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.”

A Wild and Scenic River

January 21, 2010

Stop! Listen!

Do you hear that sound? Something is pounding. Do you hear the music? What could it be? You are standing approximately 130 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 5,600 acres of one of the most rugged and spectacular river corridors in the central United States. It is made up of steep wooded slopes, outstanding geological features, and cascading clear water. Not only is the water quality high, but the river features Class III, IV, and even Class V rapids (this is dependent on rain events), making it a favorite with skilled canoeists and kayakers.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Little-disturbed cedar glades and forests cover many of the steeper slopes. Two species of fish that are found only in the southern Ouachita Mountains–the leopard darter and the Ouachita Mountain shiner–live in the river. Bald eagles winter in the area. Waterfall’s sedge and Ouachita Mountain twistflower, found only in a few counties in the Ouachita Mountains, and a number of other sensitive plant species thrive within Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area’s five natural plant communities.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The combination of natural vegetation, rugged topography, exposed rock formations, and sparkling water creates a scenic extravaganza. You can easily access the river in several places throughout the park, meaning you don’t have to be a skilled kayaker or advanced hiker to enjoy this scenery. Those who want that further challenge certainly have it available to them, but really, this park is open to everyone. Click here for more information on the park’s trails, river access points, floater tips, etc.

The Story of Cossatot:
The idea of establishing a Natural Area along the upper Cossatot River first surfaced in 1974, not long after the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission (AEPC) was created. In October, 1975, the staff of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC; formerly the AEPC) contacted Weyerhaeuser Company (WEYCO) to discuss acquiring the Cossatot Falls area and other portions of the Cossatot River corridor. A few months later, in January 1976, the ANHC presented a written proposal to Weyerhaeuser. The Company’s response to that proposal, while positive in many ways, was tempered by concerns over the Commission’s limited manpower resources for overseeing such an intensively-used public recreation area.

Discussions continued off and on until 1984, when productive negotiation began in earnest. By that time, the Division of Arkansas State Parks (ASP) had joined in the effort to protect the river corridor, enabling ANHC and ASP to prepare a joint proposal that addressed the WEYCO’s concerns about the State’s ability to manage the property. Once a tentative sale agreement was reached, the ANHC requested that the Arkansas Field Office of The Nature Conservancy assist with the negotiations and acquisition.

The Nature Conservancy agreed to acquire and hold in trust the acreage identified for the proposed Cossatot River State Park Natural Area (CRSPNA) until funding was available for its purchase.

Negotiations culminated on November 19, 1988, with Governor Bill Clinton’s announcement at a joint meeting of the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission and the Natural Heritage Commission that the State of Arkansas, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, would acquire an 11-mile segment of the upper Cossatot River. On December 23, 1987, The Nature Conservancy acquired title to the 4,254-acre park-natural area. Final approval of state park designation was granted by the Legislative Council, per Act 512 of 1975, on February 19, 1988. In May of 1987 the Arkansas Natural and Cultural resources Council approved a multi-year grant for the purchase of CRSPNA. The Council also awarded a first-year stewardship grant for the project.

The Nature Conservancy transferred management responsibility for the area to the State in July, 1988. State Parks and the Natural Heritage Commission entered into a cooperative management agreement.

In 1990 Arkla Gas Company acquired the 160 acre Brushy Creek access tract from private individuals and donated it to CRSPNA in compensation for crossing the park with a 36 inch gas pipeline. With the addition of other land acquisitions, the current size of CRSPNA is 5,600 acres.

Cossatot River State Park’s Mission:
Our mission at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area (CRSPNA) is, “to provide resource stewardship for the 12 mile CRSPNA river corridor and to sustain the natural integrity of the river and its riparian forest; to enhance public awareness and understanding of our natural resources through environmental education and interpretation. This includes natural resources such as endemic, rare, or threatened plants and animals of the Ouachita Mountains; and natural history of the Ouachita Mountains and the Cossatot River.”

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

Cossatot River is one of a kind it is unique in the fact that it is a river that offers Class V rapids (which is dependent on rain events), it is one of the cleanest rivers in the State of Arkansas (the pH average level runs around 6.7), and the river runs north to south, while the surrounding Ouachita Mountains line up east to west.  It is also a state and federal Wild and Scenic Rivers “extraordinary resource” stream.

When weather and water conditions allow, we offer kayaking classes and guided tours down this amazing river.  Here is a blog, written by one of our participants, about camping and paddling on the river with his son.

Enjoy a short movie clip of a part of The Wild and Scenic River:

Of course, when the water wants to get a little rowdy, it can. At these times we recommend only the most experienced kayakers venture out on the river:

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, stsarting 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.