Missouri and Arkansas: Ozarks and Prairies May 04—13, 2007

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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This was a stormy spring in the Midwest and the rainy weather held up migrants somewhat, providing the best warbler show in years. Eighteen species of breeding warblers were seen, most of them repeatedly, including the rare Swainson’s Warbler. Our total of 29 species of warblers was one of our highest ever. We enjoyed a spectacular morning at Prairie State Park with migrants streaming across the prairies and filling woodlots alike. Highlights included Bell’s Vireo, Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, flocks of Orchard and Baltimore orioles, migrating groups of Yellow Warblers, a Killdeer performing a nest distraction display, and a tiny male Ruby-throated Hummingbird that came from far across the prairie, flying low and pausing momentarily at a Castelleja (Paint brush) before continuing. But, it wasn’t entirely an avian show. Spring flowers on the prairies were spotty but locally good with Yellow Star Grass, Spring Beauty, Rose Verbena, and others dotting the prairie in abundance.

Ozark highlights included Scarlet Tanagers, Prairie Warblers, Cerulean Warblers, Blue Grosbeaks, and a surprising number of migrant warblers including Golden-winged, Chestnut-sided, Canada, Mourning, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, and Wilson’s among others. Dozens of Wood Ducks, some with downy ducklings, at Mammoth Springs, as well as Red-headed Woodpeckers, were also highlights. For botanists we found Lily Twayblade Orchids, flowering Mt. Azalea, Smoke Trees, Ozark Chinkapins, Climbing Milkweeds, two species of Wild Yams, Showy Penstemon, Shooting Stars, Green Dragons, Fire Pinks, and many others.

Seated comfortably in Wild Bill’s canoes we drifted lazily down the Buffalo River one morning, listened to a serenade of warblers, vireos and thrushes, and looked up at splashes of yellow coreopsis and blue spiderworts decorating little shelf-like openings above cliff faces. A day later, near Mountain View, our group entered Blanchard Cave and descended 20 stories underground into the marvelous and largely unseen world of darkness beneath the Ozark plateau. Caves honeycomb the Ozarks and their architects are the tens of thousands of springs that dot the region; some are mere seeps on hillsides, and others, ranking among the largest in the world, are big enough to supply populations of our largest metropolitan areas. Everywhere there were warblers and a great many new plants, and in Mountain View traditional crafts and music were on display, as well as plenty of delicious blackberry cobbler. We concluded the trip with a pleasant visit to historic Mammoth Springs and obligatory dinner at Fred’s Fish House. The last day we saw three dramatically different springs?one that boils up with great force, one that issues from a cliff, and one that flows silky-smooth and blue as sky.

This trip offers a window into a distinctive American culture too, where things move a bit slower, incomes are lower, and people still take life a day at a time, mostly thankful for what each day brings. When the big fellow loading our canoes at the designated take-out site was asked how much the canoes weighed, he hefted one high over his head and answered slowly, “I really don’t know how much they weigh, I just grab ’um and pick ’um up.” Continuing, he added, “It’s a little easier now than when I started though.”

And he knew his snakes too. After learning we’d seen a small snake swimming in the river, his female companion piped up, informing us it might have been a cottonmouth, or maybe a water moccasin. “Probably ain’t that,” he said. “Besides, a cottonmouth and a water moccasin are the same thing. Them moccasins got a white mouth inside. That’s why some people call ’um cottonmouths. Most likely these folks just saw a little water snake.” Eyes betraying doubt, his companion seemed unsure. “Well, they’s the same,” he added, putting the matter to rest.

Our lists reflect the wide range of activities on this trip?birds, plants, butterflies, mammals, and herps, as well as traditional Ozark crafts and music, and even a little geology, but they hardly do justice to the beauty and charm of this region. With all of the natural history, it’s a full-packed trip and we think it will leave you with fond memories of one of North America’s loveliest and gentlest regions.