Date: 1/1/18 6:18 am
From: Joseph C. Neal <joeneal...>
Just back from a Christmas Bird Count trip to The Nature Conservancyís Tallgrass Prairie Preserve inside the Osage Nation in northeastern Oklahoma. We spent our CBC day (December 30) birding historic ranch lands where bison roam free. Itís pretty dramatic to see bison herds on a grassy horizon and to watch them in hopes they might stir Greater Prairie-Chickens.

Before we even reach the Preserve, an extensive sparrow flock suddenly flies low over the road and into sparse woodland. All bins swing onto sparrows -- only Harrisís. More come over the road and perch on barbed wire. How many? 40? 60? A pure flock of Harrisís Sparrows. Maybe first sign of an Arctic blast.

Our Arkansas delegation includes Rose Ann Barnhill, Jacque Brown, Bob Caulk and Sara Caulk. Count Compiler Don Wolfe from George Miksch Sutton Avian Research Center has warned us that we face bitter cold. Strong north wind and temps in low teens mean extra layers. XXX layers.

Yet, life goes on. A Harlanís Hawk dives down into the grass nearby. On one pond not yet frozen, Tundra Swans (22) including brilliant white adults and grayish fledglings, and several ducks species, surprisingly including Canvasbacks (4). A big flock of over 100 Brewerís Blackbirds forages near Preserve headquarters, sharing feed placed out for White-tailed Deer.

Is Arctic front performing a good turn for Tallgrass CBC? American Tree Sparrows are sparse, to say the least, in moderate weather. In daunting chill, our group finds them in three different places. It is so bone-chillingly cold and we are so layered-up we can barely walk. That makes it beyond impressive to hear tree sparrows excitedly caroling in a thicket of buttonbushes and tall native grass. Big flocks, they sound happy, and numerous, like Harrisís Sparrows.

Our northwest Arkansas group bunks at remodeled and comfortable Foremanís House that was part of historic Chapman-Barnard Ranch. Warm inside, and looking out into the cold, I think we have found our own version, albeit briefly, of Henry Bestonís Outermost House on Cape Cod. Or maybe a taste of Henry Thoreauís cabin on Walden Pond. Also reminds me of Walter Inglis Anderson, water coloring under his boat on Horn Island, off the Mississippi coast, 1940s-early 1960s. In the cold, in the adversity, we wind up caroling like American Tree Sparrows, and maybe like Dylan Thomas: "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the seas." During a lunch break we look out the window and see a Loggerhead Shrike, foraging.

Now we lay claim as veterans who survived the Arctic blast. Made it back to Arkansas, all toes intact. Temperature at 7 am, January 1, 2018, 3 degrees outside my house in Fayetteville. Chilly dawn of another year where we can do some good on behalf of Mother Earth.

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