficient, though those are both important, but because they encouraged me to open them up and walk outside.

Kathy Evans, Assistant Park Superintendent.

Kathy Evans, Assistant Park Superintendent.

Katherine Evans is the Assistant Superintendent at Lake Poinsett State Park.  Educated at the University of Michigan, she holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Studies and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology.  She began her career with Arkansas State Parks at Village Creek State Park in 2008 as a Seasonal Interpreter.  She became the Assistant Superintendent at Lake Poinsett State Park in January of 2009.  She is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and a Certified Interpretive Guide.

(Photos obtained on Flickr.com through creative commons license.)