Date: 6/1/19 8:11 pm
From: Mitchell Pruitt <0000000b4ac30a99-dmarc-request...>
Subject: Kessler Mountain Regional Park from Front to Back (and a Lark Sparrow)
Birds in this episode: Lark Sparrow, White-winged Dove, Painted Bunting, and more! If you want the quick version, then I heard, saw, and thoroughly photographed a Lark Sparrow at Kessler Mountain Regional Park, in south Fayetteville this evening.

Ah, Kessler Mountain. I first met this property—from the north end—way back in early spring 2013(?), when Joe Neal took me on my first expedition to find Spotted Salamanders. These woodland Ambystomatids breed in ephemeral ponds, brought on by warm rains of late winter. Intrigued, Joe showed me around via the trail system later that same spring. I was enthralled by the upland woodland birds that breed here, many rare in city limits; like Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, etc. At the time, the property had just been acquired by the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, who sought to clean things up and make the trails available to the public. Thanks to their efforts and the now long ago introduction by Joe Neal, I’ve spent a lot of time up on “Kessler” in all seasons.

Like many of Fayetteville’s naturalists, when the city proposed Kessler Mountain Regional Park at the foot of the mountain’s southern slopes, I was skeptical. But the property formerly consisted of hay fields and pastureland, so if there weren't going to be extensive restoration efforts, it was the best place for a park. Now, a great percentage of the former hay fields are covered in ball fields, paved trails, and parking lots…sounds dismal, right? That was my initial perspective too. Allow me to take you on a journey of Kessler Mountain Regional Park from front to back.

Pulling through the entrance, off Cato Springs Road in south Fayetteville, you meet a piney treeline. Back in winter, it was the Red-breasted Nuthatch mecca. Now, Yellow-throated Warblers live there, the male greeting birders, bikers, ball-players, and the likes. Next, you come to part of the old fields, now grown up and prairie-like. This spring, I’ve never once missed the Dickcissels and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that call this patch of grass home. And then there is the playground, a personal favorite—no, not for the Bald Eagle statue perched on top, or the Eastern Screech-Owl forever peeking out of its concrete tree—but for the fact this is within the territory of at least one of the Orchard Orioles that calls the nearby treeline home. I see one singing regularly in the young oaks of the parking lot. Just the other day, an Eastern Kingbird was foraging from the ground, as children screamed down the slide nearby. It was also here that a White-winged Dove called in secrecy last week, likely concealed within a large eastern red cedar.

From the playground, there are several options. Downhill, to the north is a marshy pond home to multiple Red-winged Blackbird pairs, and Great Blue and Green Herons. When there are too many people, the latter two are likely in the adjacent riparian area, complete with burbling stream. From the pond, a paved trail could take you north to Bentonville, should you wish, but more immediately it hosts Indigo and Painted Buntings, and more Orchard Orioles. A wetland mitigation area just before crossing the first bridge is home to Common Yellowthroats. You may continue north through more old fields, or you could head west, towards the mountain. A brisk walk along the paved trail takes you alongside seemingly boring ball fields, but don’t get too disengaged here! Blue Grosbeaks, more Painted Buntings, White-eyed Vireos, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo have all set up shop in this area. Speaking of grosbeaks and buntings, the whole park is overflowing with them; a cornucopia of vibrant blues, greens, and reds. The genus Passerina is as well represented here as it is anywhere in the state.

Continuing on this trail, you will come to the end of the regional park and the beginning of the mountain park. This is one of my favorite areas. First, there are Killdeer (adults and young) running around EVERYWHERE, and more nests being built all the time. Cross the narrow parking lot and you will come to a gated gravel road. Bypass this gate and you will come to more heavenly habitat for Passerina. At least one pair of Blue Grosbeak and several of Indigo Bunting have set up shop here. In addition Field Sparrows are well-represented out in the field to the north and in the early successional “forest” to the south. Tonight it was here, as I pondered a male Blue Grosbeak, that a Lark Sparrow snuck into the picture. I was so stuck on the grosbeak that I almost didn’t give the poor sparrow a second glance. It spent time singing just beyond the gate, both on the ground and in small oaks, as well as across the parking lot on a soccer goal!

Try as I might, I rarely make it far down this dirt road. The trip from the playground parking lot usually takes me too long, in a good way, because of all the stopping and looking! But should you wish (and I highly recommend it) you can continue up this road to the mountain’s southern trailhead. Here, the gates open to The Woodland. Just tonight, I heard sounds from Black-and-white Warbler and Pileated Woodpecker floating down the slopes. Earlier this week, Broad-winged Hawks soared just on the edge of one of the fields before disappearing back into the dense canopy.

Don’t forget to visit in the late evenings, too, to see the emergence of Common Nighthawks. I counted at least 16 tonight.

In short, Kessler Mountain Regional Park is a true gem. I have always been thankful for the mountain and its various trails, but not so much the regional park. However, I am convinced. Grassland, shrubland, wetland, early successional forest, riparian area, and woodland make for a great variety of avifauna. Go check it out!

Mitchell Pruitt

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