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.

Eagle Eyes

January 25, 2010

Each year, hundreds of bald eagles find their way to the Natural State to winter.  Arkansas State Parks have numerous programs and special events to help you explore the fascinating world of these and other birds of prey.  Bull Shoals-White River State Park hosts such an event:  Eagle Awareness, held annually in January. This special weekend features a variety of activities and presentations from guest speakers.

One of these activities is the Eagle Watch Van Tour.  Bull Shoals Lake and the world-famous White River are havens for these wintering birds and ideal locations to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  Our van tours take you to parts of the shoreline along the lake and river.

Writing of these van tours brings to mind an experience I had on one such outing in recent years:

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Our Journey Begins

My story took place on a cold January morning. I was riding along in Van #2 with a group of excited would-be eagle spotters.  Three vans were on the hunt, scouting different locations throughout the state park in search of these sometimes elusive birds.  Our group was an eclectic one, ranging in age from early twenties to, well let’s just say “up in their years.”  Small chat filled the van as each rider had one eye looking out of the windows to the cloudy sky above.

After a short drive into the campground we began scanning the bluffs above the crystal-clear waters of the White River, which flows right alongside the campsites. Up ahead, we noticed some activity from Van #1.  The vehicle had stopped and the riders had piled out. They were hastily approaching the river’s bank afoot, pointing to the bluff across the river.  Their binoculars in position and their fingers pointing to the bluff told us they had hit the jackpot!

Our van had barely come to a stop when the first of our group sprang open the doors. Each followed closely behind, binoculars and bird checklists in hand.  I look back, now, and imagine that sprint across the grassy field as a hazy, dream-like jaunt in slow motion.  I see binoculars flopping around the necks of grown men and women as they hold their hats on their heads as they run in an attempt not to lose them. In this almost-Olympic event, such an occurrence would cause one to have to stop and pick it up, only placing them even further behind in the heat.  Had Vangelis’ theme from Chariots of Fire been playing, nothing could have been more fitting.

We arrived riverside next to group #1 with our whole group slouching over, gasping for enough oxygen to ensure our brains could fire a message to our hands to raise our binoculars and place them to our eyes.  Something had caught the eyes of our companions and we were going to get in on the action.  After looking in the direction of the pointing fingers I noticed something white in a tree high above the river.  “It’s a bald eagle!” someone exclaimed. I placed my binoculars against my eyes and after a little focus adjustment I spied the anomaly.  There it was…..a white plastic grocery bag.

Quietness overcame the group and disappointment was on the faces of all standing there.  A plastic grocery bag, deposited outdoors by an obvious non-environmentally-conscious shopper, had been the cause of untold elation and then sadness.  Do you know how long it takes those things to decompose?  But that’s another story.

The easist way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

The easiest way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

A Second Chance

I’m unsure if it was disappointment from not seeing an eagle or embarrassment from mistaking a polyethylene bag for the symbol of our great nation that silenced all in the group.  But in that silence a faint static was heard.  It was coming from the radio held in my hand.  I raised the radio closer to my ear and adjusted the volume.

“This is Van #3…we have a sighting at”…..then static.  Everyone in the group stopped in their tracks and leaned forward, holding their breath and turning their heads so their ears could catch every nuance of the transmission.  “This is #2…please repeat.”

More static then… “This is Van #3.  We have spotted and eagle just below Bull Shoals Dam.”  Silence filled the air as each redeemed bird spotter looked around at the reaction of the others.  Then in a flash of excitement, the previous “run for the roses” was repeated but in the opposite direction.  You would have thought a blue light special had just been announced in the electronics department of a discount store on Black Friday.

In record time the vans were once again filled and ready to go.  As Van #1 quickly pulled away I found myself sitting shotgun in a van full of over-zealous, bird-crazy adults with no driver.  My colleague, the driver, was still on the bank of the river standing in awe of several species of waterfowl paddling in the water.  In an attempt to maintain my composure and a desperate sense of professionalism I yelled out the window across the field.  “Hello…there’s an eagle at the dam….didn’t you get the memo?”  I could sense the tension in the van as the driver scurried toward us, but to everyone’s credit nothing was said.  Finally we were on our way.

The Sighting

After another short drive, we safely arrived at the dam site in time to share what would be an incredible experience with our companions.  There across the river, perched high on the limb of a tree, sat a bald eagle.  As I peered through my binoculars I could see the detail of its beautiful iconic coat, which consists of an amazing 7,000 feathers.  Its yellow eyes stared directly at us, as if to acknowledge our presence there.  Its huge, powerful talons gripped the tree limb, while the winter breeze made its way through the pristine White River valley.  We all have seen photographs or video of a bald eagle at some time in our life.  But standing there observing, with our own eyes, this magnificent animal was an experience which can hardly be put into words.

Everyone stood quietly in adoration as they viewed the spectacle.  I looked around the group; smiles were everywhere.  Some of the couples even held hands as they shared the moment.  Then, without notice, the bald eagle left its roost as its 6-foot wingspan lifted it into the air.  A few gasps and exclamations sounded from the group as we watched the eagle soar above the river.  All eyes, some filled with tears, watched the bird as it flew high out of sight.

We all just stood there for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened.  It was as if the whole world had just stopped and nature, in all its beauty, reached out a touched each of us.  It was a moment that I, and all who were there, will never forget.

* * *
Click here for a current listing of eagle tours and programs at state parks across the state.
Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

–Randy Pearson is a park interpreter at Bull Shoals-White River State Park. A native Arkansan, he was born in northeast Arkansas and moved to the Mountain Home area in 1992, where he worked in management and bookkeeping before diving into photography. After six years of owning/operating a digital imaging business, he decided to make a change, which included taking a job as a seasonal employee at Bull Shoals-White River State Park.  He enjoyed it so much that he returned for several seasons and began volunteering to present programs for campers. In 2007, Randy officially became a park interpreter.  “Coming to work every day for Arkansas State Parks is a very rewarding experience,” Randy says. “For the first time, I feel I am working for something instead of for someone.  The wonderful people I have met and the experiences I have had make me look forward to the years to come.”

Winter on the Ridge

January 14, 2010

Winter Greetings from Village Creek State Park

If conditions are just right you may even find frost flowers.

If conditions are just right you may even find frost flowers.

Winter may seem an unlikely season to go exploring in a nature park, but it really can be amazing. This is the time of year to fully experience the geologic structure of Crowley’s Ridge in northeast Arkansas, and a prime place to see it is on the nearly 7000 acres that make up Village Creek State Park.

Crowley’s Ridge is covered with a lush hardwood forest featuring oak, sugar maple, beech, butternut, and tulip poplar. During this season, the majority of trees are bare, meaning the Ridge’s rolling ravines are highlighted and more easily seen.

What Exactly is Crowley’s Ridge?

Features of Crowley’s Ridge are easily seen this time of year.

Features of Crowley’s Ridge are easily seen this time of year.

Arkansas has six distinct natural divisions of land, which can be divided into uplands and lowlands. According to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, “Crowley’s Ridge is the smallest, but perhaps most unusual, geographical region in the lowlands. It is in the eastern part of Arkansas, completely surrounded by the Delta, but it differs from the Delta in many ways. It rises up to 200 feet higher than the Delta and can be seen for miles around in the flat fields of eastern Arkansas. The ridge is covered with a dust called loess (pronounced “luss”), which makes the ridge look tall and rugged. Through the years, water has cut through the ridge which now maintains an upland character like that found in the Ozarks.” Click here to learn more about the natural divisions of the Natural State.

What made this pile of leaves?

What made this pile of leaves?

What to See In Winter

If you take a winter drive around the park or hike along our trails, you can spot features you would miss during the lush and green summertime. You can easily see where water has eroded away the fragile topsoil and carved out the many ravines that

Birds’ flashes of color are fun to see in a winter forest.

Birds’ flashes of color are fun to see in a winter forest.

give the landscape its dramatic appearance. Along the ground you can see numerous dry creek beds, where the leaves have collected in curious sideways stacks.

Another advantage to winter visits to the park is the increased possibilities of seeing our native wildlife in their natural habitat. During the colder months many animals are active all day long and not just at dusk and dawn like in the hotter months. Even if you accidentally startle the animals and they move away, you can see where they go. Most of the time they don’t go too far, so if you stay still and quiet you can watch them for quite a while. (Click here for a guide to hiking at Village Creek State Park, and click here for tips on how to be successful when watching for wildlife.)

Our winter bird residents are active most of the day, and are much easier to spot in winter’s bare trees. Their flashes of color and activity are noticeable, and it can be a fun challenge to identify them.

Finally, the best reason to visit Village Creek State Park in winter is that after a day of exploring the outdoors, you can return to your cabin and warm up in front of the fireplace!

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

–Tara Gillanders was raised in Kingsville, Texas before moving to Jonesboro, Arkansas in the mid 1980s. She stayed in the area, earning a bachelor’s degree in science education from Arkansas State University and teaching high school science for three years before finding out about the profession of interpretation. Tara was hired at Village Creek State Park in 2008. “I cannot imagine a more fulfilling job,” she says.