The Buffalo River runs roughly eastward for 135 miles through the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas and is one of the few US rivers that remains “unregulated,” meaning that no dams have been constructed on the river. In 1972, the Buffalo River was named the first “National River” under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. This Memorial Day weekend I made it up to the Ozarks for a canoe trip on the Buffalo that turned out to be a wonderful birding opportunity.
Before departing Oxford I found a couple of bird checklists from the USGS and NPS. There were not as many new species on the list as I expected, so I wound up taking a Mississippi checklist with me which served just as well.
We stayed in a cabin a couple miles north of Dillard’s Ferry. The cabin was situated on a hilltop between an open grassland in front and a forested area down the slope behind the cabin. The back deck of the cabin turned out to be a fantastic spot to watch birds in its own right, particularly flycatchers. A nesting pair of EASTERN WOOD-PEEWEES, a LEAST FLYCATCHER, a pair of EASTERN KINGBIRDS, and an ACADIAN FLYCATCHER all visited the limbs around the deck, some providing great opportunities for extended viewing. I discovered the Least Flycatcher early Saturday morning as I was doing some morning exercises out on the deck. The characteristic “che-beck” put me on alert until I spotted it in a nearby tree. An adult male ORCHARD ORIOLE and a pair of SUMMER TANAGERS were seen mornings and evenings near the top of the Post Oak trees in the yard, and a BLUE GROSBEAK passed through briefly. I heard a KENTUCKY WARBLER frequently down the hill in the forest but was never able to see it. HOUSE FINCHES and INDIGO BUNTINGS could be heard and seen throughout the day and a pair of CAROLINA WRENS who perched very near the deck astounded several in our party with how much volume can come from such a little bird.
On Saturday we put our canoes in the river around 10am at Dillard’s Ferry where Hwy 14 crosses the river. Immediately I was struck by how “birdy” the banks were. Before we were out of sight of the bridge I had heard several warblers including several AMERICAN REDSTARTS, HOODED WARBLERS, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLERS, and (to my surprise) also several CERULEAN WARBLERS. Even with binoculars, sitting in a canoe on a river is not the best way to get a visual on a warbler as the slope up the banks tends to exaggerate the distance even for relatively short trees. So, a small-ish thirty foot oak tree with a warbler in the top suddenly feels like a sixty foot tree. Luckily the birds were really singing for most of the day.
I was surprised to hear the Ceruleans since I was thinking of them as migrants. However, besides the Least Flycatcher they were the only migrant species I recorded during the trip. A little checking afterward revealed that they are known to breed along some of the Ozark riverways and in fact the Sibley map of their breeding range does just dip into NW Arkansas though no breeding populations have been recorded in Marion Co. where we were. A discussion of Cerulean Warbler breeding populations can be found at the Cerulean Warbler Atlas Project run by Cornell University. Some of the breeding populations listed in the report, such as those in southern AR along the Mississippi River, at least suggest that breeding populations of Ceruleans may exist in Mississippi though rare. No data was submitted for the report from Mississippi.
A mile or two from the bridge we arrived at Buffalo Point a bend in the river with public access and campsites. The campsites were just up the banks from the gravel bar deposits on the passive side of the bend (the “inside” of the bend). On the active side of the bend rose 50-100ft bluffs of limestone and dolomite. The more easily dissolved limestone formed the upper portions of the cliff face, worn smooth by dissolution, while the dolomite formed blocky outcrops near the water. ROCK DOVES and CLIFF SWALLOWS were nesting in the dolomite and TURKEY VULTURES and BLACK VULTURES rode the thermals above the cliff. The sharp bend in the river has eroded a deep channel making a great swimming hole. Just at the upper end of the gravel bar a pair of GREEN HERONS were probing along the water’s edge.
As we moved down river we heard or saw all the same species that were present at the cabin (with the exception of WILD TURKEY, which walked into the yard one afternoon) and more. At one spot where a secondary channel provided another nice swimming hole, the steep rock faces allowed enough footing to be covered with forest, and we watched a flock of AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES playing in the tree tops and chasing one another across the river and back for half an hour or more. As we were pushing the canoes off that gravel bar a very large PILEATED WOODPECKER flew majestically over our group and landed in a tree on the far bank of the river.
Lower on the river near Rush Landing where the river was distinctly more placid, we found a LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH working along the rocky banks, a GREAT BLUE HERON, and heard a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO along the forest edge. Along the way a few species seemed to follow us down the river as de facto straggling members of our little flotilla. A BELTED KINGFISHER followed us for a couple of miles playing leap-frog with the group, perching in a tree ahead of us to hunt, watching as we passed and then overtaking us a few minutes later. The pair of Green Herons also seemed to turn up repeatedly. And, at one point, a small, ruddy bat (most likely an INDIANA BAT) decided that flying ten feet above a canoe was a very advantageous position, and proceeded to hold that spot (above one canoe or the other) for a few hundred meters. And at various points we watched birds antagonizing one another: FISH CROWS diving around a RED-TAILED HAWK, WOOD-PEEWEES chasing away BLUE JAYS, and even KINGBIRDS apparently in a territorial dispute aggressively chasing away one another.
In all the Buffalo River was a fantastic place to bird and I definitely will go back. Many of the gravel bars would afford good viewing for a spotting scope focused on the opposite cliffs. While it was often hard to spot singing birds with binos from the canoe, most banks of the river could be easily accessed from the canoe for localized terrestrial birding. Being the only birder in our group, I stayed in the canoe and no doubt missed some really interesting birds as we floated by too quickly to take it all in. With the large tracts of National Forest in the area, a dedicated birding trip during migration could be really exciting.
In addition to the river there are some fascinating hikes in the area through Civil War era mining country (for zinc, barite, copper, and silver). The trail to Rush Mountain included several abandoned mines including some defunct steam engines. The mines have been sealed with iron bars, but the breeze from inside the mines provide a nice bit of natural air-conditioning along the trail. Bushwacking over the top of Rush Mountain revealed mostly a lot of ticks, but also a few more warblers and a COPPERHEAD snake. A nice little adventure.
On the drive back to Mississippi I spotted a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE and a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER sitting on a powerline only about a quarter of a mile apart just east of Newport, AR. Near Harrisburg a BALD EAGLE flew very low over the road giving everyone in the car a wonderful look at a magnificent bird.
1) Carolina Wren, a small bird with a big voice.
2) Eastern Wood-Peewee from below.
3) A very agitated Eastern Kingbird.
Dillard’s Ferry and Rush Landing are public access areas south of Yellville with parking areas. Several local outfitters also provide canoe rental and pickup for daytime and overnight float trips.
The character of the river changes substantially with river stage, from excessive portaging at low levels to dangerous white-water at flood stage. “Ideal” river stages for floating are between four and five feet. See the USGS site for current river stage. This site also provides “Float Condition” classifications based on river stage.