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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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.


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.)


Capturing the Magic of Waterfalls

March 18, 2010
Longer exposure times will help you "silk" the water as it falls.

Longer exposure times will help you "silk" the water as it falls.

There is something uplifting about natural waterfalls. They are simply examples of gravity at work. It could be a little ripple and splash over a rocky rivulet.  It could be a brook babbling playfully through the heart of a forest or a trickle tumbling down a series of stair steps of a wet season streambed.  It could be a washboard cascade sliding down a mountainside or rapids of a young river bouncing from boulder to boulder.

It could be a thunderous leap from a high cliff into a pool below.

No matter its size or volume a waterfall adds quality to any hiking adventure: Beautiful in so many ways, yet these same sites would go almost unnoticed without splashing water. Mount Magazine State Park and a few other Arkansas State Parks offer plenty of opportunities to truly experience nature at its best.

Waterfalls enhance our senses.  Listen to their trickles or roars.  No two have the same music or rhythm.  Each seems to have a pulse like a living entity.  Feel their spray and vibration. Breathe in their pure, cool, misty air.  Soak in light and dark contrasts of their natural colors.  Let them wash away your worries.

There is a scientific explanation for this. Thunderstorms, crashing waves, and waterfalls split air molecules, creating negative ions which have positive effects on our brains. So if you suffer from cabin fever, seek out a waterfall.

Artists spend hours trying to capture essences of waterfalls with oil or watercolor paints.  Many people whip out little pocket cameras for quick snapshots.  Some pose in the foreground to let everybody they know they had been there.  Almost every coffee table book and calendar of natural scenery contains magnificent images of waterfalls.  Tim Ernst published a wonderful coffee table book that focuses on waterfalls in Arkansas, as well as a guide to locating many of them.

Look around, sometimes it's a unique perspective that makes the picture.

Look around, sometimes it's a unique perspective that makes the picture.

Most of today’s point-and-shoot cameras don’t have the features or lens quality to take more artistic photos.  For good quality landscape photography you need a camera that has changeable settings. 

Two things to remember when trying to capture such quality images are “slow down” and “hold still.”  

“Slow down” refers to the shutter speed on your camera.  Exposure times need to be at least half a second.  “Hold still” suggests that a tripod is required.

More important is getting out to those wild places. Many waterfalls are in rugged, hard to get to locations that can challenge adventurous explorers. This is true about many of Mount Magazine State Park’s waterfalls. Creeks flow in all directions from the mountain, especially after rainfall. Many of these waterfalls are outside state park boundaries, are seldom visited, and lack names. This writer has not seen all of the waterfalls Mount Magazine has to offer. This rugged mountain does not give up all her secrets easily.

Sometimes the season matters. A clear view of the falls is the norm in Winter but it maybe obscured in the Summer.

Sometimes the season matters. A clear view of the falls is the norm in Winter but it maybe obscured in the Summer.

“Slow down” also refers to your experience in wild places.  Before taking photographs, study, listen, and soak in all it has to offer.  Memories will come flooding back each time you view images captured by your camera.  Let them wash away your worries.

Tips for taking great waterfall photographs will be shared during a new program at Mount Magazine State Park on March 19th.  The following morning an expedition will venture out to visit at least four waterfalls in the park.  These activities will be repeated on March 25th and 26th.

For details check our website: www.MountMagazineStatePark.com.

 

Don Simons, Park Interpreter

Don Simons, Park Interpreter

–Don Simons works as the 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 28 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.